Tech Talk
September 22, 2006
MP3, OGG, Vorbis, Flac… Eh?

Ever since computers picked up the handy ability to play decent-sounding music, fans have overwhelmingly defaulted to the MP3 format for audio files because it sounds pretty good, doesn’t take up much space and (perhaps most importantly) works with more devices than any other digital audio format.

It may seem as if the venerable MP3 standard is here to stay, but it faces attack from a number of angles. First, it doesn’t sound as good, byte-for-byte, as files purchased from iTunes Music Store (in the AAC format) or any of the Microsoft-compliant stores.{{more}}

Second, the CD rippers/encoders that most people use – iTunes and Windows Media Player – have encouraged users to rip to AAC and WMA over the years. Third, only one major online music store, eMusic, offers songs in the MP3 format, and it lacks most major releases.

Fourth, folks who love MP3 for its wide compatibility can now choose from preferable open-source alternatives such as Ogg Vorbis.

What Digital Audio Formats exist? Which is Best?

What follows is a brief description of some of the various formats to help you choose the ideal format for your digital music collection: CDA: CDA (CD Audio) files are the uncompressed files that appear on a purchased Audio CD. They can be played by most players, or ripped to compressed formats to save disk space.

WAV: WAV files are uncompressed and as such, are usually only used for audio tracks that are not longer than a few seconds. Some users with plenty of hard drive space will convert Audio CDs Tracks to wav files because they are almost universally supported, however, generally, this is not an efficient use of hard drive space.

MP3: MP3 is the most ubiquitous lossy compression format, and MP3 files can be played by most portable digital audio players and many DVD players. MP3s are often ripped at 128 Kbps, achieving decent quality, although the discerning audiophile will often notice artifacts at this bitrate and choose to encode them at a higher bitrate (160 or 192 Kbps).

WMA: WMA (Windows Media Audio) files use a Microsoft format, that, like MP3, is usually lossy (there is a lossless version available, but it is rarely used). It isn’t as ubiquitous as MP3, due in part to the fact that it is perceived as a proprietary format and is supported on fewer devices and DVDs than MP3. On the positive side, though, WMA files have noticeably better quality than MP3 files encoded at equivalent bitrates.

OGG: OGG is a relatively new format, that like MP3/WMA, is lossy, but is better in quality compared to MP3 files encoded at similar bitrates. What distinguishes OGG from MP3 and WMA is that the format is an open specification and may be distributed freely, meaning that any company can use it at no cost. Few devices support OGG, however, this seems to be gradually changing. For best quality, OGG files are generally encoded at a setting of quality=5 which results in bitrates of ~140-150 Kbps (OGG only uses as much bandwidth as is required).

MPC: MPC is a lossy compressed format that is considered to be one of the best codecs at moderate to high bitrates. At lower bandwidths of 128 Kbps, any benefits over OGG or WMA are less clear. The most significant downside to MPC is that as of today, no hardware devices or portable audio players support the format.

FLAC: FLAC is becoming increasingly popular as a lossless compressed format. It can store a complete CD in ~1/3 the space of a standard CD without any loss in audio fidelity.

What is DRM?

Some of the formats described above may be encoded with digital rights management (DRM) information. Specifically, WMA tracks that are purchased from online music stores can be encoded with different versions of Microsoft’s DRM, while tracks purchased from the iTunes music store are encoded with Apple’s Fairplay DRM.

In general, tracks encoded with DRM should be avoided because they can restrict your ability to use them as you see fit – even after you’ve paid for them. For instance, you may wish to copy the tracks to your MP3 player, however, the DRM might prevent you from doing so. On the other hand, DRM allows some companies to ‘rent’ music for far less than the cost of purchasing it, and such subscriptions may be worthwhile, depending on your needs.

The iPOD and Apple

There’s a lot Apple got right about the iPod (and iTunes, which is needed to enjoy and get the most out of an iPod). The user interface is simple to learn, elegant in its simplicity, and (mostly) robust in its implementation. iTunes was one of the first MP3 players to get the basics right – no fad things like UI skins, no burping on rips, excellent integration with an accurate and deep online database, and so on. It has a simple to learn UI, is (almost) elegant in its simplicity, and well-behaved in its implementation.

So what’s wrong with this picture? While the iPod is a nice product, it’s nowhere near perfect. The first issue is batteries. If you use an iPod regularly and as intended (which I do), you’ll very quickly wonder where the replaceable battery is. To make matters worse, Digital Rights Management (DRM) implemented in audio files can cause as much as a 25 percent reduction in battery life.

Secondly you are locked-in to one computer, the machine that your iPod is linked to is the only one you can copy music to (without the use of third party software) which is really annoying if you want to give your friend that new remix you made.

While the iPod itself has some very nice features, the lack of an FM Tuner is somewhat disappointing, many competing players have this feature and even voice recording which can be at a better price-point than Apple’s player.

MICROSOFT has unveiled its wireless-enabled Zune digital music and video player, scheduled to go on sale this Christmas in competition with Apple’s iPod. The player offers a 30GB hard drive, comes in black, white and brown (Yes, brown), and allows users to wirelessly share music with nearby devices.

As of writing this article, the Sandisk corporation recently introduced its Sansa c200 series, a flash memory-based MP3 player that is loaded with high-end features such as a bright LCD color screen and a microSD expansion slot. The c200 is priced below US$100 and will be sold in 1GB and 2GB capacities.

This is really just a drop in the bucket as far as mobile music players and compressed audio formats go, but it should be a step in the right direction. For more information regarding audio formats and players you can log onto the CNET website MP3 audio section at “”