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MPEG Layer III (MP3)

MP3 is the closest thing to JPG; developed by Fraunhofer Research (the leading MPEG research institute at Germany and also the people who build the MP3 codec for Internet Explorer), the algorithm is open and free for anyone to use. MP3 has become a source of great controversy as it facilitates the transfer of CD quality music on portable media and the internet. Despite the complains of commercial entertainers MP3 has become a standard in music broadcasting. Supported in popular packages like Winamp and Internet Explorer, MP3 only requires a 486 to play on average bitrates.

MP3 is still the top quality standard. It is the only guarantee to get a high quality song that will play everywhere. To all my tests, we have been completely unable to separate the original from the compressed. However, lower bitrate MP3s suffer from a high frequency loss that becomes insufferable on anything less than 44kbps. MP3 files will not play clearly on phone line bitrates.

MP3 still develops. Both Fraunhofer Research and the general public have presented algorithms that create much better results than previous encoders. I tried Fraunhofer's new Fastenc engine (found at Musicmatch Jukebox or Nero) and I was surprised with the quality on an average of 85kbps stream! The Lame Encoder performs almost as well, with CD quality at 113kbps average.

MP3 Pro (MP3+SBR)

MP3 Pro is an evolution of the MP3 algorithm at the labs of FhG). By combining a very low bitrate MP3 file with spectral band replication data (heavily compressed high frequencies), we get an MP3 file with full bass and precise treble. The approach is interesting because the MP3 part of the MP3 Pro file is still compatible with all MP3 players. In order to enjoy the full range of MP3 Pro however, the free decoder must be acquired.

How does MP3 Pro stand among the other codecs then? In regards to ISDN-class bitrates, it simply crushes all competition. Neither Windows Media, nor Real Audio can hope to achieve the clarity and lack of artifacts of our 56kbps MP3 Pro clip. Yet, MP3 Pro was unable to compete the new MP3 implementations of the same Institute (the Variable Bitrate FastEnc) at higher bitrates and it performed rather poorly in the phoneline speed arena. Instruments were very clear, but the voice lacked in depth.

MP3 Pro is a great evolution, as it was WMA, as it was Real Audio and MP3. It also focuses on a field that will soon be the defacto connection speed, that of 56kbps. MP3 Pro will never be much talked of, because it is not free but its technical aspects are too strong to be ignored. We will be hearing it, but we shall not be seeing it too much.

MPC and Ogg Vorbis

MPC or MPEGplus is an MPEG1-Layer 2 derivative, parallel to MP3. The encoder is currently free but it will turn to shareware to compensate for its Layer 2 license. The decoder is a free Winamp plugin.

Although it does not work well with low bitrates, this new algorithm seems promising. It was quite capable of analyzing the complexity of the testing sample and would persistently encode at 170kbps unless it were forced to the lowest possible of a "thumbnail" quality that was still good. That leads to believe that the author's claim of highly tuned psychoacoustics is true and that MPC will find a place in high quality formats in less than 3 years.

Parallel to MPEGplus (in algorithm terms) is the unpatented Ogg Vorbis which strives to "replace all proprietary, patented audio formats". Although much improved in the last months, this format has not yet reached maturity and even though the authors are even though the authors are on the final stage of version 1, I think they still have plenty of work ahead. Its low bitrate algorithm cannot compete Windows Media and at higher bitrates it competes with Lame MP3 which is free as well. And in the very high bitrates, audiophiles rave about MPC. In order to gain popularity, Ogg Vorbis must focus its efforts on the phoneline bitrates for internet radio appliances.

Windows Media Audio

You may have encountered Windows Media Audio under the name of "ASF". ASF is Microsoft's specification for streaming -- essentially a wrapper format. WMA is a lossy audio compression algorithm which works only as part of the Windows media player and not as a standard Windows codec (so that you may not convert WMA files to other formats).

In 1998 I applauded the superiority of WMA in the arena of streaming media. With clear stereo music even at 22kbps, WMA is the only way to get an acceptable quality in typical phoneline speeds. Its low CPU requirements and broad availability have turned it, as I predicted, to the Real Audio killer!

Stereo image and voice is not as good however, so Microsoft's claim for FM quality at phoneline speeds is not true. Also, Microsoft's second claim that WMA provides CD quality at 64kbps is entirely wrong. Not only does the 64kbps WMA lack in violin detail, but even at 128kbps (which Microsoft touts as "audiophile") suffers from overbrightness.


NNT was the first company to produce a serious MP3 contestant. At the time of its introduction to the public, VQF provided the best quality in the 96kbps range. However, NNT did not support their format with good software. For that reason VQF's popularity has waned almost completely in the 99s and from now on it may be considered a dead case.

Copyright ? 2002