Tech Trend: An Ode To The MP3
The rumours of MP3’s death have been greatly exaggerated — the termination of the file format doesn’t mean songs on your MP3 player or PC will stop working
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If you’re someone who grew up in the 1980s or 1990s, you’ll probably remember the time you first chanced upon this new-fangled format called MP3. At the time, you had to install something like Winamp to play it, and each song took forever to download over glacial dial-up connections. But hooked we were, and how! The songs sounded vastly better than audio cassettes of the time and thanks to the impressive 12-to-1 compression ratio, didn’t take up much space on our limited hard drives. Perhaps more importantly, they worked across more computers and portable entertainment devices than any other digital audio format, so they were easy to consume and ahem, share!
All those memories came back to me a couple of days ago when I heard of an ominous sounding announcement from the Fraunhofer Institute, the German agency that invented and patented the MP3 audio format, which said that the licensing programme for certain MP3-related patents and software had been terminated. Overnight, think pieces declaring the death of the MP3 format poured in, bidding a swift farewell to the audio file format that gave us portable digital music players, online music stores and the infamous Napster file-sharing service.
So, is the MP3 format really dead, as all these pieces have suggested? Frankly, the rumours of MP3’s death have been greatly exaggerated — the termination of the file format doesn’t mean songs on your MP3 player or PC will stop working. All it means is that companies who sell MP3 devices or sell music online in the MP3 format will no longer have to pay the patent-owning Fraunhofer Institute a licensing fee for each MP3 player or iPod they sell. With the last known patents covering the format finally expiring, the MP3 is finally royalty free, more or less like open source technology.
Maybe this recent kerfuffle is reason enough to ask ourselves — why are we clinging onto a relic of the past (two decades, to be precise) when newer formats exist? You have formats like Advanced Audio Coding (AAC), which produce better audio quality, but the important aspect to consider is that the difference in quality is noticeable only when you’re dealing with music at low bitrates (the number of bits, or the amount of data processed per second), like 32-64 Kbps.
For music streaming over poor mobile networks, AAC makes a lot of sense. At higher bitrates of 160 Kbps and above — music sold on iTunes is 256 Kbps and songs found on the murkier parts of the Internet are typically 320 Kbps — the difference is next to negligible. Sure, you can pick AAC for any new music you get, but it’s not worth re-doing your entire MP3 collection, more so if you’ve personally ripped the songs from your own CDs at anything over 160 Kbps. MP3’s ubiquity and wide platform support across practically every mobile or device OS means if you must distribute one single file type that’s playable everywhere, it still remains the most practical choice.
Add in the fact that AAC is still hindered by existing patents, which somewhat restrict potential uses, and other patent-free formats like Ogg Vorbis just aren’t anywhere near as widely supported, and it’s clear that it will be a fair while for a format as widespread and popular as MP3 to truly die.
In the days since the obituaries appeared, I chanced upon a study which showed that the MP3 compression algorithm falters in its understanding of how the brain processes sounds and as a result, music encoded in the format strengthened neutral and negative emotional characteristics, while weakening positive emotions. So yes, if your music format is subliminally getting you down, maybe then it’s time for a new audio format!
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