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Thread: MP3 vs. AAC vs. WMA

  1. #1
    New Romantic ydejin's Avatar
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    MP3 vs. AAC vs. WMA

    Does anyone have any thoughts on how these three formats compare? What format do y'all store your music in (and why?). Also what sort of bit rates are you using?

    I just acquired an iPod. Right now my music is all in WMA. So obviously that's a problem. I'm trying to decide if I should rerip everything to AAC or MP3. Or alternatively since I'm planning to use the iPod mostly for use at the gym or out running, maybe leave the bulk of my PC collection in WMA and then rip some albums specifically to AAC or MP3 for the iPod.

    Apologies if this has been already covered recently. I tried to do a search on the Qt3 archive and the search engine tells me that the words AAC, MP3, and WMA are all too short to do a search on.

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    There are programs ( Anapod Explorer and Media Monkey among others I'm sure) that handle library/music management for ipods which will automatically convert files from your library into ipod-playable formats when you move them to the ipod. As long as there is no DRM that should save you the hassle of re-ripping everything. The downside is that these programs cost money.

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    Mp3 is about Freedom! AAC and WMA are Big Brother.

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    AAC is a great format. I wish it were in more common use than just inside the DRM wrapper from iTunes. For a long while I ripped everything into AAC (unprotected) at around 192kbps. The received wisdom is that WMA or AAC at any given bit rate sounds as good as MP3 at the next highest bit rate. (192 AAC sounds as good as 256 MP3.)

    But then my buddies started complaining whenever we're swap albums because they couldn't play the .m4a files in their commie, open source music softwares, so I just gave up and started ripping everything at 192kbps VBR MP3. To be honest, I can rarely tell the difference.

    Of course, converting all that WMA into MP3 (even iTunes will do it, not just Media Monkey and Anapod) will sound worse than an MP3 encoded right from the source. Transcoding is balls.

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    I'm not talking about transcoding the entire library, I'm talking about on-the-fly transcoding whenever a file is transferred to the ipod so that the library can stay WMA.

  6. #6
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    At a certain point you can't hear quality differences anymore, and it becomes all about the hardware and software. And you can't beat MP3s for compatibility with everything. Joel's 192kbps VBR setting seems to be the standard, but you'll have to do some blind listening tests to reassure yourself that that level of quality works for you.

    Right now I'm in the middle of ripping all my music into a lossless format, though, so I never have to mess with my CDs again, and I'll transcode to a lossy format from from there. Right now I'm using Apple lossless, since there is no good FLAC ripper for the Mac. Feel free to laugh if using Apple's proprietary format instead of some commie software ends up biting me in the ass in a few years.

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    Slightly off-topic, but my collection is almost entirely in 192kbps VBR mp3 as well. However, my iRiver iFP-790 doesn't like VBR for some reason (non-VBR mp3s play fine). Is there an application out there (preferably free or cheap) that can convert my collection to something of similar quality that my iRiver won't hate? Or should I just bite the bullet and get a new player? Thanks.

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    New Romantic
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    If the problem is that the iRiver just randomly shuts off on you, then it's because of a firmware bug when VBR and ID3v2 tags are combined. I ran into that problem with my iFP-799, used iTunes to convert the tags back to ID3v1.3, and now it's fine.
    Last edited by Fugitive; 10-04-2006 at 11:42 AM.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Midnight Son
    Mp3 is about Freedom!
    MP3 is about licensing fees. Ogg Vorbis is about freedom.

  10. #10
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    Quote Originally Posted by Zylon
    MP3 is about licensing fees. Ogg Vorbis is about freedom.
    The freedom to have your music in a format that hardly any music players support. Actually that doesn't sound like much freedom at all.

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    New Romantic
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    Quote Originally Posted by Midnight Son
    Mp3 is about Freedom! AAC and WMA are Big Brother.
    Uh, no.

    WMA and AAC do no inherently have any DRM in them. You can add DRM on top, but both formats are available for ripping without DRM. Media Player will rip to WMA without DRM, and iTunes will rip to AAC without DRM.

    Do the formats need to be licensed? Yes. Device manufacturers need to license those codecs in order to support them, and software manufacturers have to license encoders. Believe it or not, MP3 legally requires a license for those same things. And in the case of WMA, the license is CHEAPER than MP3's.

    As for quality:

    Not to plug my own work, but it's relevant here - http://www.extremetech.com/article2/...1560783,00.asp

    A couple years ago I did a feature where I make my own rips of various music styles and performed single-blind tests (it wasn't possible to do double-blind, but still, the people rating the quality didn't know what they were listening to). I compared MP3, WMA9, AAC, and Vorbis. In addition to blind listening tests by a bunch of self-proclaimed audiophiles around Ziff and their friends, I did spectrum analysis.

    The article is over two years old, but honestly not much has changed in the audio codec format wars since then. AAC is still great for iPod users, WMA for people who have anything else. Both are vastly superior to MP3, even if you take 10 times as long to encode your MP3 with a really super awesome encoder like LAME.

  12. #12
    New Romantic
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    I rip everything to AAC since it gives better sound than an equivalent MP3 and is less platform restrictive than WMA. I wouldn't care about someone not being able to play it back (and I sure as hell wouldn't adopt a lower quality process just to appease them), since by definition their "can't" is actually "won't".

    I remember that article from back when you first wrote it, Jason. Good stuff.

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    Are you wanting to rip stuff purely for playback, or to have digital backups of your music? If its purely for playback then I would vote for MP3, since its the most widely used and you probably won't be able to hear the difference on earphones. If you want digital backups then obviously something lossless. I have everything ripped to FLAC, since all my music-playing devices support that format, and I can rip to MP3 if I want. FLAC is no good for iPods though.

  14. #14
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    I've never personally done so, but won't iTunes auto-transcode your WMAs for you if you try to transfer them to your iPod? The purists will kick and moan, but if the quality is good enough for you, it seems like the low-effort solution. Sure beats re-ripping everything.

    Going forward, if you're sold on the iPod as your primary music device, it sure seems like AAC is the best for you in terms of quality/hassle ratio.

    (Disclosure doesn't seem necessary, but I worked on WMA at Microsoft).

    Geoff

  15. #15
    New Romantic mono's Avatar
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    If you're an audiophile, then take your pick of WMA or AAC. If you want your music to run on any portable, any streaming media player, any computer, use MP3. For me, considering how I listen to music, the portability of the format is more important than the fidelity.

  16. #16
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    Quote Originally Posted by mono
    If you're an audiophile, then take your pick of WMA or AAC. If you want your music to run on any portable, any streaming media player, any computer, use MP3. For me, considering how I listen to music, the portability of the format is more important than the fidelity.
    Let's fix that:

    If you're an audiophile, you won't come anywhere near an MP3/AAC/WMA player. And if you did, you'd be using FLAC or Apple Lossless and still complaining about the lack of fidelity compared to your vinyl on your $20k record player and hi-fi.

    If you're sane and care about audio quality, just make sure you use high-bitrate MP3s like 256+ VBR. There's been double blind "golden ear" tests where with good playback equipment (good DA convertors, for instance) - the golden ears can't tell the difference.

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    New Romantic
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    Quote Originally Posted by ciparis
    I rip everything to AAC since it gives better sound than an equivalent MP3 and is less platform restrictive than WMA. I wouldn't care about someone not being able to play it back (and I sure as hell wouldn't adopt a lower quality process just to appease them), since by definition their "can't" is actually "won't".
    I'm curious why you feel AAC is less platform restrictive than WMA. Is that just for the devices you own, or do you get a sense of that for the general device market?

    It's been my experience that, outside of iPods, damn near everything plays back WMA. Not everything supports the DRM, particularly subscription stuff, but if you make DRM-less WMA I personally have found support almost universal, save for Apple. There seem to be a lot fewer digital devices (portable players, cell phones, CD Discman type things, etc) that support AAC.

    Quote Originally Posted by Backov
    If you're sane and care about audio quality, just make sure you use high-bitrate MP3s like 256+ VBR. There's been double blind "golden ear" tests where with good playback equipment (good DA convertors, for instance) - the golden ears can't tell the difference.
    Do you have a source for that? I'm genuinely curious, because not only have my own blind tests found that there is a difference on MP3 (even at higher bitrates - that high pass filter never goes away), but I've done a little research into it and I've never seen the study that suggests it. I'm not calling you a liar, I just want to read the study. :)

  18. #18
    New Romantic
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    Quote Originally Posted by Jason Cross
    I'm curious why you feel AAC is less platform restrictive than WMA. Is that just for the devices you own, or do you get a sense of that for the general device market?

    It's been my experience that, outside of iPods, damn near everything plays back WMA.
    The thing is, damn near everything is an iPod. It doesn't really matter that 165 manufacturers have made competing devices; the majority of devices that people actually own and use play AAC natively. Thankfully they also tend to be the best (or among the best, depending on your sensibilities) players, so it works out okay. It's a fairly commonly supported format on cell phones as well (my samsung and motorola phones both handle my library without a hitch).

    That said, I was speaking more of computing platforms when I wrote that. iTunes is native on both the Mac and the PC. WMA/V has long been a problem on the Mac (with grudging, poorly updated semi-support over the years... sorta), and if you wanted seamless interoperability regardless of which desktop you booted up, AAC has been the clear winner.

  19. #19
    World's End Supernova
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    I found that a ripping to a high quality VBR Lame MP3 was noticably better than the equivalent high quality AAC file.

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    I likes me some OGG. I also use Rockbox, so I may not be a typical user.

  21. #21
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    Quote Originally Posted by Zylon
    MP3 is about licensing fees. Ogg Vorbis is about freedom.
    Name one person that's paid a licensing fee?

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    Quote Originally Posted by Jason Cross

    Do you have a source for that? I'm genuinely curious, because not only have my own blind tests found that there is a difference on MP3 (even at higher bitrates - that high pass filter never goes away), but I've done a little research into it and I've never seen the study that suggests it. I'm not calling you a liar, I just want to read the study. :)
    I would love to give it to you. I read it several years ago on some site connected with LAME and can't google it up any more. But it was a full on double blind test with a bunch of audio engineers, and I beleive the conclusion was 320kbps CBR == CD. It was done by some magazine. I'm not sure where the hell you would find it these days, maybe somewhere on the LAME site?

  23. #23
    New Romantic
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    Quote Originally Posted by Midnight Son
    Name one person that's paid a licensing fee?
    Apple, Creative, Toshiba, Sandisk...pretty much every device maker that supports MP3.

    Microsoft, Apple, and every other major software manufacturer with MP3 ripping/encoding software have paid a licensing fee.

    The end user doesn't pay, just like they don't pay for the WMA/AAC license. The people distributing the commercial software and/or device have to pay it.

  24. #24
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    On a 10k watt system you really CAN tell the difference.

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    Quote Originally Posted by bago
    On a 10k watt system you really CAN tell the difference.
    Yes because more power = more clarity. Uh huh. That's why all the double blind listening tests are performed in front of walls of sound instead of with high quality reference headphones and monitors.

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