What is a WAV file?

A waveform audio file, also known as a wave file, or simply WAV after its extension, is a common type of sound file. Microsoft and IBM introduced the format in 1991 for use in the Microsoft Windows 3.1 operating system (OS). Long before digital audio became a staple, computer users were exposed to the WAV file as an embedded sound file that played a bell-like sound at Windows OS startup.

Some CD and DVD players can read WAV files when they are saved directly to a disc.

This file format is based on the Resource Interchange File Format (RIFF), which stores audio files in indexed “blocks” and “subblocks”. The RIFF, in turn, is based on the earlier Interchange File Format (IFF), established by Electronic Arts in 1985 for use in video games. Apple’s version, known as the Audio Interchange File Format (AIFF), was released in 1988 for Macintosh computers. Due to the common roots of these various audio formats, however, audio files will play on any computer system, IBM or Apple.

The WAV file had two important advantages when introduced. First, it can digitize sounds that are 100% faithful to the original source as it is a lossless format. “Lossless” means that the file format does not compromise the quality of the audio, even when it contains compressed data. Second, the format is very easy to edit and manipulate with software. Fortunately for audiophiles, free audio editing software is available almost as much as the WAV files themselves.

While this format was ideal for sound effects, it had a downside when it came to music files. A four-minute song can easily consume more than 35 megabytes (MB) of space when saved as a WAV. Although the cost of hard drives dropped over the years, the format was still too big for portable gamers with limited flash memory, which would become ubiquitous in the new millennium. Also, these files were not the most practical format for online transfer, especially on slow dial-up connections.

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Instead, the compressed MP3 format moved onto the audio stage because songs saved in that format are much smaller. The MP3 format is a lossy format, however, which means that the smaller file size has some loss in audio quality. Although the MP3 format is suitable for portable players, many people continue to store their main digital libraries as WAV files. By doing so, the file can be used as a master to create other types of audio files (including MP3s), while remaining preserved for direct listening or recording to compact disc (CD).

Today, the WAV file format is still widely used to archive music files in a lossless format where space is not an issue. Some CD and DVD players can also read these files when they are saved directly to a disc. More often, the software that burns the files to CD will convert them in the process to the Compact Disk Audio (.cda) format, making the audio CD compatible with all players.

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