Path: Music > Conversion > MP3 or WMA

MP3 or WMA

This page tries to illuminate some of the more important differences between MP3 and WMA. I concentrate on these formats because they are, by a wide margin, the two biggest commercial players. Life is complicated enough without going into Ogg, AAC or Atrac…

MP3, Darling of the Masses (if not the Studio Bosses)

MP3 is an acknowledged and semi-independent standard for compressing music. If you convert your music into MP3 format chances are that even your fridge can play it (and if not today then one of these days:-)). This universality is the biggest advantage of MP3. But not all MP3 encoders (an encoder is the software that transforms a normal audio stream into a compressed format) are the same. Some produce smaller files than others, some produce better sounding music than others, some sparkle and others are dull…

Once again, life is complicated enough without going into the details. If you are going to use the media software that came with your MP3 player to convert (rip) your CDs (or even LPs) to MP3, then this will have an encoder on-board and hopefully this will be one of the better commercial products (the Fraunhofer encoder, for instance). If, on the other hand, you want to do ripping and encoding on your own, there's only one sensible choice and that is LAME (short for Lame Ain't no MP3 Encoder). This is an ambitious freeware product that can produce extremely good results but is rather difficult to use. More details on the page about the software I am using.

Another obvious advantage of MP3: because everybody uses it there are zillions of tools and utilities around, to help with various aspects of producing and maintaining MP3 files. If you have a problem with MP3, whatever it may be, somebody has already run into the same problem, has solved it and written a freeware program so you don't have to bother. The same goes for the know-how side: MP3 is so pervasive that you'll find somebody who can help you with a query in no time.

And there's a third big plus for MP3. The standard makes absolutely no provisions for the dreaded DRM (Digital Rights Management). DRM is an attempt by the media industry to protect their rights (or, as they piously murmur, their artists' rights) and this is clearly a fair and reasonable goal. I am in no way preaching to break the law and download megabytes and megabytes of MP3 files from the internet.

BUT — and this is really a big but — the way the media industry tries to protect their rights is often consumer-unfriendly or even downright hurts consumers (and I am not even talking about something as disgusting and illegal as the Sony rootkit disaster… don't get me started on that one). No, no, the problems start much earlier: let's say you've downloaded some music titles from the Apple iTunes site or another legal online source. They play fine on your iPod (or Sony player) and you're happy. Fast forward a couple of years to another, newer player you've just bought, but not a player from Apple (or Sony): there's every chance that this new player won't play the titles you've downloaded (and paid for) all these years before.

Why? Because these titles were downloaded for a specific computer and a specific player: your old player… and the digital rights management in the new player will check this and make sure that it doesn't play some music files it believes are not yours by right. (I am simplifying here, but this is indeed the general picture.)

All major commercial digital music formats, whether WMA or AAC or others, can use some form of DRM. It is possible to circumvent this if you rip and encode your own CDs, but to do so requires detailed know-how about what options in which dialog boxes have to be switched on or off (and why all this is so well hidden is another interesting question). The net result of these shenanigans is that today many people unwittingly produce WMA or AAC files, hundreds or even thousands, that will only play on their current player — but not on another player they may buy sometime in the future.

MP3, by contrast, has and knows no DRM, period. This means that an MP3 file will work on each and every device that can physically play MP3 files, period.

(This DRM/format muddle, by the way, is the main reason why I don't — and won't for the foreseeable future — buy any music online, whether it's from Sony, or Apple or Napster. I'll rather stick with buying CDs: that may be old-fashioned but CDs work as they always did and ripping them to MP3s gives me full control over the way I encode and use my music.)

The only significant disadvantage of MP3 is that, for a given quality level, the encoded files are slightly larger (around 15 percent) than WMA or AAC files. Given today's multi-gigabyte players this argument has lost some of its force, but there are still valid reasons why people might want the smallest files possible. If you are absolutely determined to store the maximum number of titles on your player, WMA is perhaps the better choice. But see the last paragraph for the solution I have adopted.

Perhaps it's a good idea to throw a few real-life numbers into the debate (all are based on my MP3 files). A 1 GB flash player will store about 20 albums or 250 songs in MP3 format. A similar quality level in WMA might give you 23 or 24 albums or 290 songs. One way or another, that means around 20 hours of music in your pocket. That's enough for many people anyway.

On the other hand, a 20 GB hard disk player will store 400 CDs or 5000 songs in MP3 and 470 CDs or 5800 songs in WMA. Most people don't have 470 CDs to start with… and even if they have them, ripping and encoding 470 CDs is a helluva job. So most people will be happy with a 20 GB player and won't touch the upper limit, whether in MP3 or in WMA. (And for the other guys there are of course players around with more than 20 GB:-).)

WMA, a worthy contender

I have nothing against WMA. I am not normally a Microsoft basher (I'd only bash them when they'd do something really stupid, but for that we have Sony, he he) and I certainly won't start with WMA. The fact is that the WMA encoder included with the Microsoft Media Player produces good-sounding files that can be amazingly small and still playable. What's more the format is supported by a big company and it will not go away anytime soon, if ever. However, the big company has full control over the WMA format and that is, for some people at least, reason enough to stay away from it. (Conspiracy theorists love to speculate that Microsoft will one of these days produce a version of their player software that will simply refuse to play WMA files if they contain no DRM information.)

Though I won't go that far, my biggest gripe with WMA is indeed the DRM issue I have already mentioned. If you are going to use WMA to rip and encode your CDs, make sure (and double-check!) that you have switched off any DRM mode. A second point is that tag support for WMA is not as sophisticated as for MP3, but this is probably only important for people who want to store the lyrics of songs or graphics of the actual album covers within the files.

Another, smaller problem with WMA is that there are many devices that can read and play MP3 but not WMA: iPods, DVD players, car stereos etc. Then again, WMA tends to creep into all nooks and crannies it can find, so this may be less of a problem in the future.

So, please tell me: what did you do?

Simple: MP3. I did and do everything in MP3 and I see no reason not to continue with MP3. The only real problem, MP3 files being bigger than WMAs, is not a major headache for me. If I want an album in WMA to put it on one of our smaller players I simply use a small utility to transcode the MP3 files to WMAs: after some initial tweaking this process now runs more or less automatic. It just takes the computer a few hours (or a night) to transcode another batch of CDs but this has to be done of course only once. (Transcoding is frowned upon in the music scene because there's alway a loss of quality involved: normally one would re-encode from the original CDs. But since I am transcoding my MP3s down to 48 kbit WMAs the loss of quality is significant anyway.)

And for me, that's the optimum solution: I have my whole music collection in MP3; the best stuff will be transcoded to WMA over time, as and when needed. (Okay, this approach requires some seriously large hard disks but they are so cheap nowadays…)


$updated from: MP3 or WMA.htxt Sat 18 Jan 2014 13:14:24 thomasl (By Thomas Lauer)$