Finding the right format

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1 April 2005 | 0

A rancorous feud between Apple and Real Networks over technology that allows Real’s online music store customers to play tunes on their iPods says something of the complexity of the digital music market and the fact that there are a number of formats being pushed to consumers. As of yet, no de facto music format has emerged.

Real triggered the conflict with Apple by announcing in August that its Realplayer 10.5 software would let its users in the US download songs from the Real music store and play them on the iPod. That made the service compatible with Apple’s proprietary AAC format and loosened Apple’s grip on the iPod which providing a rival to Apple’s iTunes music service and software. This is a positive step for the industry but there are still a number of players and formats that are incompatible with each other and the onslaught of digital rights management technology will only serve to make the situation more complex. Understanding the formats and the portable players and music services that support them is critical if you want to get a handle on what digital music can do for you.

Enter AAC
Apple pushes its AAC format. Music that is ripped from a CD to be played back on an iPod is compressed and converted into the AAC format in Apple’s iTunes application. Short for Advanced Audio Coding, AAC boasts higher quality than the MP3 format and requires 30% data to do so. The Apple iPod will also play music files encoded in MP3 format.

Make yours MP3
MP3 is the world’s most popular digital music format, developed by the Fraunhofer Institute in Germany in 1992, it compresses WAV files from a music CD to an eighth of their size – 4Mbytes in fact – and allows you to listen to the tracks from your hard disk with near-CD sound quality. All of iRiver’s digital music players support music encoded in the MP3 format. They also support the second most popular format and Microsoft’s offering to the market – Windows Media Audio abbreviated as WMA. This support for multiple formats gives the iRiver players a clear technical advantage over Apple and its iPod.

 

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Microsoft’s offering 
Windows Media Audio can compress music at a higher rate than MP3 and is the file format that is supported by Ireland’s only online music service – the Eircom Music Club ( club). The great advantage of formats like MP3 and WMA is that unlike AAC, music encoded in them can be played on several digital music players. They really are the formats that you can do the most with. If you use the iPod and have music in WMA format, then you will have to re-encode them to AAC, to get the iPod to read them. It’s a real hassle.

Sounds good
If sound quality is very important to you as it should be for any audiophile worth their salt, then look for the variable bit rate option when you are encoding music in a new format. VBR changes bit rates based on the complexity of the sound being encoded – simple parts are encoded at lower rates while detailed sections get a higher rate. We recommend that you encode MP3 at 160kbit/sec and AAC at 128Kbit/sec for best results. When you use MP3 or WMA or indeed the open source-produced Ogg Vorbis formats, you are compressing music so you are getting rid of data. This results in a loss of quality. This doesn’t really effect an appreciation of rock or dance music, but certainly, lovers of classical music will notice the difference in quality between a composition in MP3 and one from a CD.

Lossless codecs
Audiophiles who are concerned about this degradation in quality, should consider using a lossless codec that doesn’t toss out data. The options include Free Lossless Audio Codec (FLAC) or Monkey’s Audio. While these codecs don’t work on most portable players, they do shrink files with little perceptible quality loss. FLAC converts a CD or WAV music file to half its original size, but you might be better sticking to MP3 or WMA, if you consider that a full quality CD-based WAV song takes up over 40Mbytes, the FLAC-encoded version takes up 20Mbytes and then MP3 or WMA will bring it right down to size at 4Mbytes. This is the real advantage of these formats – they compress CD music so you can put that music on your computer’s hard disk. Once your music is encoded in one of these formats, it is going to take up a lot less space on your hard disk. A full CD would normally take up 400Mbytes, get it into your hard disk or on to a portable player and it takes up a 1/10th of that.

Support for several formats
Our advice on formats: get a portable music player that supports several and ensure that the player plays back music in the MP3, WMA and Ogg Vorbis formats above all others. You will also find that a lot of players support FLAC – it’s a nice format to get extra quality from your digital files but it’s not an absolute essential to have.

07/02/05

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