What Is a CDA File?

Margaret Lipman
Margaret Lipman

A Compact Disc Audio (CDA) file is a shortcut created by a computer’s CD drivers that identifies where music or other types of audio are stored on a CD.

CDA files assist the computer to play compact discs.
CDA files assist the computer to play compact discs.

The purpose of CDA files is to help the computer play the compact disc. Files with the .cda extension contain a small amount of data (44 bytes) and serve as an index for tracks on an audio CD. Each CDA file follows the naming convention “Track##.cda.” In line with the “Red Book” industry standard, CDA files are the standard format for encoding audio on compact discs.

Ripping programs often assign .cda filename extensions to tracks that have been ripped from a CD onto the computer.
Ripping programs often assign .cda filename extensions to tracks that have been ripped from a CD onto the computer.

It is important to note that on a CD, files with the .cda extension do not contain the actual audio stream. Instead, they simply include the location of the beginning and end of the named track. Thus, CDA files can only be played when the CD is physically present in the CD drive. Various media players can open CDA files, such as iTunes, Microsoft Windows Media Player, VLC media player, and other Mac, Windows, and Linux audio players.

A CDA file does not actually contain the audio stream, but rather the information for locating the beginning and end of the named track.
A CDA file does not actually contain the audio stream, but rather the information for locating the beginning and end of the named track.

To confuse matters, however, some ripping software programs will assign .cda filename extensions to tracks that have been ripped (copied) from a CD onto a computer.

”CDA” stands for Compact Disc Audio.
”CDA” stands for Compact Disc Audio.

Pulse-code modulation

The actual audio format used on CDs is known as pulse-code modulation (PCM). PCM captures analog waveforms using an uncompressed, digital sampling technique that results in a very accurate digital representation of the original analog wave. As mentioned above, a track ripped to a computer as an audio CDA file is actually a PCM file that has been assigned a .cda extension.

Compressed vs. Uncompressed Files

Although the quality of a CDA file containing an uncompressed PCM stream is extremely high, it takes up a lot of space and will not be recognized by most portable digital media players designed for use with compressed files.

How to Convert CDA Files

Using a computer, converting a PCM or CDA file to a compressed format such as MP3 or WMA is very straightforward. Microsoft Windows Media Player is one of the most popular programs used to rip CDs onto the computer. By default, Windows Media Player converts the tracks into WMA files, although you can choose other formats. You can also use Windows Media Player to select the destination folder for your files.

Similarly, iTunes allows users to import CDs and convert CDA files to MP3s. VLC media player is another popular choice for ripping a CD to MP3s on the computer, especially as it is free, cross platform, and open source.

Some ripping software will allow the user to choose a format before ripping, eliminating the need to convert the files afterwards. However, many people prefer to archive music in an uncompressed format (such as a WAV or AIFF file), and then create compressed files from these high-quality originals.

The advantage of using compressed files on portable devices is that many more tracks can be stored with limited memory. On the other hand, uncompressed files are recommended for burning CDs for car stereos, home stereos, and surround sound systems.

Compressed Files: Lossless Formats

There are two classes of compressed files: lossless and lossy. As the name implies, lossless formats compress files without any loss of quality. These files are still rather large and many portable audio players do not support them.

Lossless compressed formats include:

  • FLAC
  • Monkey's Audio (APE)
  • Apple® Lossless (also known as ALAC or ALE)
  • Windows® Media Audio Lossless (WMA Lossless)

Compressed Files: Lossy Formats

By leaving out some data, lossy formats sacrifice a little quality for a much smaller file size. The loss of quality is not particularly noticeable on portable devices that use earbuds or small portable speakers for output. Audiophiles aside, many people cannot tell the difference between a lossy file played on a portable device and its PCM or ripped CDA file counterpart.

Lossy formats include:

  • MP3
  • MP4
  • Windows® Media Audio (WMA)
  • AAC
  • Vorbis

Once the tracks from a CD have been copied and saved onto the computer in MP3, WAV, or a similar format, they can then be transferred to portable media players, smartphones, or burned onto another audio CD.

Programs such as Windows Media Player and iTunes can convert CDs into MP3s.
Programs such as Windows Media Player and iTunes can convert CDs into MP3s.
Margaret Lipman
Margaret Lipman
Margaret Lipman is a teacher and blogger who frequently writes about topics related to personal finance, parenting, health, nutrition, and education.

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Discussion Comments

everetra

@Mammmood - I’ve used some of those programs myself. I want to remind you, however, that you are not actually converting the CDA file itself, despite the name of the program.

The CDA file is just a pointer to the audio track. You are converting the track itself. These distinctions are probably unimportant, as long as you follow the instructions and just use the program, but I thought I’d point it out.

Sometimes people think their program is not working because they are trying to convert the CDA file and not the audio track.

Mammmood

I use an MP3 player when I jog, and have stored a lot of music files on it that I have ripped from my CD collection.

I used a CDA file converter to convert the files to MP3 format. Honestly, despite the fact that it’s a lossy format, I notice almost no loss of quality when I listen to them through the ear phones.

Perhaps if I stuck the MP3 player into a boom box and compared it to the original audio CDs played through my stereo system, I might notice something.

But most of my listening is done using that portable device, so it doesn’t matter to me either way. What’s neat is that you can download some free converters off the Internet that will let you do the conversion using a wizard driven approach.

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