What is MP3? Should you consider switching to MP4? Uncover the difference between MP3 and MP4, and learn when each format is most suitable for your needs. Get all the answers you need right here.

Exploring Digital Sound: MP3 vs. MP4

Sound is an integral part of our everyday experiences, influencing our emotions and behaviors. For instance, listening to upbeat music can boost our motivation during exercise sessions, while soothing audiobooks can provide a sense of calm and relaxation after a busy day.

With advancements in technology, the formats for storing and playing digital sound have evolved significantly. Among these, the MP3 format has become incredibly popular. The MP3 format has been around for over 25 years and has become deeply ingrained in our understanding of digital music.

Despite its name suggesting a simple upgrade from MP3, the MP4 format is more complex and serves a different purpose. This raises questions about whether MP4 is better than MP3, whether people should switch from using MP3, and what the actual differences between the two formats are.

While MP4 might seem like a direct successor to MP3, the reality is more nuanced. Understanding the differences and advantages of MP4 compared to MP3 is essential for making an informed choice about which format to use

In this article

What is an MP3?

MP3 stands for MPEG-1 Audio Layer 3. It is a format designed to store audio information digitally while significantly reducing file size compared to the formats used by CDs.

MP3 was developed to create smaller digital audio files without losing much of the sound quality that listeners expect. This was important for making audio files easier to store and share, especially when storage space was limited.

MP3s achieve smaller file sizes through a process called “lossy compression”. This involves selectively removing parts of the audio data that the human ear is less likely to notice. By focusing on preserving the most perceptually important parts of the audio, MP3 files maintain acceptable sound quality while reducing size.

This process is similar to how JPEG files compress images. Just as JPEGs reduce image file sizes by removing data that doesn’t significantly affect the perceived quality, MP3s do the same with audio.

As a result of lossy compression, MP3 files can be about one-tenth the size of a CD audio track. Despite this reduction, most listeners find the audio quality of MP3s to be satisfactory.

In short, MP3s use a clever compression technique to create smaller audio files without a noticeable loss in sound quality for most people. This efficiency made MP3 a popular format for digital music, especially when storage capacity was a major concern.

Are all MP3 files identical and have same quality?

No, all MP3 files are not same and do not have same quality. They depend on these factors

  1. Bitrate and Sample Rate
  2. Bitrate Range and Quality
  3. File Size vs. Quality Trade-off

Bitrate and Sample Rate

The sample rate is the number of audio samples taken per second to create the digital file. Most MP3s use a sample rate of 44.1 kHz, matching the sample rate used for CDs to ensure compatibility and quality. Bitrate, on the other hand, refers to the amount of data processed per second of audio and is measured in kilobits per second (kbps). It greatly influences both the file size and the audio quality of the MP3.

Bitrate Range and Quality

At very low bitrates, such as 8kbps, the audio quality is poor, akin to AM radio with bad reception. Conversely, at high bitrates, such as 320kbps, the audio quality is very close to CD quality, and most listeners would struggle to distinguish between the MP3 and the original CD audio.

Lower bitrates result in smaller file sizes but lower audio quality. Historically, 128kbps was a common choice because it offered a reasonable balance between file size and sound quality, making it suitable for early MP3 players like iPods. Today, storage capacity is less of a concern, and most digital music players support higher bitrates, including Variable Bitrate (VBR) MP3s. VBR dynamically adjusts the bitrate depending on the complexity of the audio at any given moment, optimizing both quality and file size.

File Size vs. Quality Trade-off

In the early days of MP3s, when storage space was limited, achieving a balance between file size and acceptable audio quality was crucial. This led to the popularity of 128kbps MP3s, which were small enough to store many songs on devices with limited storage while maintaining decent sound quality.

In short, the quality and size of an MP3 file are determined by the chosen bitrate and sample rate. Higher bitrates provide better sound quality but result in larger files, while lower bitrates reduce file size at the cost of audio fidelity. Advances in storage technology have made it feasible to use higher bitrates without worrying as much about file size, leading to better overall audio quality in modern digital music players.

What is an MP4?

MP4, short for MPEG-4 Part 14, functions as a digital multimedia container format. Unlike the MP3 format, tailored specifically for audio, MP4 serves as a versatile container capable of housing diverse types of media, including audio, video, subtitles, and other data.

As a container, MP4 has the capability to accommodate multiple types of media within a single file. This flexibility sometimes causes ambiguity regarding the actual content of an MP4 file. Determining the specific content of an MP4 file solely based on its name can be challenging due to its versatility. For instance, an MP4 file named “Adventure.mp4” could contain a movie, its soundtrack, or other related content.

To offer clarity, certain file extensions are commonly associated with MP4 files. The .m4a extension typically indicates MP4 files containing audio, while .m4v often signifies video content. However, adherence to these conventions may vary.

To accurately discern the content of an MP4 file, it is necessary to open it using an MP4-compatible media player or examine its contents directly.

In contrast to MP3, which primarily serves as an audio format, MP4 provides broader capabilities owing to its container nature. While MP3 utilizes lossy compression exclusively for audio, MP4 supports various audio codecs, allowing for flexibility in preserving audio quality

Commonly used audio codecs for MP4 files include AAC (Advanced Audio Coding) and Apple’s ALAC (Apple Lossless Audio Codec). AAC offers efficient compression with better audio quality retention compared to MP3, while ALAC provides lossless compression suitable for preserving high-quality audio.

MP3 vs MP4: Which one is better?

AAC-encoded MP4 audio files is considered to provide better sound quality than MP3, especially at similar file sizes, because it’s a newer compression technology. So, if sound quality is your top priority, AAC may be the better choice.

However, compatibility is an important factor to consider. Older portable music players may not support AAC-encoded MP4 files. MP3, on the other hand, is widely supported by virtually all digital music players, making it a safer choice if you’re unsure about compatibility.

At higher bitrates, such as 320kbps, the difference in sound quality between MP3 and AAC may not be noticeable to most listeners.

If you’re archiving your music collection, using ALAC (Apple Lossless Audio Codec) in an MP4 container is recommended over MP3. ALAC is a lossless format, meaning it preserves all the original audio data without any loss in quality. This ensures that you retain the highest fidelity of your music files. Additionally, ALAC allows you to create smaller, more portable versions in MP3 or AAC formats when needed, without losing any quality.

It’s important to note that once an MP3 file is created (and audio information is discarded in the compression process), converting it to MP4/ALAC won’t recover the lost information. In fact, converting an MP3 to MP4/ALAC may result in a larger file size, without any improvement in quality.

In short, if you prioritize sound quality and compatibility with older devices, MP3 may be the better choice. However, for archiving purposes and maintaining the highest audio fidelity, ALAC-encoded MP4 files are recommended.

When you should use MP3 over MP4?

MP3 is primarily suited for scenarios where you’re solely concerned with distributing audio content without any accompanying visuals. This makes it an excellent choice for music tracks, podcasts, audiobooks, and similar audio-only formats. Due to its widespread support across various devices and platforms, MP3 ensures that your content can be accessed and enjoyed by a broad audience without compatibility issues.

In situations where bandwidth or storage constraints are a concern, MP3’s smaller file size can be a significant advantage. This makes it preferable for distributing audio files over the internet, especially in regions with limited internet connectivity or where data usage is a concern. Additionally, if you’re managing large libraries of audio files and need to conserve storage space, MP3’s compression efficiency makes it a practical choice for storing and organizing your audio content.

When you should use MP4 over MP3?

MP4 shines when your content involves both audio and video elements. As a container format, MP4 allows you to encapsulate both audio and video streams within a single file, ensuring synchronization between them. This versatility makes MP4 ideal for a wide range of multimedia content, including movies, video podcasts, tutorials, presentations, and more. By opting for MP4, you can deliver a cohesive viewing experience that combines both visual and auditory elements seamlessly.

Furthermore, MP4 supports advanced audio formats such as AAC (Advanced Audio Coding), which can provide superior sound quality compared to MP3 at similar bitrates. This makes MP4 a preferred choice for scenarios where preserving audio fidelity is paramount, such as professional audio productions or projects where sound quality is a key consideration. Additionally, MP4’s support for features like subtitles, multiple audio tracks, chapters, and synchronized metadata offers greater flexibility for content creators seeking to enhance their multimedia offerings.

Further Reading