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Tuesday
May132003

MP3 & Critical Mass

iPod & iTunesBeen having some good discussions with a few Mac friends who are both very interested in the new iTunes Music Store and more particularly, the AAC (Advanced Audio Codec) format. This is the format Apple is using (with DRM features enabled) to distribute $0.99 tracks. AAC can also be used to burn personal music files from CDs, using Quicktime 6.2.

Matt is currently in the process of converting his entire music collection from MP3 to AAC, mainly because it takes so much less space on his drive. In our last discussion about his conversion Matt estimated he might save upwards of 10GB on his drive going to AAC from MP3. That's nothing to sneeze at!

Another friend, Andy, is also contemplating conversion of his music collection to AAC. Last week he told me that the quality of AAC is much improved over MP3 files with much higher bit rates. He claims AACs rival the quality of the original CD tracks even at 128 bit rates. He's also interested in space savings, as his drive space is limited and his music collection is quite substantial.

I can't comment on AAC sound quality vs. MP3, since I've not yet heard a comparison, though Matt posted an interesting tidbit on his weblog today questioning if there is any real difference between sound quality of an MP3 vs. AAC file, other than file size.

What I will comment on is this: the quality of AAC, even if it proves better sounding than MP3 is still not compelling enough to convince most regular people to re-rip their entire MP3 music collection. Here are my reasons:

MP3 has achieved critical mass. MP3 decoding can be found on more and more electronics items -- Craig Froehle mentioned buying a MP3 CD player with FM tuner for $40 at Best Buy just last week. MP3 players are now even available in mobile phones and car stereos. I fully expect to buy a fridge in the next two years with a 500GB MP3 player and Wi-Fi networking capabilities built-in. :-)

Most music players support MP3 and not AAC. Music players like my trusty Rio Volt SP250 can't play AAC files, so I'm out of luck whether I've burnt the AACs myself or bought from the iTunes Music Store. If my RioVolt and other devices like it offer a software or a firmware update, I'm pretty sure most regular users will not perform the upgrade. This leaves only the Apple iPod (an excellent bit of hardware) and Macs or PCs with Quicktime 6.2 for AAC playback.

Locations where you most often listen to MP3s are really noisy. Ambient noise surrounds any listener in a bus station, on a train, in an airplane, in your car or even your home office. Because of this ever-present ambient noise, any quality benefits of an AAC are going to be lost anyway.

MP3 is good enough for most listeners. I think of MP3 music as my own FM radio -- it has high enough quality to sound good in most locations, even with good quality headphones. FM radio is nowhere near the quality of CD music, but it has millions of happy listeners worldwide, because it is good enough.

So, if you're a stickler for better sound quality (which is still up for debate), you need more drive space, you have an iPod or only play converted music on your Mac or PC (with Quicktime 6.2), then it makes sense to consider AAC. Otherwise, AAC falls a bit short for those without a way to play tunes on a portable device, like me and millions of other people who use MP3s.

I do hope the iTunes Music Store does well. However I fear that until AAC reaches a wider audience and gains more users, it is destined to remain a cool yet minor niche format compared to the ever-popular MP3.

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