MP3 and M4A are both audio file formats within the same family for digital audio formats. MP3 was developed by the Fraunhofer Society in Germany with support from different scientists in the US. M4A was developed by the ISO project.
MP3 stands for MPEG-1/MPEG-2 Audio Layer III. The format is essentially a lossy format for audio files. M4A is the audio codec intended as a successor to MP3. Audio-only MPEG-4 files usually have an M4A extension.
However, there are still several audio files or professional recordings you can find in MP3. Clearly, many still prefer that format. M4A, though technically superior, is perhaps not preferred by certain audiophiles. What’s the truth of the matter?
Let’s find out.
What is the Difference Between MP3 and M4A?
As mentioned above, M4A was meant as a successor to MP3. The latter was originally designed for audio only but wasn’t its own format. It was the third layer in an MPEG-1 or MPEG-2 file.
- Other differences between the formats include different levels of popularity. In the MP3 vs M4A debate, it’s clear that MP3 is much more popular among audiophiles since it’s been there for longer. MP3 is used by Google Music, now YouTube Music. However, M4A formats are used by Apple for its iTunes and Apple Music library.
NOTE: As for other streaming services, they use very different file formats to enable less lossy conversion of audio. Spotify uses AAC, SoundCloud Go+ uses AAC, and Amazon Music uses FLAC.
- The extended file format for MP3 is MP2, while the extended form of M4A is QuickTime.
Generally, M4A files are considered better in sound quality to MP3 files, since they have better compression capabilities. However, the specifics of the compression and the processing have to be made more clear.
MP3 and M4A: Which is Better?
While M4A is technically better at compressing digital audio files than MP3, the difference is based on perception. It’s not within human perception to differentiate between two audio formats with nearly equivalent quality of sound.
Advantages of M4A File Format
- M4A files sound better than MP3 files when encoded at the same bit rate since the compression algorithm is better.
- M4A files also have a smaller sample block size of 120/128 samples rather than 192 for changing signals. What this means is that more precise details are sampled within music like tones, different frequencies, etc.
- For stationary signals, M4A files have larger block sizes of 1024 vs MP3 block sizes of 576. This allows for less data to represent a portion of the music which doesn’t have the same complexity.
Advantages of MP3 File Format
- You can share MP3 file formats on all platforms and media players. It’s a nearly universal audio codec which will play on any media player or OS.
- MP3 allows a higher compression of the file size. Hence, you can store more audio files on your device using MP3 compression.
- MP3 audio files are less compressed than M4A files. Hence, they may be able to offer better quality audio at higher sampling bit rates (320 KBPS)
- To Learn More About Sampling Block Sizes and Frequencies Read This Blog –
What Should You Choose: MP3 vs M4A?
Hence, it really depends on your audio setup, OS, and your preferences. If you have the latest equipment and prefer the best sound quality with efficient storage, choose M4A. You should also choose M4A if you have MacOS devices.
However, if you’re not worried too much about lossy compression or about impeccable sound quality, MP3 will do well. Remember that it’s a universal format and can play on any media player or platform.
Other Audio Formats Better than MP3 or M4A
While MP3 or M4A may be the most popular audio formats, they’re not the best. Not even close. There are other audio file formats which are considered superior in terms of audio quality. Here are 3 audio file formats which are considered the gold standard for audio quality.
You may remember WAV files from when you tried to record audio on your computer. It’s one of the first audio file formats ever. It’s considered a staple across all file formats today. They capture and recreate original audio waveforms at the highest quality.
Since WAV files are uncompressed, they don’t get rid of any of the data stored. This provides great versatility when editing or mixing music.
While less common and less well known than WAV, AIFF is an incredibly useful audio file format. It’s lossless, of course, and provides studio grade file recording and playback. It offers a sample rate and bit depth options like WAV files.
AIFF was created by Macintosh in 1988 which allowed for full studio quality audio recording on Apple computers. WAV was created by Microsoft and IBM in 1992. Both are great formats which are played well natively on either OS.
FLAC is a high-resolution single-bit format which was used for recording on audio CDs. It is a very high-quality codec, so it’s not lossless. However, it can still allow you to play very high-quality audio on larger speakers.
FLAC is also royalty free and is considered a preferred format for downloading and storing music for audiophiles. The downside is that it’s not compatible across all platforms. It’s not supported by Apple products nor is it playable on Apple Music.
MP3 and M4A are both very capable file formats for audio storage and playback. Choosing one over the other really shouldn’t matter unless you’re too picky.
Eduardo Perez is a multi-instrumentalist with over 20 years of experience playing instruments such as piano, guitar, ukulele, and bass. Having arranged songs and produced music in a recording studio, he has a wealth of knowledge to share about analyzing songs, composing, and producing. Currently pursuing a Bachelor of Arts degree in Interdisciplinary Musical Studies at Berklee College School of Music. Featured on Entrepreneur.com. Subscribe to his YouTube channel, or follow him on Instagram.