Music File Formats For DJs: A No-Nonsense Guide

Phil Morse | Founder & Tutor
Read time: 8 mins

One of the most difficult things about the technical side of digital DJing, especially for DJs coming from the old ways of vinyl and CDs, is understanding the available music file formats. There are so many of them, and making mistakes can cost time and money. Worse, mistakes can mean your sets sound bad.

This guide will give you all you need to know to make the right choices, and to be confident about those choices. It’s also written specifically for DJs – not hi-fi buffs, tech geeks or recording studio owners. So let’s get started…

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Music File Formats For DJs – Contents

What Are File Formats?

So what are music file formats? Well, music can be saved digitally in a number of file formats – it’s the same music, but different tech used to encode it into a digital file that can be played by your DJ software or hardware, shared online, and so on.

These formats offer different levels of gear compatibility, different levels of quality, and will take up different amounts of disk space (a good MP3 is four or five times smaller than an equivalent WAV, for example). Certain file types sometimes cost more than others, too.

It is important that you know the pros and cons of the formats that are available, to help you confidently choose which format to go for when buying music online (you’ll often be given a choice), when ripping music, and to help you choose the right format for sharing DJ mixes, working on music files in DAWs (digital audio workstations like Ableton Live) and so on.

Of course, you also need to understand how these formats affect the audio quality of the music, because poor audio quality will instantly and always mark you down as a second-rate DJ.

Read this next: 10 Mistakes Beginner DJs Make (That Pros Don’t)

How do I know what format a music file is in?

Your DJ software can show you this in a column (right-click the library header to choose what columns show), but also, you can right-click on any file on your computer and select “Properties” (Windows) or “Get Info” (Mac). In the file properties or info window, look for the “File Type” or “Kind” section, which will display the file format or file extension, such as “.mp3,” “.wav,” or “.flac.”

Next I’ll talk you through all the music file formats you’re likely to come across. Lower down in the article I’ve answered the main questions we commonly get asked here at our Digital DJ Tips school about music file formats. Finally, to end off with I offer you some “best practices” to help you make the right choices.

Do feel free to ask questions or offer feedback in the comments at the end of this article – we’re a real DJ school, with real tutors, and we always love to chat about this stuff!

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Common File Formats

Music files come in three main types: Uncompressed (just a “straight”, simple digitisation of the original music), compressed lossless (encoded to make them smaller, but exactly the same audio quality as the original), and compressed lossy (encoded to make them smaller, but with some of the original data “thrown away”, the idea here being that if you get rid of inaudible information from the files, they’ll still sound great with a smaller footprint).

Here are the main types you’ll come across in each of these three categories:

Uncompressed music formats


The truest, simplest way of recording audio digitally, well understood by the whole industry and universally accepted.

✅ Universal format, works with everything, causes the least potential problems
❌ Largest files of all, can’t contain metadata, usually more expensive than MP3s to buy


Basically Apple’s version of WAV (WAV was originally developed for Windows computers), but again, universally accepted nowadays.

✅ Unlike WAVs, can contain metadata
❌ Just as large as WAVs, ie very large

Lossless, compressed formats


An open-source file format that uses lossless compression, ie the file is made smaller but nothing is “thrown away” (and so if you were to convert it back to WAV/AIFF, it would be identical to before).

✅ Smaller than WAV/AIFF, but exactly the same audio quality
❌ Slightly less compatible than WAV/AIFF, for instance, doesn’t work in iTunes, and some older DJ gear such as the Pioneer DJ XDJ-RX2. Usually more expensive than MP3s to buy

ALAC (m4a)

Just as AIFF is Apple’s take on WAV, so ALAC is Apple’s take on a lossless compressed format – so again, the file is made smaller but nothing is “thrown away” (and so if you were to convert it back to WAV/AIFF, it would be identical to before).

✅ Smaller than WAV/AIFF, but exactly the same audio quality. Unlike FLAC, works with iTunes
❌ As with FLAC files, these are still quite big compared to the formats below

Lossy, compressed formats


Easily the most popular format in the world. Quality is determined by “kbps” or “kilobits per second” – how much storage is used for every second of audio. The smaller the number, the smaller the file (but also lower the quality).

Read this next: Is It Still OK For DJs To Play MP3s?

For instance, online radio is often streamed at 96kbps or even as low as 48kbps. Music MP3s used to be at 128kbps, then 192kbps, and as storage costs have dropped and internet speeds have gone up, they’re now generally sold at 256kbps or 320kbps.

✅ Universally compatible, decent trade-off between quality and size (for vast majority of DJs, 320kbps MP3s are going to be fine), can hold metadata and album art
❌ Some say they can hear the difference between a 320kbps MP3 and a WAV (we cannot); Apple’s AAC format achieves the same quality with a slightly smaller file size

AAC (m4a)

Apple’s take on lossy audio, and a format that music will be in if you buy it from the iTunes store, meaning these are also very common.

✅ All the advantages of this type of file (smaller than the other file types etc), and more modern than MP3s, meaning they’re more efficient – a 256kbps AAC sounds as good as a 320kbps MP3
❌ Not quite as common as MP3s, although as basically all software and hardware can play them, this shouldn’t matter to the vast majority of DJs

Compare these side by side with a FREE music pack

Want to hear the same track across different formats and file sizes? This music pack includes nine songs in three distinct genres: house/nu-disco, funk/breaks and trance/euphoric – just import them into your DJ set-up, listen through each one, and make your choice! As an added bonus, keep the tracks you enjoy for your collection – a gift to you from us and Mastermix.

Download your free music pack here


This is all confusing! Does it really matter?

As long as your music files work with your DJ gear and any other programs you use them with, and they sound good to you, no – not really. The source and quality of the actual music, the quality of the PA system you’re DJing on, and your “gain staging” (basically, your ability to keep things out of the “red” as you DJ) are far more important than the format your files are in.

Read this next: How To Set Your Volume Levels Like a Pro When DJing

Also, just because music is apparently in a high quality format, doesn’t mean it hasn’t been converted from a poor format at some point. Trusting your ears is the best option – so do that! Ultimately, understanding the formats is the important thing here, so you can make your choices confidently.

What’s all this talk about “metadata”?

Metadata is the data about the music – artist, album, artwork and so on. With nearly all file formats it can be stored in the file itself (“called “embedding”). Sometimes even some of the data calculated by your DJ software about your music (such as key and BPM) gets stored in the file too. This helps to keep things simple.

However, one popular format – WAV – won’t store metadata. DJ systems usually still let you store metadata about WAVs, but be aware they are storing the info in their own database (along with other info, such as waveforms, beatgrids etc, which DJ systems always store separately). Move the WAVs or copy them over to something else, and that data doesn’t go with them.

Should I try to have all of my music in the same format?

It’s tempting from a purist’s point of view, but in practise as long as you stick to formats that are recognised by your gear and software, and that sound good enough, there is no need to worry about this.

Should I convert from one lossless format to another?

There’s no harm in doing this, for instance if you want to convert WAVs to FLAC in order to embed metadata.

Should I convert all of my music to a lossless format?

No. You cannot improve the audio quality of your files by converting them from a lossy to a lossless format. They’ll either sound exactly the same, or a bit worse. This is a pointless exercise.

Should I convert all of my music from one lossy format (eg AAC) to another (eg MP3)?

Definitely not. This will certainly result in a degradation of sound quality, for no gain.

What if I’ve got some lower quality file formats in my library? Should I buy them again?

Do it on a case-by-case basis. No lesser a DJ than Armin van Buuren has said he’s fine DJing with 192kbps MP3s, for instance, although we say you can definitely hear the difference between 192kbps and 320kbps MP3s.

That said, if your MP3s at 128kbps MP3 happen to be mono pop songs from the early 1960s, I doubt anyone would ever notice. Likewise, well-mastered lower bitrate lossy files can still sound good, whereas lossless files badly ripped from vinyl will likely sound poor.

The same old advice of “trust your ears” applies here, with maybe the extra advice to replace the files slowly as you get the chance – but don’t get too hung up on it.

What about kHz, bitrate etc? Do they matter?

You may have seen things like “16-bit/44.1kHz”, or “24-bit/96kHz” used when referring to lossless files. Let’s keep this simple: 44.1kHz/16-bit is CD quality, and that’s fine for DJing. True, the higher those numbers, the bigger the file, and the better the theoretical quality – but good luck hearing any difference.

Don’t worry if your collection ends up having a mix of these, as long as 16-bit/44.1kHz is the smallest “number pair” you have.

What is “Ogg Vorbis”?!

It’s an “open source” lossy, compressed format that you may come across – think of it as an equivalent to MP3 or AAC. These files work fine in most DJ software.

Best Practices For DJs

So let’s cut to the chase: What do you need to know to stop worrying about all of this, and to get back to the fun stuff? Here’s our “best practice” advice:

  • For most DJs, going for 320kbps MP3s, 256kbps AACs is fine – unless you truly think you can hear the difference between these and lossless files
  • If you choose to go lossless – prefer FLAC files if you want metadata-compatible lossless and do not use iTunes (or ALAC if you want metadata-compatible lossless and you’re specifically an iTunes/Music user; FLAC still works generally with Apple) and WAV if you want guaranteed universal compatibility and can live with no metadata (and the bigger size)
  • Go lossless for tracks you many want to use for more than DJing, ie to sample to use in productions, to remix in a DAW etc. (The DAW will convert your music to lossless anyway before you can do anything, so may as well start with lossless to maintain the highest quality.)
  • Be sure to get your music from reputable sources – at least then you can be relatively sure they aren’t poor quality, lossy files that have been re-output in a higher format (which doesn’t work – see the FAQs). That said, poor quality recordings still exist on all services, so don’t take a trustworthy source or a high-quality file format as guarantee of quality. That brings us to our biggest piece of advice…

Always listen carefully and trust your ears above everything else!

Read this next: Where DJs Get Their Music


As I said above, do feel free to ask questions or offer feedback in the comments at the end of this article – we’re a real DJ school, with real tutors, and we always love to chat about this stuff!

This is often an emotive subject, and we’re always happy for DJs to share their opinions, indeed we encourage it for the greater good – so if you disagree with anything above or have something more to add, please do share.

Don’t forget your free music pack! Click here for your exclusive download link

Watch the show

Prefer me to talk you through this? In this video, a recording of a live show from the Digital DJ Tips YouTube channel, I talk you through everything in this article, and we take questions from our community on the subject.

Last updated 31 August, 2023

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