You may already know that computers and smart devices use compression to save disk space and bandwidth, using either lossy compression or lossless compression. Both types of compression have their place, but what exactly separates them and which is best?
Lossy Compression Makes Files Smaller
Lossy compression discards as much data as possible in a bid to make file sizes as small as possible. This is achieved by targeting data that is deemed to be less noticeable so that the file itself still largely resembles the original. The more compressed a file, the more the quality will suffer.
Two good examples of lossy compression are JPEG images and MP3 audio files. A highly compressed JPEG (example below) will exhibit visual artifacts, a loss of clarity and detail, potential color banding, and even color shifting. You may notice outlines around parts of the image that weren’t there on the original.
In terms of audio, a highly compressed MP3 file sounds noticeably worse than an uncompressed original, particularly in the low and high frequencies. Basslines and cymbals might sound muffled or shimmery, and overall audio clarity is reduced even in the midrange.
Not all JPEGs are a blurry mess, and not all MP3s sound like they were downloaded from Napster. The level of compression used can make a huge difference to the quality of the file. A barely compressed JPEG or 320kbps MP3 file will be hard to distinguish from an uncompressed original in most cases.
Lossless Compression Favors Quality Over Size
Lossless compression requires that data is not discarded, which in turn uses more space or bandwidth. Unlike lossy compression, lossless compression doesn’t result in data degradation, and decompressed data is identical to the uncompressed original.
Some examples of lossless compression include the FLAC and ALAC audio codecs, ZIP archives, and PNG images. Audio files that use lossless compression are roughly half of the size of the uncompressed original at the same sample rate. Many audio streaming services now offer lossless streaming including Apple Music, Tidal, Deezer, and Spotify’s new HiFi tier.
ZIP files are often used to compress software, which cannot undergo any form of lossy compression that would result in data being discarded (and the software no longer working). PNG image files rely purely on lossless compression, with services like TinyPNG instead squeezing images to fit a much smaller color palette to drive file size down.
Both Lossy and Lossless Have Their Place
For archival purposes, lossless compression is king. It’s not possible to reconstruct a lossless version of a file when it has been compressed in a lossy way.
If file size or bandwidth is a concern, lossy compression makes much more sense. For example, if you want to download some music to your smartphone for offline listening, using lossy codecs like AAC will allow you to store much more music at the cost of a small hit to quality.
And that’s before you consider that all of the best wireless earphones like Apple’s AirPods Pro rely on lossy compression to get the audio from your device to your ears in the first place.