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 chime-like sound at boot up of the Windows operating system.
This file format is based on the Resource Interchange File Format (RIFF), which stores audio files in indexed “chunks” and “sub-chunks.” RIFF is, in turn, based on the earlier Interchange File Format (IFF), established by Electronic Arts in 1985 for use in electronic gaming. Apple’s version, known as Audio Interchange File Format (AIFF), was released in 1988 for Macintosh computers. Due to the common roots of these various audio formats, however, the audio files will play on any computer system, IBM or Apple.
The WAV file had two very big things going for it when introduced. First, it could digitize sounds 100% faithful to the original source because it is a lossless format. “Lossless” means that the file format does not compromise audio quality even when it holds compressed data. Second, the format is very easy to edit and manipulate with software. Luckily for audiophiles, free audio editing software has been available nearly as long as WAV files themselves.
While this format was ideal for sound effects, it had a drawback when it came to music files. One four-minute song could easily consume over 35 megabytes (MB) of space when saved as a WAV. Though the cost of hard drives dropped over the years, the format was still too large for portable players with limited flash memory, which would become ubiquitous by the new millennium. Additionally, these files were not the most practical format to transfer online, especially over slow dial-up connections.
Instead, the compressed MP3 format took the audio stage because songs saved in this format are much smaller. The MP3 format is a lossy format, however, which means the smaller file size does have some loss of audio quality. While the MP3 format is a good fit 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 burning 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, 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.