AAC vs. MP3: Which to Choose for iPhone and iTunes

AAC vs. MP3
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Many people assume that all digital music files are MP3s, but that's not necessarily true. You can actually choose the file format you want songs to be saved in (in most cases). This is particularly useful when ripping CDs in iTunes or converting high-quality, lossless files to other formats.

Each music file format has different strengths and weaknesses—generally involving size and sound quality—so how do you choose which is best for you?

How to Copy CDs to iPod & iPhone Using iTunes

Why Different File Types Matter

AAC and MP3 are probably the most common filetypes used with the iPhone and iTunes. They're pretty similar, but they're not identical. They differ in four ways that should be important to you: 

  • File size—Both AAC and MP3 are compressed file formats, meaning they balance a song sounding good with making it take up less space on your device. AAC is generally slightly smaller.
  • Compatibility—MP3 is the most common digital music format, so you can count on virtually any device being able to play it. AAC is slightly less ubiquitous, but most devices can play it these days, including all Apple products.
  • Audio quality—How good the music sounds in each file format is key. It can be really tough to distinguish between the two on most devices, but AAC sometimes sounds slightly better.
  • DRM—Digital Rights Management, restrictions put on how you use and share your music, can apply to either AAC or MP3. There's no DRM on files you create, but if you're buying them from a store, it's worth finding out if it's present. 

    Common Music File Types

    In addition to the two most common file types used on Apple devices, AAC and MP3, these devices also support formats like Apple Lossless Encoding, AIFF, and WAV. These are high-quality, uncompressed file types used for CD burning. Avoid using them unless you really know what they are and why you want them.

    How MP3 and AAC Are Different

    AAC files are generally higher quality and slightly smaller than MP3 files of the same song. The reasons for this are fairly technical (more about the specifications of the AAC format can be found at Wikipedia), but the simplest explanation is that AAC was created after MP3 and it offers a more efficient compression scheme, with less quality loss than MP3.

    Despite popular belief, AAC was not created by Apple and is not a proprietary Apple format. AAC can be used with a wide variety of non-Apple devices, though it is also the native file format for iTunes. While AAC is slightly less widely supported than MP3, virtually any modern media device can use it. 

    How to Convert iTunes Songs to MP3 in 5 Easy Steps

    Common iPhone Music File Formats Compared

    Here’s a guide to deciding what file type you’ll want to use in iTunes. Once you’re done reading this, check the step-by-step guide to changing iTunes settings to use the file format you want.

     AACAIFFApple LosslessMP3
    Pros

    Small file size

    Higher quality sound
    than MP3

    Highest quality sound

    Highest quality sound

    Small file size

    More compatible: works with virtually every portable audio player and cell phone

    Cons

    Slightly less compatible; Works with Apple devices, most Android phones, on the Sony Playstation 3 and Playstation Portable, and some cell phones

    Somewhat less compatible

    Larger files than AAC or MP3

    Slower encoding

    Older format

    Less compatible; Only works with iTunes and iPod/iPhone

    Larger files than AAC or MP3

    Slower encoding

     

    Newer format

    Slightly lower sound quality than AAC

    Proprietary?NoYesYesNo

    Recommendation: AAC

    If you plan to stick with iTunes and an iPod or iPhone for a long time, I recommend using AAC for your digital music. You can always convert AACs to MP3s using iTunes if you decide to switch to a device that doesn't support AAC. In the meantime, using AAC means your music will sound good and you’ll be able to store a lot of it.

    RELATED: AAC vs. MP3, an iTunes Sound Quality Test

    How to Create AAC Files

    If you're convinced and want to use AAC files for your digital music, read these articles: 

      And remember: You only want to create AAC files from high-quality sources like CDs. If you convert an MP3 to an AAC, you'll lose some audio quality.