Tuesday, February 22, 2005

Opinion: The MP3 format

A couple of months ago I was travelling on the Jubilee Line to East London to visit a friend when a lady stood in front of me. Dangling from her ears was this white coloured earphones connected to a 3rd generation white iPod.

Just a few minutes before, I was explaining to my girlfriend on the culture of iPod users especially on the tube and how most of them are caught up in the whole iPod hype and trend thing. Anyway, this lady who is in her late 20s had her iPod in her tote. Now there is nothing wrong with that – except what she did later.

For no apparent reason, she removed her iPod from her beige tote. Most people would do that to check the music title, or change a track or increase the volume. But she did not. She held the piece of gadgetry on her hand, in full view of any potential London pod-snatchers.

Amazingly, just opposite her was a Daily Telegraph reader in black suit listening to his iPod. The gentlement probably sensing a need to show his techie side, started showing off his iPod as well. By constantly fidgeting and readjusting his white ear buds he had an excellent excuse to flaunt his expensive toy. Now, the sight really amused me because he was using a fairly feminine iPod Mini.

It got me thinking. Evidently these people seems to be enjoying their music – because why suffer bad music just to show of a piece of kit? Wouldn’t it be cool if we were able to swap tracks? Of course not because the iPod has no means of communicating with other iPods let alone other portable devices.

Back then I had an iPAQ and my girlfriend uses a palmOne Tungsten T3. Both of us would store our tracks on 512Mb SD cards (we both have 1 GB cards now). This would be no problem if the iPod had a memory card slot like some Archos digital music players.

The problem lies with the fact that my music collections are stored in a slightly geeky format called OggVorbis. I could play his tracks (if there is a way to extract them) but he wouldn’t be able to open mine. Similarly if his tracks were bought from Apple iTunes websites, my player couldn’t cope with protected AAC files. Oh, I am sure he has some vanilla MP3s. My device is capable of playing those. But do I really want to?

MP3 was originally developed in 1988. It was adopted as a standard by the Motion Picture Experts Group (Mpeg) as ISO-Mpeg Audio Layer-3. Mpeg is the sort of group that determines the future of mankind and how often we empty our wallets for a new video standard (currently it’s the future of High Definition formats). Back then MP3 was mainly used by spotty nerds who looking for ways to accumulate large quantities of music on their computers. Frequencies that can not be heard by the human ear are dispensed with. That was why MP3 files were small. It was a revolutionary file format.

The mainstream finally caught up with MP3 during the late 1990s when 33k modems made the internet fast enough for file sharing. Most celebrated was a service called Napster which was the most popular file-sharing software. You may remember them being mentioned in certain music presses being sued by a certain aging 'metal' band.

Even when Napster was shut down, MP3 continue to be the digital music format favoured by internet users. A quick search on KaZaa would reveal that the majority of albums traded are encoded in MP3 format. And I blame my fellow ‘techies’ at pretend magazines like T3 and Stuff for this.

Why? Because MP3 was the preferred journalistic term during the rise and fall of the old’ Napster. The term was embedded into the public’s consciousness then. MP3 was ideally technical sounding, yet still easy enough to be understood by the press. MP3 is digital music. And for the past two years, the iPod is its only player.

Of course you and I know that there are far better formats out there that are able to produce tracks at a much higher quality than MP3. And most of them are free. The only saving grace for MP3 is it does not contain any form of digital rights management (DRM).

You see, the way DRM is supposed to work is that a protective copyright layer is inserted into music files. This wrapper contains restrictions that the music labels apply on protected tracks. iPod owners who purchase their music from iTunes will receive their files in AAC format. And hear this – the AAC files, wrapped with Apple’s FairPlay proprietary DRM, can only be played on Apple’s iPod products. Even the number of times a playlist can be burned to a CD is limited to seven. But it is easy to avoid both DRM and MP3.

Pretty much all audio files we purchase in the future will be protected by some form of DRM. Currently the DRM initiatives in place are a complete mess with competing audio formats fighting to be the new MP3. If you purchased your music from MSN SonicSelector, you will need a portable music player that is capable of playing protected WMA files. Worryingly some players that are capable of playing proper WMA won’t play protected WMA files. Other services like Sony’s Connect are even more perplexing. Tracks downloaded from Connect contain fairly liberal DRM restrictions allowing users to copy them up to seven CDs and 15 portable (only Sony or Aiwa) players. It is possible to transfer songs to two other computers but you will lose their portable device transfer and CD burning privilege.

Which is ridiculous! Music labels should be persuaded to change their whole business model of making money (they earn 75 cents for every 99 cent iTunes download). If they don’t, only a second Napster might do the trick.

Personally I would avoid purchasing music from any online download store – for now. iTunes might offer cheaper albums (usually between £7.99 to £9.99) compared to physical albums, you will still be receiving compressed audio files that have already lost some of its quality, contain restrictions and incompatibility with other players. For the extra few quid I believe one should invest in CDs that at least guarantee the highest compatibility with existing and future digital music players. Do not get me wrong, I think the concept of music download store is excellent – but only if they drive down the price and liberated them of DRM.

For archiving, I always advise people to encode their files in the Windows Media Audio 9 lossless format. This format provides the highest fidelity of any digital music format. Of course you are going to need to invest in a pretty large hard drive (200-400Mb per album) but with prices of hard drives as cheap as chips these days it is a none issue.

You can then simply convert your files to smaller files in any format (minus the DRM) using freeware utilities such as dbPowerAMP or the classic AudioGrabber. If you feel that by using WMA you are giving support to the malevolent Microsoft empire then archiving in other formats such as MP4 or OggVorbis is fine. Just make sure you encode them at the highest bitrates as some lost of quality is expected.

The issue of DRM is in the people’s hand now. Consumers must vote with their wallet to make sure music bought today can continue to be played in the future. Personally I feel the issue of Apple locking its iTunes tracks from playing on competitor’s products is to protect its iPod monopoly. This is illegal and must be dealt with to protect consumer rights.

As for MP3, it will stay with us for some time even if it is just the term. I know MP3 has come a long way with LAME MP3 encoder pretty much giving satisfactory results. I do hope that we will not be using this old and cryptic audio format for much longer. I just wish companies like Apple and Creative will sit down and decide to adopt or at least give us the option to the best formats available - or better yet just give us the option to use any formats out there.


Anonymous said...

Hmm.. at least Sony learnt their lessons. I love their NetMDs...which plays native MP3 now :D. I just need someone to donate some money so I can actually afford one :D

Anonymous said...

google for "podcasting"

is that what u're looking for?

format battle will always continue. MP3 is one of those that somehow unite us(most of us anyway).

it's a russian music download site. dunno whether legal or not, but seems like no one try to sue them. their download is based on how much data u download(as in MB or GB) not per song. didn;t try it becuase no paypal.

AAC is actually MPEG2 Layer 3 while MP3 is MPEG1 Layer 3 if not mistaken.

Jon Choo said...

MP3 might be the format of choice currently but like its video counterpart MPG, it will eventually have to be replaced by other codecs.

I am not saying MP3 is completely out of the question but I think as the most popular digital music player out there, Apple should give a choice to their customers on what formats they can use.

But then what do I know about Apple, these are the same people who still forces people that uses Quicktime to use legacy format.

AAC is known as MPEG-2 AAC or MPEG-4 AAC.

The latest LAME MP3 encoder really raises the quality bar as far as MP3 is concern but in my personal tests I find other formats such as OggVorbis and Windows Media Audio 9 sounds better at lower bitrates. My 64kbps OggVorbis collection actually sound as good if not better than my 128kbps LAME MP3 collection!