Audio Formats Explained And Rated | iLounge Article


Audio Formats Explained And Rated

The MP3 format is almost 2 decades old now.

Dramatic improvements in personal computing and technology and rapid advances in the field of audio compression are moving towards that perfect audio compression with a small file size.

The unending quest for a compressed file format which sounds almost as good as the original uncompressed audio file goes on. Uncompressed CD audio occupies roughly about 10MB of space for every minute, so the files have to be compressed to store them.

To achieve close to perfect compression, lossy or lossless, mathematical techniques are used to (model) represent the working and psycho-acoustic responses of the human ear, the final judge on how “good” the music sounds.

Audio compression is either:

  1. Lossless compression makes perfect copies of the original uncompressed audio (wave) file. When you uncompress the file, datum is kept intact, much like Zip file compression.
  2. Lossy compression, on the other hand, distorts some of the data, causing the file to lose some information.

In the frequency domain the range of human hearing is between approximately 20 to 20,000 Hz. The dynamic range of human hearing is approximately 120 decibels. Signals over 90 dB may cause permanent hearing damage. Audio file compression is achieved by removing inaudible sections of the pure uncompressed audio file which lies above and below the threshold of human hearing.

Typically, each codec uses complex and unique mathematical algorithms to shrink the size of a pure sound file, with a minimal loss in quality. Thus, an ideal balance between an acceptable drop in quality and small file size is formed.

Many formats have tried to improve upon the MP3 promise of high fidelity audio with smaller file sizes. Quite a few are extinct with their developers having abandoned the standard, but a handful of picky and battle hardened formats have survived, each using their own algorithm to store more in less.

The two primary reasons that MP3 has achieved a cult status are the easy availability of MP3 files before the music industry drove the bootleg MP3 industry underground and the easy and free availability of MP3 playing software.

For any format to take over from where MP3 left off, it will need these two factors in abundance and then some more. It will need to catch the attention of the developer community that democratized the MP3 revolution by creating shareware and free MP3 players, entire archives of MP3s online and peer to peer file swapping services to boot.

Four formats are poised to take the baton from MP3. Admittedly, they are not riding the popularity wave yet, but they could well emerge as dominant formats.


The proprietary MP3PRO standard was developed by Thomson Multimedia� in 2001 and they share the patent rights with the Fraunhofer Institute.

While appearing similar to the MP3 standard, it improves on it by using a technology called SBR (Spectral Band Replication). Essentially, SBR reproduces these high frequency components called the PRO components that are lost during normal MP3 encoding. By combining a low bit rate MP3 file with SBR data, you get a full bandwidth audio file with full bass and precise treble. With SBR, MP3PRO is able to reproduce the quality of a 128 Kbps encoded MP3 file, at 64 Kbps encoding quality, resulting in files half the size of a plain jane MP3.

The extra piece of information that is written into the MP3 file as a separate stream besides the normal data (read MP3) stream is what SBR is.The extra datum when read through a compatible MP3PRO decoder, allows the decoder to guess what the high frequencies sound like so they can be added to the MP3 file on the fly. This is an effective form of improving quality because the high frequencies take the brunt of MP3 lossy compression while allowing the encoder to allot bits to the more important areas of the song.

This format is backward compatible, so portable players with no MP3PRO decoder can simply still play MP3PRO files by ignoring the PRO component, thereby also dropping the quality of the MP3PRO to its original encoding rate which would be directly proportional to MP3 at this stage. Software support on the decoder end is freely available—Winamp has introduced a plugin and recent versions of other jukebox players have also included support.

Unfortunately, on the encoding front, Thomson has a demo version called the MP3PRO audio player that only allows up to a 64 Kbps encoding quality. Hence, you will be required to buy software that comes with the MP3PRO codec to encode files at 80 or 96 Kbps, such as the demo plugin shipped with Nero Burning ROM that allows 30 operations ranging from 24 Kbps for mono up to 96 Kbps for stereo.

MP3PRO is aimed at applications involving streaming audio, Web casting and Internet radio. For the desktop user, this format is suitable only if the file size is just as important as audio quality—if you enjoy the quality of MP3s at 128Kbps, then consider shifting over to MP3PRO to save desktop/portable real estate.

However, plain jane mp3 files encoded at 192 khz and above have superior sound quality compared to MP3PRO at 96khz—the maximum encoding quality possible with MP3PRO.

Avoid converting (transcoding) your existing mp3s into any format (including MP3PRO)—instead of the superior audio quality you expect, there will be a further loss in quality. Instead, re-rip from your audio cd’s and encode into the format of your choice to get clear, high fidelity audio. try experimenting with vbr for better compression quality.

Ratings: File size: Audio Quality

Windows Media Audio

Arguably the most patented and proprietary format after MP3, Windows Media Audio (WMA) proves a close rival to the MP3 standard. Made only for Windows users, this format just got better with the recent release of the WMA 9 codec. WMA 9 can capture audio feed with a very impressive 24 bit/96Khz sampling rate in either stereo, 5.1 or 7.1 channel surround sound—so you can record your music in discrete digital surround sound (provided you have the hardware). Unlike the earlier versions, WMA 9 also has a lossless codec and it sounds just as good with an old stereo arrangement. It is widely believed that WMA 9, encoded at a bit rate of just 48 Kbps, sounds as good as an MP3 encoded at 128 Kbps. With WMA’s encoded at 96 Kbps, you have sound fidelity and clarity achievable only in MP3s encoded at 192kHz and above.

WMA supports VBR encoding, which is ideal for squeezing in maximum quality within a minimal file size. Of course, there a caveat—Microsoft’s continued support for DRM (Digital Rights Management) means that distributing copyrighted WMA’s is severely restricted. The licensed file is encrypted with its license key that restricts you from storing or playing multiple copies of the file. Microsoft also tracks the transfer of the license across computers.

The hardware and software support for WMA 9 are just as good as it is for the MP3 standard. The format is backward compatible, and decoder support comes in the form of the old Winamp WMA codec. As far the encoding is concerned, you will need the new WMA 9 system codec along with encoding software or have Windows Media Player 9 installed.

With Microsoft’s muscle (read acoustic research sometimes) backing WMA 9, it’s well on its way to becoming the dominant format in the digital music arena. The format is well featured to suit diverse users, from artists wanting to distribute their music online securely to home users who need to encode a stack of CD’s.

Ratings: File size: Audio Quality:

Ogg Vorbis

This is a completely open, free source audio format that strives to replace all proprietary, patented formats. It achieved enormous popularity almost immediately after the Fraunhofer Institute decided to get tough on the MP3 standard patents and enjoys extensive developer support. In fact, the boys at Ogg Vorbis posted an open letter to the Fraunhofer Institute expressing their delight at the decision to extract license fees for MP3 and reporting higher website hits thereafter.

Ogg Vorbis is a lossy codec that compresses music in a technique similar to, but vastly better than MP3. It supports VBR which lets you tweak a song to achieve fine fidelity for less space. There is no encoding quality limitation specified, the encoders can support an amazing 16 to 500 Kbps in stereo and 32 to 256 Kbps in mono mode. Here, quality is not measured in kilobits per second, instead an arbitrary 10-point scale is used—quality level 0 is equivalent to 64 Kbps, level 5 is roughly 160 Kbps and level 10 is about 400 Kbps. Near Audio CD quality is closely achieved in level 3 and 4 which also adjust sound quality and file size excellently.

Many players have been supporting Ogg Vorbis through plugins for some time now. Winamp for instance, natively supports Ogg Vorbis. On the encoding front, software such as dBpowerAMP converts your existing audio files to Ogg Vorbis in a few mouse clicks. The software support is expected to increase significantly over time, with more and more users seeing Ogg Vorbis as the format offers the right mix of audio quality and file size.

The music industry is veering sharply away though—Ogg Vorbis, like MP3 and unlike WMA has no safeguards against piracy. Hardware support is also wanting, with just a few players supporting the format. Iomega and Rio are two companies all set to make Ogg Vorbis compatible with their players if the consumer demand is strong enough to necessitate the change.

Ogg Vorbis is a potential rival to the MP3 format and it will continue to get better because of the flexibility that allows significant tuning and tweaking of the algorithm, even after the format is frozen—and all this for free, with no copyright or patents.

Ratings: File size: Audio Quality:


One of the most promising formats on the horizon is the patented AAC (Advanced Audio Coding) standard. In the late 1990’s this format was sidelined by MP3, as it demanded unrealistic computing resources for encoding and decoding. But now, AAC is being promoted as the audio data compression standard of the 21st century. It is now and official standard under ISO-MPEG with Via Licensing currently in charge of licensing the technology.

AAC has become the base for a number of sophisticated audio codecs, including AT&T’s a2b and will also be used in the MPEG-4 standard.

AAC can record data both in mono and stereo mode, and up to a maximum of 48 channels of data! Add to that sampling rates of 96KHz and broadcast quality at a bit rate of 320Kbps for 5.1 channel sound and you have the future of compressed digital audio.

The standard is made up of three different ‘profiles’, which differ from each other in sound quality. Studies conducted by MPEG show that AAC profiles encoded at 128Kbps and 96Kbps bit rates rank way ahead of MP2 at 192Kbps and MP3 at 128Kbps. While this and numerous other tests show that AAC ranks way ahead of its contenders, including WMA, its popularity is severely restricted by the fact that it is very tightly licensed. This may change though—AAC is widely regarded as one of the highest quality formats for distributing music on the Internet and is also targeted towards streaming audio. However, despite the improvements in processor technology, the processor requirements for both encoding and decoding are rather high.

Moreover, software support is quite limited—as far as decoders go, there is a plugin for Winamp. On the encoder side, AACenc is available for noncommercial use only, You can use dBpowerAMP for converting your CD’s with a plugin. Hardware support too is a while away, rumors of popular portable players upgrading to this format are in the air but, the format itself is yet to pick up.

Ratings: File size: Audio Quality:

MP3 may be aging, but development is still in progress to produce encoders that are leaner and produce better audio fidelity with lesser artifacts. And it still rules the P2P roost as the most traded commodity online. So while the MP3 standard cannot be discounted yet, the future of digital audio clearly belongs to other standards—WMA and Ogg Vorbis aim for top-of-the-line quality, while MP3PRO gives us small yet clear files. The crystal ball also shows the emergence of MPEG-4, bringing full blown multimedia integration across the spectrum, not just bits and pieces.

Even with complex mathematical algorithms that accurately model the psycho-acoustic responses of that incredible human organ, the ear, and what you may hear about listening room tests, there is only one real testing ground: how good does the music sounds when you play it on your computer or portable? The human ear is the final judge of quality.

« How to fill a 5Gb iPod

First Looks: iTrip, iPod Armor & FlipStand »

Related Stories



Very nice article, but as an aside, Quicktime 6 Pro can encode and decode AAC files.

Posted by Matt in India on March 25, 2003 at 7:03 PM (CST)


If you’d like to try ripping MPEG-4s from CD with iTunes and QuickTime Pro, try “Make Mine MPEG-4”.

Posted by Doug Adams in India on March 26, 2003 at 4:22 AM (CST)


Great article, Strykar - thanks!  I have long awaited AAC playback support on iPod, and now I want it even more!

Posted by tntracy in India on March 26, 2003 at 7:32 PM (CST)


will existing iPods be able to decode AAC files if a software upgrade on the iPod comes out?  or are we doomed to buy a newer iPod…?

Posted by zcool202 in India on March 31, 2003 at 3:51 PM (CST)


Rumors indicate that the new Apple music service will use AAC formatted music files. So if this proves to be true, then the iPod’s software will be updated to support AAC.

Posted by Dennis Lloyd in India on April 1, 2003 at 12:37 AM (CST)


hey wicked article man! im so hyped up about aac, i havent really read much about it until now. I downloaded and installed PowerAmp to try it. The audio format is far superior to MP3 imo. I really hope iPOD supports it.

And to ipodlounger, thanks for the info about the music service. Even though its a “rumour” something nice to look forward to :)

Posted by stasyna in India on April 3, 2003 at 4:41 PM (CST)


Geat article. Thanks.

Posted by nate in India on April 19, 2003 at 6:11 PM (CDT)


Missing VQF from Yamaha, just for info.
It’s there, and if it’s dead, should be explained why

Posted by mak in India on April 28, 2003 at 6:24 PM (CDT)


Minidisc players use AAC format, I believe?

Posted by Phil in India on May 11, 2003 at 8:23 AM (CDT)


Minidisc uses Sony’s ATRAC compression.

Posted by Rus in India on May 11, 2003 at 9:28 AM (CDT)


What is the best way for windows users to rip cds in AAC format?

Posted by hildy in India on May 28, 2003 at 8:47 AM (CDT)


With the new iPod AAC format, what happens to all of the MP3 car stereos, home stereos and DVD players that all play CD-R/CD-RW disks tha contain MP3 files?


Posted by Tom in India on July 22, 2003 at 1:36 PM (CDT)


I’m a Windows iPod.  I bought some tracks from just to try it out since it’s new and iTunes for Windows isn’t out yet. Of course, they are WMA files which iPod won’t accept.  Is there any way to export WMA files to iPod?  By conversion or something?  I’m not well versed in technology so be gentle.

Posted by Rick in India on July 30, 2003 at 9:01 AM (CDT)


the wmas are designed so they cant be converted or even played on programs like winamp and also its not really *buy* music because your actually paying to listen to it, and unlike iChoons someone knows when and where you listen to the tracks and make sure u cant convert them

Posted by ti in India on July 31, 2003 at 9:28 AM (CDT)


I really wish ipod supported ogg-vorbis.
Call me an open source zealott but I still believe that ogg is the future of audio.

Posted by Jason in India on August 22, 2003 at 11:58 PM (CDT)



i want ogg on the ipod!, plz apple, do it!

Posted by zcool202 in India on August 23, 2003 at 12:38 PM (CDT)


I’ve never tried converting WMA files but you can use Musicmatch Jukebox to record using “what you hear” as the source, of course, youll have to make sure your mixer is setup before you record.
Hope this helps.

Posted by Strykar in India on August 30, 2003 at 3:39 AM (CDT)


help! i have a lot of music files on my computer, but all of them are encoded to the WMA format. somehow my iTunes 4 library is unable to import those files into my library. what can i do?

Posted by Rachel in India on November 21, 2003 at 6:29 AM (CST)


You could just read my post above or mail me if you need more help. Its a lengthy explanation but i’ll be glad to help :)

.(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)

Posted by Strykar in India on December 23, 2003 at 10:12 PM (CST)


I have ripped several CDs at 320 Bit AAC and would like to convert them to a lower bit rate.  Can I do this with the Itunes software or does anyone have any other suggestions?

Posted by Frank in India on March 22, 2004 at 11:19 AM (CST)

iLounge Weekly

Recent News

Recent Reviews

Recent Articles

Sign up for the iLounge Weekly Newsletter

iLounge is an independent resource for all things iPod, iPhone, iPad, and beyond.
iPod, iPhone, iPad, iTunes, Apple TV, Mac, and the Apple logo are trademarks of Apple Inc.
iLounge is © 2001 - 2019 iLounge, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Terms of Use | Privacy Policy