There are loads of music file formats, but, for most people, we only need to look at a few.
You can download digital music files from thousands of different places, but the quality varies hugely. It's useful to know a bit about how they work so you can pick the right one to convert your beloved music into! After all, who wants to hear muddy, low quality Liszt or Schubert? Definitely not me...
All music formats "compress" the file, making it smaller. This makes it easier to download from the internet, and it takes up much less space on your computer hard drive or iPod.
However, some information from the original performance is lost, which sometimes results in poor sound quality. You notice it even more when you listen to classical music with a good quality system!
There are two major groups of music file formats...
Here's a list of the four most important music file formats, starting with the lowest quality...
MP3 stands for Mpeg Audio Layer 3. MP3 is "lossy", which means that some sound is lost during compression. But the benefit? You can cut a music file's size down to 1/10th of what it was!
The sound always changes a bit when it's compressed using MP3, but sometimes you can't really hear the difference. One huge bonus of MP3 is that you can stream it - it's small enough to download and listen to at the same time, even if the entire file isn't complete. This has probably helped MP3's predominance on the internet.
With a lot of music you can't really hear the difference. But, since you'll likely want to hear magnificent classical music fully reproduced (I know I do!!), other music file formats were invented...
Apple Lossless Compression makes the filesize smaller without removing any sound. The music is re-encoded to the same format as an audio CD on playback... this basically means the files sound awesome.
What's the difference between 24bit studio and 16bit files?
Basically, 24 bit files sound better than 16 bit files and CDs since they have more audio information. Recording studios work with 24 bit audio. If you have a digital audio converter you can "upsample" a recording, which means convert 16 bit files to 24 bit files (improving the sound quality).
You probably won't hear much difference between "low quality" MP3 files and (say) Apple Lossless files on a standard iPod, unless you use some incredibly awesome head phones (like Klipsch or Etymotic headphones). However, most home audio systems reveal the difference in sound quality between MP3 and one of the lossless formats.
For classical music, with its complex and nuanced sounds, you want to have the highest possible quality file to capture as much as possible.
If you're going to listen to your classical music collection mostly on your iPod or something similar, I'd suggest you use AAC format. It has a good balance between quality and size, and sounds great on portable music players. It's the one I use.
But if you're going to listen to classical music through a home stereo system, then there's NO DOUBT that the higher the quality of the file, the better your sound will be.
So, since the source of the music is the most important part of the system, you should try to have as much of your home collection in FLAC format as possible. Don't worry about the massive file sizes - your mesmerizing listening experiences will more than make up for it!!
Studio quality (and also smaller, CD quality) downloads are available from several places, such as LINN Records, Hyperion, Reference Recordings, Chandos, and Naxos.
If you have old vinyl records that you want to convert to digital formats, see the page on transferring LP to MP3 format.