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M4A vs MP3 – Which Is Best?

These two audio file formats feel like they’ve been around forever. However, the reality is that they’ve only been with us for 20 and 30 years, respectively. The fact is that when they first came out, they revolutionized the way we listened to music.

In the present day, streaming services now make up an ever-increasing proportion of the way we listen to music. Within this framework, despite the more recent introduction of increasingly lossless formats, M4A and MP3 continue to play an important part in music listening, both on and off streaming platforms.

So, with that being said, what’s the difference between the two, and in the battle of M4A vs MP3, who do I think is the ultimate winner?

Let’s find out…

M4A vs MP3

MP3 Format

The history of MP3 goes back to 1987 in Germany. At this time, a group of German sound engineers at the Fraunhofer Institute were busy researching the possibility of developing a new audio coder with a low bit rate.

The idea behind the project was to produce a file format that could reduce the amount of data required to present a digital version of a piece of music. The vision was that it would be possible to remove large parts of unnecessary data, and thus reduce file size without unduly compromising sound quality. Sadly, although file reduction was possible, it did produce a somewhat “lossy” listening experience.

That’s something we’ll take a look at later…

By 1989 they had achieved their vision, and the MP3 format was established.

By the late-90s, the MP3 format was widely used and became an essential mechanism for the sharing and distribution of online music. As the internet exploded in popularity, the MP3 format grew with it at a ferocious pace. 

In the early days of the internet, the ability to reduce file size was key. This was in the days when computer storage and bandwidth were limited. It, therefore, helped to drive the consumption of music in a whole new way. This firstly took the form of people buying downloaded music in MP3 format. However, it also spawned the beginning of widespread music and copyright piracy through illegal file-sharing companies such as Napster and LimeWire.

Moving on…

Once we moved into a new millennium, the standalone MP3 player joined the party. In 2001 Apple threw its hat into the ring with the revolutionary iPod. Then, subsequently, with the increasing adoption of smartphones, the MP3 format became universal as a means to decode and listen to music.

Though standalone MP3 players are less common these days, there are certainly still plenty to choose from. What’s more, they also have a lot more features than 30 years ago. And even better, a modern MP3 player will even cost you less too!

M4A Format

This was developed in the late 1990s and became popular soon after. It was developed by the Moving Pictures Expert Group (MPEG) and was standardized in 1998. It was quickly picked up by Apple, which adopted its use in 2001 as an integral part of Apple iTunes. 

Coming to market ten years later than the MP3 format, the audio file extension had some distinct benefits over the older format. I’ll be covering those in more detail a little later.

M4A format is part of the MPEG-4 format and is the audio segment of the MPEG-4 file. The video part of the file is made up of the .mp4 extension.  

The audio file can then be either encoded with AAC, which stands for Advanced Audio Coding, or ALAC, which stands for Apple Lossless Audio Codec. Now I can’t help but comment that Apple’s choice of the file name was a bit of an overreach. “Lossless,” it certainly isn’t, and that’s something else I’m now going to take a closer look at.

Compression

There’s no doubt that in the case of either M4A or MP3 files, compression was and still ultimately remains the name of the game. As I’ve touched upon earlier, the ability to compress audio data allows for easier sharing and storage. But at what cost and with regards to M4A vs MP3, who wins the compression war?

Frankly, this is an easy one to answer. The MP3 format reduces file sizes by approximately ten times. Pretty impressive. But, M4A compresses at an even higher rate, so in this instance, it’s a clear winner.

Where sharing and storage capacity are key concerns, M4A is the better file format. However, compatibility and sound quality are additional factors to consider. So, let’s take a look at each of those in turn.

Compatibility

Compatibility

This is where MP3 has the edge over M4A as a format. MP3 was the first format to be adopted and quickly became the standard audio coder. The early entry into the market has made MP3 compatible with just about every single device you can think of.

These days, although M4A is increasingly popular and accessible via most devices and programs, it’s not universal. It could be that you have M4A files that are not supported by your mobile device or player. So, where you require high levels of compatibility, the MP3 format is the winner.

One final point on this subject is that it’s possible to convert an M4A file to an MP3 file. There are plenty of free audio converters available though I think that this paid-for audio converter offers one of the best and most comprehensive programs. 

Sound Quality

Strangely, to a lot of us, sound quality is not necessarily the most important part of the equation when it comes to modern-day listening. This is because the way music is listened to has changed significantly for a large number of us. Sad but true!

Whilst listening to music used to be an activity in its own right, these days, people increasingly hear music as an adjunct to a primary activity. Think of all the people with their headphones in when walking in the park or sitting on the train and reading a book on their daily commutes. As such, although the audio quality is, of course, still important, it becomes less so than when it’s the sole focus.

However…

…it’s still great to get the best possible sound quality squeezed into the smallest possible file size. So, what exactly is the difference between MP3 and M4A as far as sound quality is concerned?

Firstly, it has to be said that both formats are lossy. That’s to say that in the process of compression, a certain amount of information is lost. When compressing the files, both formats attempt to only lose sound that cannot be heard by the human ear. 

However, in reality, there’s a detectable level of audio deterioration. This is more the case for MP3 as opposed to M4A files. When it comes to sound quality, M4A files not only do a better job of compression but also produce smaller files with a better Bit rate.

Where listening quality is more important than compatibility, the best option has to be M4A. And for those of you looking for a standalone MP4 player, the price certainly won’t break the bank, which is nice!

Looking for a quality MP2 player or more info on music?

No problem at all; simply check out our reviews of the Best Waterproof MP3 Player you can buy in 2022.

Or, for more audio tech comparisons, take a look at our informative articles on Bitstream vs PCM432 Hz vs 440 Hz, or Mono vs Stereo

Or, if you’re thinking of changing your streaming provider, it’s time to compare Spotify vs PandoraAmazon Music HD vs Spotify PremiumApple Music vs SpotifySpotify vs DeezerTidal vs Spotify, or to help you with your decision, find out How Much Do Spotify and Other Steaming Platforms Pay per Stream?

M4A vs MP3 – Final Thoughts

The bottom line is that although both are great audio file formats, in the battle of M4A versus MP3, I come firmly down on the side of M4A. Although MP3 files are a clear winner in terms of compatibility, I believe that the better audio quality of M4A files gives them the edge.

The good news, though, is that in any event, with the use of an audio converter, you’re not necessarily tied to any single audio file type. That means that any existing music collection is safe. 

Happy listening.

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About Jennifer Bell

Jennifer is a freelance writer from Montana. She holds a BA in Creative Writing and English, as well as an Associate of Applied Science in Computer Games and Simulation Design.

Her passions include guitar, bass, ukulele, and piano, as well as a range of classical instruments she has been playing since at school. She also enjoys reading fantasy and sci-fi novels, yoga, eating well, and spending time with her two cats, Rocky and Jasper.

Jennifer enjoys writing articles on all types of musical instruments and is always extending her understanding and appreciation of music. She also writes science fiction and fantasy short stories for various websites and hopes to get her first book published in the very near future.

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