The way that we store and listen to music has constantly been changing, pretty much ever since we started recording music.
From wax tubes that stored sound waves to vinyl records, through tape cassettes into CDs, we’ve always been trying to move towards is a balance of high-quality sound and the convenience of small files.
When streaming services took off, this movement took another large leap. Suddenly, high-quality audio was a luxury these services couldn’t afford in order to keep up with consumer demands.
You’ll hear audiophiles and previous generations complain about a lot of things regarding music these days, but the MP3, in particular, gets a lot of heat.
But why? Is the MP3 really that bad? And is the MP4 the next step in quality that they’ve been waiting for? We’re passionate about having access to a large quantity of high-quality sounding music here at Unison, so let’s talk about the MP3, the MP4, and what the difference between the two is.
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What Is An MP3?
An MP3 is a format you may or may not be already familiar with. Simply put, it’s an audio file that doesn’t take up much space.
Short for MPEG-1 Audio Layer 3, the MP3 does a moderate to good job at compressing the amount of data contained in the audio to conserve the file size while not losing too much quality.
The “too much” part of that sentence is debatable to some, but most people who don’t listen to music on incredibly expensive and high-tech systems won’t notice too much loss.
Developed in 1991, the MP3 has been the cornerstone of contemporary music storage. We used it to rip audio off of CDs, and we use it now through Spotify and Apple Music.
MP3s use what’s called “lossy compression” in order to remove small details of the original audio file. This process is what shrinks down the size of an MP3 when compared to larger file types.
When you export your music as an MP3, you get to choose what bit depth your file will have, which is how severe the compression and data loss will be. Higher bit rates sound better than lower, but lower bit depth takes up less room.
How Much Difference Does Bit Depth Make?
Imagine the bit depth as the number of steps a staircase has from its highest to lowest point. The more steps there were, the closer the stairs would be to a slide, which is what we would call lossless audio.
But just how much can you hear the difference in bit depths?
This depends on what you’re listening to and how you’re listening to it.
Bit depth is available in numbers divisible by 8, and you would definitely notice if something had a bit depth of 8. Think poor quality YouTube rips of music (not that you rip music off of YouTube, which is stealing.)
Next would be 16 bits, which is what’s generally used these days. It’s CD quality and sounds good. Most of the music you listen to is most likely 16 bit.
But what if you wanted really good-sounding music? Or perhaps you wanted to work on a high-definition project like a film or professional recording. Then you would work in 24 bits.
24 bit is as high quality as audio can get right now (there are talks about 32 bit, but you don’t need to worry about that yet.) This is high-quality audio that MP3s can’t even reach due to the compression size.
What Is an MP4?
Twelve years after the MP3 was created came the MP4, a new file type based on Apple’s QuickTime MOV. And while it may sound like an upgrade to the MP3, let’s get one thing out of the way. They aren’t the same thing.
While the MP4 can contain audio, it’s more of a video format. In fact, it’s considered a multimedia container more than it is a file format the way that an MP3 is. It can hold audio, video, meta, even text data.
You might see something called an M4A or an M4V. This is a way of showing that the file is only audio (M4A) or contains video as well (M4V). But this isn’t a rule that everyone follows.
MP4s also stand out from MP3s in the way that they compress the original audio file. MP3s have their own protocol when it comes to compression, but MP4s can utilize several different types of lossy compression.
The most popular method is Advanced Audio Coding, or AAC. You’ll see this file type all over if you use iTunes for anything.
Because AAC compression is a more recent form of audio compression than the MP3, many users argue that the file type sounds superior by being more selective and advanced in what it chooses to remove from the original audio.
This is definitely preferable when you’re showing someone the new track you made using the wild samples from the K Theory Glitch’d Out pack.
But MP4s also have the option to use Apple lossless compression, or ALAC. This is where MP4s really take the upper hand.
Having the option for lossless compression, which is the highest quality audio file you can ask for, is a huge step up from what MP3s offer. While ALAC files can be a bit bigger, they still give you the option to shift down in size when need be. MP3s, once converted, are just stuck as MP3s forever.
Which One Is Better?
Generally speaking, MP4, or M4A if you’re only using audio, is the superior file type. It uses a more advanced compression method than MP3s do, users report better sound quality, and it can be the same file size as MP3.
However, we might point out that this doesn’t mean you should rush to your library and convert all of your MP3s into MP4s. They’ve already been compressed through MP3s codec.
And if you’ve been working on transferring all of your CDs and vinyl records into digital, MP3 copies, you don’t have to start over and use AAC.
The reality is that the comparison between MP3 and MP4 isn’t going to be extremely noticeable, let alone blow you away. MP4s and M4As do have a marginally better sound quality, but if you were just casually listening to music and it switched from MP3s to MP4s, you probably wouldn’t really notice.
The other thing to keep in mind is that MP3s are just about as universal as it gets when it comes to audio files. MP4s might not be compatible for users with older music players.
MP4s have their strengths in certain situations. If you were to be working on an archiving project that required higher quality content while still keeping the file size to a minimum, then MP4s might be a good way to go.
And with the ability to use a lossless compression method with ALAC, MP4s have much more versatility than MP3s.
MP3s definitely have a wider universal appeal and can play on just about any device without any issue, but they are an older format that uses an outdated and rigid compression process.
They both have their advantages and downsides, but overall it seems that MP4s are the way of the future when it comes to versatility and quality.
At Unison, we take pride in crafting exciting, high-quality sample packs for you to use, and using MP4 either in AAC or ALAC are the best options when it comes to retaining the crisp details we know you love.
The History of Edison Sound Recordings | loc.gov
Sample Rates and Bit Depth in A Nutshell | Mastering the Mix
What Makes An Audio Format Lossless | Life Wire