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Audiophile 101

Your Intro to all things audio.

Chapter 2 - Lossy Vs. Lossless Audio

Welcome back to Audiophile 101. An introduction to all things audio presented by Pocket Rock It Radio. From the simple to the more advanced we’ll attempt to answer all of your audio related questions with some helpful information that’s explained in simplistic and easy to understand terms. Whether you are interested in diving deep into the world of audio, or are just looking for a simple answer to a not so simple question we hope Audiophile 101 aim to answer your music related questions quick and easy.

In this chapter we will take a look at the different of digital audio file types to answer the question what are lossy audio files? What are lossless audio files?

Table Of Contents:

What is Lossy Audio? What is Lossless Audio?

‘Lossy Audio’ and ‘Lossless Audio’ are terms used to describe different digital file types that are used to store and play audio (music). Lossy audio is called so because the audio files are made smaller by removing [deleting] specific data. Lossless Audio can refer to two different types of files. Which are  ‘Lossless Compression’ or ‘Lossless Audio’. While they are defined and operate differently in both file cases the original sound quality of the audio file is considered in tact. 

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What are Lossy audio file types?

Some examples of Lossy Audio files types are:
  • MP3
  • AAC
  • WMA
  • OGG

What are Lossless audio file types?

Some examples of Lossless Audio files types are:
  • FLAC (lossless compression)
  • ALAC (lossless compression)
  • AIFF
  • WAV

How are a lossy compressed audio files created?

Lossy compressed audio files are created by removing (deleting) information that is not considered necessary for playback while maintaining an acceptable level for audio quality. For example if a soft sound happens at the same time as loud sound the quiet sound is deleted to save space because more than likely you would not have heard it.

Another trick that’s used during lossy compression is when songs are originally recorded the full spectrum of sound is recorded. If you think of this spectrum as gigantic ocean wave you’re trying to take a picture of. As beautiful and awesome as that full wave is your camera will only be able to capture so much the wave in the picture frame, and only replicate so much detail. The human ear behaves in the same way as the camera lens and can only really hear the middle of part [mid-range] of the sound. Knowing this the computer compression program removes the top and bottom parts of the wave that is not so easily heard to save on space. 

The computer program that makes these compression decisions by following rules created by digital scientists. Additional rules for what could be removed from the original audio track are based on a phenomenon called psycho-acoustics. While that’s another subject in itself in simplistic terms psycho-acoustics takes into account the human brains power to fill in the gaps and removes even more information based on this phenomenon. All of this results in a smaller audio file that is easier to store on your digital device, and sounds similar in quality to the original audio file.

Why is it called 'lossless compression'?

Types of lossless compression audio file are FLAC and ALAC. While these audio files are technically compressed. They are called ‘lossless compression’ because  while all of the original data of the original recording still technically exists it has been modified into a smaller file size.

How does 'lossless compression' work?

Lossless compression works by removing unnecessary data, rewriting the existing audio data more economically, and removing redundancies in the audio file itself. In some cases the silence of the recording is removed to save even more space (yes even the silence of a song takes up data).

A file that is compressed using lossless compression is then read using an ‘Audio Codec’ [think computer program] that then reads, and plays back the original audio by decoding it in real time.

What are lossless audio files?

Lossless audio files are audio files that are completely uncompressed, examples would be the WAV and AIFF file format. These two audio files types are traditionally very heavy (a lot of data) in file size, and for that reason are primarily utilized by people in the music, and entertainment production industries. It doesn’t mean you can’t use them yourself, it just means you better have a big hard-drive to store all that extra information.

Can you listen to lossless audio with bluetooth headphones or speakers?

No, not to the full effect. Obviously you can listen to a lossless audio file with bluetooth headphones or speakers in the sense that your music will play, and you will enjoy it [provided you like the music].

However, no matter how good your bluetooth headphones or speakers are doesn’t change the fact that the lossless audio signal is compressed to be sent  in bluetooth transmission for economy in data transfer. There are higher quality blue-tooth codecs [transmitters] available, but there are also other signal degrading issues such as distance from transceiver and other environmental factors. 

At the end of the day if you want to get the most of your lossless audio experience use wired headphones, or a good quality wired speaker setup.

Is lossy compression a bad thing?

No. Lossy compression isn’t a bad thing. Yes, it’s true you’re not getting the full audio experience, but the fact remains that with standard listening equipment a lossy compressed audio file with a higher bit rate will more often than not sound just as good as a lossless audio file. Which means to the average listener using average equipment you wont be able to tell the difference.

How good a audio file sounds comes down to the files bit rate. How many bits per second a digital file is, the better that audio file will sound. For instance a CD audio file plays at 1,411 kbps (bits per second) perfect digital quality. If you have the equipment, and have it all properly set up all that extra detail and information is fantastic.

However, that doesn’t change the fact it is still a lot more detail than the human ear can even pick up on, and more than most basic audio equipment can transmit. So a audio file in a lossy compressed format can still maintain good sound quality. [Provided the bitrate is on the higher side].

If you’re interested in an enhanced listening experience but don’t have the means or equipment to get into lossless audio, try to keep the bit rate of your lossy audio files over 190 kbps. Once you cross 200 bits per second you’ll be hard pressed to tell the difference between lossy and lossless audio file. 

Chapter Wrap Up:

So there you have it, you should now you have a better handle on the discussion of of lossy vs. lossless audio. At the end of the day most folks can get by with a lossy audio files with a good bit rate.

However, if you’re looking to take your music enjoyment to the next level, and want to start to invest in some listening upgrades lossless may be the next step in your Audiophile story. We look forward to helping you along the way. Until next time, Happy Listening.

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