Q: What is the difference between MP3 and MP4 and which do you consider to be the better format? — Ed
A: For those new to the digital music world, the MP3 and MP4 formats are compression technologies for converting standard analog audio tracks (like those on a commercial music CD) to smaller digital computer files.
The primary reason digital music formats have become so popular is that they deliver high-quality sound at roughly one tenth the size of the uncompressed original. As a point of reference, a standard audio CD can hold roughly 20 songs while a CD encoded with MP3 files can hold as many as 200 songs.
Normally when sound is compressed, the quality is dramatically diminished, but many empires were launched because of the MP3 format and its ability to deliver high compression rates with a minimum loss of sound quality. The MP3 format became an official standard in 1992 and began the chain of events that eventually created many popular music encoding programs and playback devices.
Today, the sheer quantity of small handheld devices that can hold thousands of songs is mind-boggling, but the undisputed leader is Apple’s iPod, despite the fact it was a latecomer to the MP3 player party.
A big reason for the huge success of Apple’s music device was the launch of the iTunes online music store. It was the first commercially successful attempt at selling music at 99 cents per song but required an iPod if you wanted to take your purchased music mobile.
At the time, Apple was successful in convincing the music industry to allow them to sell copyrighted music in a digital format because of something known as FairPlay digital rights management (DRM). Remembering that this all came on the tails of the massive music piracy problem created by the original Napster file sharing system (Napster is now a legitimate online music company), Apple had to demonstrate that it could control how these digital files were used.
This is where the AAC format (Advanced Audio Coding, commonly referred to as MP4) came into the picture. Because Apple used a proprietary file format, they were able to limit how each file purchased on their system was used, which meant a single user could not purchase a song and share it with others.
Along with this digital rights management system, Apple also made claims that the sound compression technology was superior to the old MP3 format. While the technical data may support this claim, the reality is that most listeners don’t have the playback equipment (speakers) or the ears to tell any difference.
What is relevant about music purchased on the iTunes system in AAC, or MP4, format is that it can only be played back in the iTunes software or on an iPod, while the MP3 format is supported by all music devices, including the iPod.
Your choice of playback systems will be the primary driver of which format is best for you, so be sure you check your player’s supported formats before you begin buying or encoding your music.