What is a CDA File?

R. Kayne

A Compact Disc Audio or CDA file holds a small bit of data that serves as an index for tracks on an audio CD. Each CDA file takes the form of Track xxxx.cda, and includes the location of the beginning and end of the named track, but not the actual audio stream. Some ripping programs, however, will assign a .cda extension to tracks when ripped (copied) to a computer.

A CDA file serves as a track list for audio cds.
A CDA file serves as a track list for audio cds.

The actual audio format used on CDs is pulse-code modulation or PCM. PCM captures analog waveforms using an uncompressed, digital sampling technique that results in a very "true" digital representation of the original analog wave. A track ripped to a computer as an audio CDA file is actually a PCM file assigned a .cda extension.

Although a CDA file containing a PCM wave stream is extremely high quality, it also takes up a lot of space and will not be recognized by most portable digital players designed for use with compressed files. Once on the computer, it is easy to convert the PCM or CDA file to a compressed format. Some ripping software will allow the user to choose a format before ripping, eliminating the need of converting the files afterward. Many people like to archive music in an uncompressed state, however, then make compressed files from these high-quality originals.

There are two classes of compressed files: lossless and lossy. The first category includes formats that compress files without 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, Windows® Media Audio Lossless (WMA Lossless) and others.

Lossy formats sacrifice a little quality for a much smaller footprint. Unlike the ripped CDA file that carries a full-bodied PCM wave stream, a lossy format leaves out some data to achieve its much smaller file size. Formats include the familiar MP3 format, Vorbis, AAC, WMA (lossy version), and others. The loss of quality is not too noticeable on portable devices that rely on earbuds or small portable speakers for output. Audiophiles aside, many people cannot tell the difference between a lossy file and its PCM or ripped CDA file counterpart when played on a portable device.

The advantage of using compressed files on portable devices is that many more tracks will fit into the limited memory. Uncompressed files, however, are still recommended for burning CDs or audio DVDs for car stereos, home stereos and surround sound systems.

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Discussion Comments


@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.


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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