What Is the Difference Between MP3 and WAV Files?

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MP3 files and WAV files are both digital audio formats, but the two differ in file size and sound quality. WAV files are far larger but boast higher audio quality, while MP3 files are smaller but feature reduced sound quality.

WAV files are one of the most basic digital audio formats. IBM and Microsoft first developed the format in 1991 for use with the Windows 3.1 operating system. Although the format is simple, WAVs are still one of the most accurate methods of reproducing digital audio. WAV files are created by taking an audio signal and converting it to binary data, capturing the entire audible frequency range in a piece of audio. While WAV files have high fidelity, the conversion process makes the files quite large and impractical for use on portable or streaming audio devices. WAV files are commonly used for studio recordings and professional audio projects.

MP3 files, on the other hand, save space by encoding audio with certain portions removed. MP3s make use of the principles of psychoacoustics, which studies how humans perceive sounds. Certain frequencies are impossible for human ears to perceive, so MP3 encoding removes these frequencies to save space. Louder sounds in recorded audio can also mask quieter sounds, so MP3 encoding removes most of these sounds as well. Additionally, MP3 files are compressed, which makes them smaller but also causes some reduction in audio quality.