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The Birth of Formats

07 April 2015

Storage devices, Players, iTunes, VLC, foobar2000, Jriver, Audirvana, Jplay, Winamp, Windows Media Player

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Audio formats have changed a lot over the decades, from wax cylinder to lossless compression of digital audio.

Phonograph Cylinder 

Initially designed to reproduce speech, Thomas Edison’s "talking machine" became the earliest commercial medium for recording and reproducing sound. Reaching the peak of its popularity around the early 1900s, the phonograph cylinder consisted of a wax cylinder with an audio recording engraved on the outer surface. The musical notes could be reproduced when it was played on a mechanical cylinder phonograph.

In the years preceding World War I, phonograph cylinders co-existed with gramophone records and competed for public favour until the latter eventually prevailed in the 1920s. However, cylinder phonograph technology continued to be used for dictation purposes by companies such as Dictaphone, and one could still encounter cylinder dictating machines in the 1950s.

  • Cylinders were sold in cardboard tubes with cardboard caps on either end.
  • American composer John Philip Sousa (1854–1932) once referred to their content as "canned music".

Vinyl Record  

Also known as gramophone or phonograph records, vinyl records were the primary medium for music reproduction throughout most of the 20th century. A vinyl record, commonly referred to simply as a "record", is an analogue sound storage medium in the form of a flat disc with an inscribed spiral groove that starts near the periphery and ends near the disc’s centre. Vinyl records are usually described by their diameter in inches (i.e., 7", 10" or 12").

Commercial production of disc records first began in the early 1890s, with Emil Berliner’s "gramophone record" the first disc record to become publically available. The LP (Long Play) record was introduced by Columbia Records in 1948 and it quickly became the new standard for the entire industry. The LP was particularly suited to classical music recordings because of its extended continuous playing time.During the vinyl era, stereophonic sound recording became the standard internationally, and records gained widespread appreciation for their level of fidelity and high quality of sound reproduction. Although challenged significantly by the advent of digital technology, vinyl records have remained popular among audiophiles and are still used extensively by DJs.

  • Celebrated Italian tenor Enrico Caruso (1873-1921) made around 290 commercial recordings from 1902 to 1920. His voice fitted the medium so well that the question was raised: "Did Caruso make the phonograph, or did the phonograph make Caruso?"
  • The first 12-inch recording to be issued was Beethoven's 5th Symphony performed by the Philadelphia Symphony Orchestra under Leopold Stokowski.


Originally designed for dictation machines, the cassette (also called cassette tape or audio cassette) is a magnetic tape recording format for audio recording and playback. The Compact Cassette was introduced by Philips in the early 1960s with a relatively poor sound quality, however it improved significantly by the early 1970s and displaced the 8-track cartridge and reel-to-reel tape recording. It also grew increasingly popular as an alternative to the 12-inch vinyl LP, thanks to its small size and re-recordable nature.

The cassette's popularity grew even further after the emergence of portable pocket recorders and high-fidelity players like the Sony Walkman. After its peak in the late 1980s, the market for cassettes started to decline considerably; by the early 2000s, most of the major U.S. music companies had stopped producing cassette tapes. Although increasingly marginal in commercial music sales, cassettes are occasionally still chosen by independent record labels for some of their releases.

  • In India, film and sacred music continues to be released in cassettes due to the format’s low cost.
  • Owing to the cassette’s influential design, some digital audio players are shaped as cassettes.

Compact Disc 

Originally planned as a successor to the gramophone record, the standard Compact Disc (CD) format was produced by the combined efforts of Philips and Sony in the late 1970s. A digital optical disc developed to store and play sound recordings, the CD was met with enthusiastic response by audiophiles and received significant praise by the classical music community. As the price of CD players gradually decreased, the new audio disc also became popular in the wider pop music market. In 1990 recordable CDs were introduced and quickly became a common alternative to magnetic tape technology for recording music and copying music albums.

Although CDs are still used extensively, their sales have started see a decline over the past few years, largely owning to the popularity of digital audio formats and file sharing of audio files over the internet.

  • The first CD pressed was a recording of Richard Strauss’s An Alpine Symphony conducted by Herbert von Karajan.
  • The first commercial CD was produced on 17 August 1982. It was a recording of Chopin waltzes performed by Claudio Arrau.
  • Philips' original plan for a CD with an 11.5 cm diameter was reportedly changed after Sony suggested that the disc should be able to contain the London Philharmonic Orchestra's recording of Beethoven's 9th Symphony in its entirety, thus increasing the disc’s diameter to 12 cm to accommodate the extra data.


The MiniDisc is a magneto-optical disc-based data storage device that was released by Sony in September 1992. Unlike cassettes or CDs, MiniDisc is a random-access medium (which means significantly less time is required to read and write data) that offers the option to easily split, combine, move or delete tracks. Although it had a loyal customer base ¾ mostly among musicians and audio enthusiasts ¾ and was very popular in Japan and the rest of East Asia during the 1990s, MiniDisc only had limited success in other markets.

Moreover, its position in the media storage market was greatly affected by the widespread use of other playback devices and portable media players that were introduced in the late 1990s. Sony eventually announced that MiniDiscs would no longer be developed and the last devices were sold in March 2013. 


Developed by Microsoft and IBM, WAV (or WAVE: Waveform Audio File Format) is the main format used on Windows systems for raw audio, and it is also compatible with Macintosh and Linux operating systems. WAV files can also contain compressed audio, however the WAV audio format is usually uncompressed audio in the linear pulse code modulation format (which is also the standard audio coding format for CDs).

Despite their large size, uncompressed WAV files are frequently used for retaining original high‑quality audio files, especially when no space limitations apply. The familiarity and simple structure of the WAV format has ensured its continued use, and it has remained popular for a variety of applications, such as audio editing.
  • Uncompressed WAV files are sometimes used by radio broadcasters like BBC Radio.


Commonly used for the storage, transfer and playback of music on digital audio players, MP3 (MPEG-1 or MPEG-2 Audio Layer III) is an audio coding format for digital audio which uses a form of lossy data compression. Lossy compression works by reducing the accuracy of certain sound parts not audible to most people, thus significantly reducing the amount of data required to represent the original audio recording. In effect, lossy audio encoding represents a trade-off between the amount of space used and the sound quality of the final result.

Toward the late 1990s, MP3 files grew increasingly popular following the release of Winamp and the first portable digital audio players. At the same time, their small size facilitated extensive (and often unauthorised) peer-to-peer file sharing of music over the Internet, which had previously been almost impossible. MP3 files remain popular to this day as they allow fast transmission over the Internet and take up less space on media memory.

  • The song "Tom's Diner" by American singer-songwriter Suzanne Vega was the first song used for testing purposes by audio engineer Karlheinz Brandenburg while he was developing the MP3 format. 

Super Audio CD / DSD 

Introduced in 1999, Super Audio CD (SACD) is a read-only optical disc for audio storage that uses the Direct-Stream Digital (DSD) format for digitally recreating audible signals. A SACD disc has the exact same physical dimensions as a standard CD, however it features a longer playing time, a greater audio bit rate and it permits surround sound recordings (up to 6 channels).
  • There are more than 10,000 titles released on SACD, approximately 60% of which belong to the classical music genre.


An open format with royalty-free licensing, FLAC (Free Lossless Audio Codec) is an audio coding format for lossless compression of digital audio. Unlike lossy formats such as MP3, FLAC is a lossless format which means the original audio recording can be perfectly reconstructed from the compressed data.

FLAC is especially suited to preserving audio collections and archiving music from CDs or other media as it ensures that an exact duplicate of the original data can be recovered at any time, should the original media somehow be damaged or lost. In addition, the FLAC format offers CD-level audio quality at roughly half the size, whilst being compatible with most audio players and playback devices.

Mimis Chrysomallis @Mimis_X
Image: His Master's Voice, Wikimedia Commons


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