The mp3 file format has been the go-to format for digital audio files since the early 90s. Its high-quality sound but the comparatively small file size is what made it such a hit, and virtually every device, system, and media player support it.
In this guide, we'll deep dive into the realms of mp3, going back in time for a brief history of the format, outlining its advantages and disadvantages, and looking at alternatives to the popular format.
Mp3 is a lossy file format, which means that some of the sound quality is dropped to reduce the file size. This usually doesn't have much of an impact on what you hear, as the difference is too small for the human ear to notice. The file size, though, is significantly smaller, making it easier for streaming online, uploading and downloading, and storing on mobile phones and computers.
The name mp3 stands for "MPEG-1 Audio Layer 3". MPEG-1 is a popular file format which stands for "Motion Picture Experts Group" - the group that developed compression systems for video files (more on that shortly).
The 3 (audio layer 3) is a specific audio compression format. The compression ratio is 12:1, which means the compressed file is 1/12 the size of the original file.
Mp3 was invented and developed by a German company called Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft. They began researching the concept more than 35 years ago!
Let's take a look at a timeline of mp3 history:
1987 - The Fraunhofer Institut in Germany began researching high-quality, low-bit-rate audio coding.
1988 - The Moving Picture Experts Group (MPEG) was established to develop international standards for compression, decompression, processing, and coded representation of moving pictures and audio.
1989 - Fraunhofer received a German patent for mp3.
1992 - Fraunhofer's audio coding algorithm was integrated into MPEG's original MPEG-1 video compression standard.
1993 - MPEG-1 standard was published. This included three layers for audio encoding, and the third - mp3 - quickly became the most popular.
1994 - MPEG-2 (which is now used for digital video broadcasting and DVDs) was developed and published.
1996 - A United States patent for mp3 was issued.
1998 - Fraunhofer began enforcing their patent rights and charging licensing fees.
1999 - A record company called SubPop was the first to distribute music tracks in the mp3 format.
1999 - The portable mp3 players that we came to know and love made their debut.
And the rest is history!
Reduced file sizes make mp3 ideal for quick online streaming and easy sharing.
Uploading and downloading mp3 files is quick and easy too thanks to their small file sizes.
Small file sizes mean less storage space is taken up. That's particularly important for portable devices where storage space is limited.
The mp3 format is compatible with just about every computer system, media player, and video-sharing platform.
Mp3 files can be compressed to different sizes - from 320 kbps right down to 128 kbps.
You can add metadata, also known as ID3 tags, to mp3 files to name, describe, catalogue, and indicate ownership or copyright. Among other things, this makes it easier to search for and locate audio files in search engines.
Last but not least, mp3 is a free audio format, so you don't have to pay for patents. You can use it free of charge for your commercial interests, whether that's publishing a podcast or distributing your own music.
There's only one real disadvantage to mp3, and that's reduced audio quality. While this reduced sound quality is generally inaudible, it might be more noticeable on high-end headphones or speakers.
Bitrate is the average amount of data required per second of audio, and it determines the audio resolution of an mp3. The higher the number of kilobits per second (kbps), the higher the quality and the larger the file size.
When it comes to the best mp3 bitrate, this really depends on your ears and what you're using it for.
Most download services offer mp3s at 192 kbps or 256 kbps. These resolutions strike the perfect balance between sound quality and file size.
Mp3s at 128 kbps are generally considered the lowest acceptable level of sound quality. Compressing much more than this can completely flatten the sound.
If in doubt, start big, as you can always compress a large file into a smaller one, but you can't restore a small file back to a higher quality.
Mp3 is a great all-rounder, but if reduced audio quality is a dealbreaker, then there are some alternatives:
WAV files are lossless, uncompressed audio files, which means they retain all the original sound, but with large file sizes. This is an ideal alternative to mp3 if the audio is going to be played through high-quality speakers or headphones.
M4a files feature either lossless or lossy compression, but in both cases, they retain original audio quality but with smaller file sizes. The drawback is that M4a has poor compatibility with non-Apple devices.
FLAC is a lossless audio format, but it can reduce the file size by 50-70%. The file sizes are still larger than mp3s though, making them harder to share and less ideal for mobile devices.
Find out more about how to choose the best audio file format.
It's quick and easy to convert audio and video files to mp3 using the Transcribe mp3 converter. Simply upload your file, click convert, and we'll work our magic!
Written By Katie Garrett