A general listener will probably be unable to tell the difference between MP3 and WAV, but it is a bit more complicated than yes or no answer. As always, it depends on many factors, such as what device they are using, bitrate, and how good they can hear nuances in audio, so let’s dig deeper.
What’s the difference between MP3 and WAV?
The key difference between MP3 and WAV is compression. While WAV is an uncompressed or lossless file format, MP3 is a compressed file format. The compression allows MP3 file format to take up significantly less space while still maintaining relatively high audio quality.
How does MP3 compress audio?
MP3 file format will sacrifice audio quality in exchange for smaller file sizes. However, MP3 is smart about compression. It works by getting rid of the frequencies that the human ear cannot hear.
The human ear can hear somewhere frequencies in the range from 20Hz to 20,000Hz. But that is a very optimistic approach. The human hearing starts to deteriorate with time, and you stop hearing higher frequencies with age.
Many of us can’t hear above 16,000Hz range, or even if we do, we can hardly tell the difference. Therefore, by removing high frequencies, MP3 doesn’t reduce audio quality much.
Also, in recorded audio, multiple sounds are playing at the same time. Some of which are much quieter than the other. MP3 saves space by removing the quieter sounds which couldn’t be heard anyway.
In the end, MP3 can reduce audio file size by as much as 10 times.
Will a listener notice a difference in quality between MP3 and WAV?
Converting an audio file from WAV to MP3 will reduce file size about ten times. Despite a massive reduction in size, compression introduces only a small loss of quality. Most likely, a listener won’t be able to notice the difference.
Consider than many people are not using high-quality headphones that can represent all frequencies well, to begin with. Hence, when listening through low-quality headphones, earbuds, or smartphone/laptop speakers, nobody will be able to tell the difference between MP3 and WAV.
Even with good headphones, the untrained ear will have a hard time telling WAV from MP3 apart. However, if you consider yourself an audiophile and use amazing headphones or speakers, you might frown at MP3. For most people, it is not going to matter.
Also, the bitrate makes a lot of difference for MP3.
What is a good bitrate for MP3?
Not every MP3 is created equal. MP3 files come at different bitrates which will influence whether you can tell the difference between MP3 and WAV or not.
Here is a helpful guide for what is considered a good bitrate for MP3:
32 Kbps – Even if you are deaf you will tell the difference between 32 Kbps MP3 and WAV.
128 Kbps – Generally the lowest acceptable quality bitrate, some will probably be able to tell the difference between 128 Kbps MP3 and WAV, but for most people, it is not so obvious. You might need to listen carefully to find nuances. With built-in laptop/smartphone speakers you won’t tell them apart.
192 Kbps – A good medium ground, some people will be able to tell the difference, but certainly not everyone. My guess is that more people won’t differentiate between the two.
256 Kbps – Most of the people won’t hear the difference, even if you are good at this stuff and have good equipment it is going to be hard to tell 256 Kbps MP3 and WAV apart.
320 Kbps – Someone with studio equipment and trained ear may be able to tell the difference, but even then it is rare.
When to use WAV?
So far, it seems as MP3 is a clear winner between the two. Similar audio quality and ten less disc space. And it really was at some time in the past that MP3 was the king. That’s when audio file size mattered because your MP3 player had only 2GB space available.
Those days are long in the past. Today we don’t use MP3 players, nor do we download copious amounts of illegal music or audiobooks. Disc space is also not much of an issue as hard drives became much more affordable.
But most importantly, WAV is a file format you want to work with when editing your audio. While MP3 is fine when rendering your final version of the audio, it is not the file format you want to be editing with.
If you do audio editing with MP3, the difference in audio quality between WAV and MP3 will become much more apparent. Hence, I strongly recommend using WAV when editing audio.
Even if you decide to render in MP3, you will find that working with WAV and then reducing it to MP3 when rendering will create a much better quality MP3 audio than editing and rendering in MP3.
It is up to you whether you are rendering the final audio final in MP3 or WAV. But, in either case, just to be safe, you should save your project file, so even if you render in lower quality MP3 file format, you can still open the project file and render WAV when needed.
Uploading to various platforms (Youtube, ACX, Vimeo, iTunes)
When choosing a file format, consider what platform you are going to be uploading your audio to. Some platforms will do their own lossy compressions.
Youtube will compress your audio to AAC (Advanced Audio Coding), which is a lossy audio file format, but in terms of quality, it does a better job than MP3. Hence uploading WAV will give you better quality than uploading MP3 on Youtube.
ACX will require you to upload in MP3, hence you won’t even have an option to upload in WAV.
Vimeo compresses audio to AAC.
iTunes will compress audio to AAC.
Most people won’t notice the difference between WAV and MP3. That doesn’t mean WAV has no applications.
WAV will give you better audio quality at the cost of larger file sizes. You will want to use WAV for audio editing, however, whether you will want to render in MP3 or WAV will depend on what you are planning to do with the audio.
Only people with good equipment and trained ear will be able to hear the difference in final rendered audio.
Nevertheless, many popular platforms will do the compressions of their own. Usually, to AAC format, which is higher quality than MP3, therefore rendering in WAV still makes a lot of sense.