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What Is the Best Audio Codec for Online Video and Live Streaming?

best audio codec cover image

If you’re a business that isn’t stuck in the stone age, you are likely already using video to market your brand (or are at least considering it). Even though our first thought when mentioning video is probably its visual appeal, audio is also a crucial piece of the puzzle. If you’re looking to provide the best user experience possible, you must ensure your video’s sound quality is top-notch. That is why choosing the best audio codec for your videos and streams is imperative!

Audio codecs play a critical role in the audio encoding process, which is why choosing the wrong one can impact your video’s sound quality significantly. What is audio encoding? In the simplest terms, it is the process of transferring analog audio files into digital ones. Without audio encoding, we wouldn’t be able to record and reproduce audio at all!

So what do audio codecs do in the encoding process? What is an audio codec anyway? And what is the best audio codec for video and live streaming? These are just some of the questions we’re going to address here, so let’s get right to it!

What Is an Audio Codec?

illustration of how an audio codec works

Audio codec refers to a device or software that we use to compress digital audio files to reduce their size and ease the distribution process. In other words, we use codecs to encode and decode audio and other multimedia files.

The issue with uncompressed audio files is that they are too large, making them incredibly impractical for online video and live streaming. But that is where audio codecs come to save the day! 

Codecs take care of encoding and decoding of RAW audio files. The former involves tossing away any unneeded data while attempting to preserve the original file’s quality as much as possible. The latter implies preparing the file for playback.

Either way, audio codecs play an essential role in every online video or live stream. You wouldn’t have the crisp and clean audio in your videos that you’re well familiar with without them.

Types of Audio Compression

As we’ve mentioned above, codecs compress and decompress audio files into more manageable sizes for playback. The crucial concepts we should mention here are the different types of compression. Knowing these will make it easier to decide which audio codec to consider!

Here are three different forms of audio compression:

  • Uncompressed — Uncompressed audio files remain the same size as when they were recorded. Some examples of codecs that give uncompressed files are AIFF and WAV.
  • Lossy — These files are void of any unnecessary audio data as it gets tossed out during compression, which results in lower audio quality. These files are significantly smaller, making them incredibly practical for general use, but we wouldn’t recommend them for professional settings.
  • Lossless — This compression type preserves all the data from the original file, resulting in high-quality audio. Lossless compression is best for professional use where audio quality is imperative but is often impractical for general use because of the files’ large sizes. Some examples of codecs that use lossless compression are FLAC, ALAC, and WMA.

Now that you know these three compression types’ intricacies, let’s look at the most commonly used audio codecs.

Most Common Audio Codecs

an image highlighting the most common and best audio codecs

Here are some of the best and most commonly used audio codecs on the market:

MP3

MP3 (MPEG-2 Audio Layer 3) is likely the most famous audio codec out there. It is the codec that revolutionized digital audio. MP3 uses lossy compression and offers high compression rates, resulting in small files practical for online streaming and internet download. 

This codec gave birth to on-the-go music devices like Apple’s iPod and MP3 players, which was a huge step forward in the music and tech industries. Nowadays, it’s near impossible to find a device that can’t play MP3, making this one of the best and most popular audio codecs to date.

FLAC

FLAC (Free Lossless Audio Codec) is one of the best free lossless audio codecs out there. FLAC is an open-source codec, which makes it perfect for people with some coding knowledge. Because this codec is free, it is easily accessible and offers superior quality to MP3, but it sports significantly larger files. Aside from that, not all devices can play it. That is why FLAC files are often outshined by some of the other audio codecs on this list.

AAC

AAC (Advanced Audio Coding) is a lossy codec with superb compression efficiency. Due to the incredibly small files it produces, it’s an excellent choice for live streaming. That is what makes this codec the most widely used one on the internet nowadays. Unfortunately, AAC is not a wise choice if you value sound quality above everything else.

ALAC

ALAC (Apple Lossless Audio Codec) is an Apple-developed codec that preserves most of the original sound’s quality. It results in larger files than most other lossless codecs, but the quality well makes up for that increase in size. Unfortunately, despite ALAC being an excellent audio codec, its most significant downside is that it primarily works with iOS devices, making its applicability incredibly limiting. 

WAV

WAV (Waveform Audio File Format) is an uncompressed codec that offers excellent audio quality. However, WAV files are quite large, making them quite impractical for everyday use, particularly in the online world where file size is detrimental. Although WAV offers top-notch audio quality, it’s rarely used anymore except in specific scenarios where high sound quality is imperative.

AIFF

AIFF (Audio Interchange File Format) is an uncompressed audio codec that Apple developed for its MAC, though you can still play it on a PC. This codec is similar to WAV in that it offers clean and crisp audio quality at the expense of storage space. Despite its high-quality playback, AIFF suffers from the same downsides as WAV — the incredibly large file sizes are almost unusable in the online world, making this audio codec quite rare to see in commercial use.

WMA

WMA (Windows Media Audio) is a codec that supports both lossy and lossless compression, making it one of the most versatile audio codecs out there. WMA files are usually smaller than their MP3 and FLAC counterparts, but they are far from an ideal choice because some devices don’t support them (primarily Apple products). WMA codec is a well-rounded one, but it gets outshined in all the departments by most other alternatives. Unfortunately, its versatility wasn’t enough to give it a stranglehold on the market.

Ogg Vorbis

Ogg Vorbis is a free, open-source lossy audio codec created as an alternative to premium ones like AAC. It offers decent audio quality on-par with other lossy codecs, but it lacks variety in the device compatibility department. If you’re hard-pressed for a free audio codec suitable for live streaming, Ogg Vorbis is a fine choice, but you’d be much better off settling for something like AAC if you can afford it.

Opus

Opus is a free, open-source lossy audio codec that many professionals view as a next-generation codec. That is because Opus currently provides better sound quality than any other lossy codec on this list. However, it is still relatively underused, as most people are still unfamiliar with it.

Best Audio Codec for Online Video and Live Streaming

an image depicting the best audio codec for online video and live streaming

So what is the best audio codec for your video and streaming needs? If it wasn’t clear from the image above, we’ll spell it out — we believe that AAC should be your codec of choice! Here’s why we think AAC is the ideal audio codec for video-on-demand and streaming content:

  • AAC is supported across a wide range of devices, including Android, MAC, iOS, Windows, and more.
  • This codec provides better sound quality than its counterparts like MP3.
  • AAC’s efficient compression makes it particularly suitable for online use due to small file sizes.

If you can’t afford to use AAC, you should settle for the next best thing. Ogg Vorbis is likely the best audio codec alternative to AAC for online video and live streaming, so you can’t go wrong if you decide to go with this budget option.

There is one more thing worth mentioning here — the up-and-coming Opus has the potential to match AAC as the best audio codec for videos and streaming if it becomes more widely accepted. That is why we advise you to keep an eye on it in the future!

Now that you’ve settled for an audio codec, you might have a few questions on how to set it up. That’s why we’re here! Let’s look at the recommended bitrate and encoder settings for getting the most out of your codec of choice. 

Recommended Audio Bitrate64 Kbps for 360p (low-quality) video
128 Kbps for 480p & 720p video
256 Kbps for 1080p video
Recommended ChannelsMono for <480p video
Stereo for ≥480p video
Recommended Audio Sample Rate44100 kHz
Recommended Video CodecH.264

The above settings are by no means set in stone, but they are an industry standard. Feel free to experiment a bit if you wish, but settling for the above is guaranteed to give your videos and live streams clean and crisp audio!

Now You’re All Set!

The technical aspects of online video and live streaming, such as audio codecs, can be quite daunting indeed, but you should now have the necessary knowledge to make an informed decision. We hope we’ve managed to shed some light on this complicated topic and helped you understand audio codecs better. The only thing left to do is get a reliable online video platform and start your video and live streaming journey!

If you need help finding the right video platform and CMS for you, we have a handy guide that can help you below.

Best of luck on your journey!

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