What Audio File Formats Can iPhone Play?

iPhone can play MP3 and other audio formats

There's a misconception that the iPhone supports only the AAC format and that to play audio, it has to be purchased from iTunes Store. In reality, the iPhone supports many different audio formats.

The reason for the confusion is that any music you download to your phone from iTunes is in the AAC format. However, you can save music to iTunes from many other sources, and most of those other audio formats are completely supported on iPhone.

Whether you're using a current iPhone or turning an older iPhone into the equivalent of an iPod touch, you end up with a powerful music player.

Teenager listening to mp3 player against wall with graffiti
Ben Pipe Photography / Getty Images

There are lots of places to get free music downloads for your iPhone, as well as sites dedicated to free ringtone downloads.

Which Audio Files Can iPhone Play?

Knowing which audio formats the iPhone supports is important if you want to use your phone as a portable media player. There's a good chance that your music collection is a mixed bag of audio formats if you get your songs from ripped CD tracks, digitized cassette tapestorrent sites, etc.

These are the audio formats that iPhone can use:

iPhone Audio File Format List
File Extension File Format Description
AAC AAC-LC (AAC Low Complexity) lossy audio format optimized for streaming audio and low-bitrate applications
AAC HE-AAC and HE-AAC v2 (High-Efficiency Advanced Audio Coding) Both versions are lossy compression formats good for software media players, streaming music, and internet radio. HE-AAC files are also called MPEG-4 AAC files.
AAC AAC Protected All songs sold on iTunes before 2009. A lossy format that includes Digital Right Management (DRM). You can't burn these to CDs.
M4A Apple Lossless Delivers no quality loss of music tracks at all. It's similar to FLAC.
FLAC FLAC (Free Lossless Audio Codec) Provides lossless compression of digital audio. When decompressed, the audio is identical to the original.
WAV, AIFF, AU, PCM Linear PCM Often used on audio CDs, the data isn't compressed, so the files are large, but the quality is good.
MP3 MP3 Lossy format, and the most popular of the audio types used for digital music.
AC3 Dolby Digital Lossy format that carries up to six channels of music.
  Dolby Digital Plus (E-AC-3) An enhanced version of Dolby Digital that offers increased bitrates and support for more audio channels.
AA Audible formats (2, 3, and 4) Lossy format 2 delivers 8 kbps of sound, on a par with AM radio. Format 3 at 16 kbps delivers sound equal to that of an FM radio. Format 4, with a bitrate 32 kbps, has sound quality comparable to an MP3.
AAX Audible Enhanced Audio Uncompressed and 64 kbps, deemed to have CD-quality sound. Deliver a sound that's superior to Audible formats 2, 3, and 4. They're larger files than those of the lossy formats.

Not all of these formats are used with music, but they are all supported by the iPhone in one place or another.

Lossy vs Lossless Compression Formats

Lossy compression removes information from the pauses and blank spaces in an audio recording, which makes lossy files much smaller than lossless, or uncompressed files.

If you're an audiophile who makes high-quality audio a priority, you aren't going to want to convert your music to a lossy format. For most listeners, lossy works just fine, however, and when you store music on your iPhone rather than stream it, size matters.

How to Convert Music From Unsupported Formats

If you have songs in a format that iPhone won't play, you can convert them a number of ways.

The easiest way to play audio in a format that iPhone supports is to use iTunes to convert the songs. However, if the music isn't being stored in iTunes, there are also audio file converters you can use.

Other Ways to Listen to Audio on iPhone

You don't have to store audio files on your device to listen to MP3s and other formats on your iPhone. There are plenty of online services that can store music and other audio types for you and then deliver it to your iPhone via streaming.

For example, you can listen to podcasts on your phone, tune in to online radio stations, stream audiobooks to your iPhone, offload your phone's music to an online file storage service, or get music from a music subscription service.