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A Quick Look at Audio Formats
Author: Scott Nesbitt
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Source: Tech Tips
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A Quick Look at Audio Formats
January 31, 2007

Outside of the government and the military, the computer world uses the most acronyms. This is especially true for the names of audio formats. There are dozens of formats, each with its own reason for being and with its own strengths and weaknesses.

But what do all of those names mean? And how do you deal with an audio file that you're not familiar with? This TechTip looks at some popular audio formats and some of their characteristics.


I can't think of anyone who hasn't heard of MP3. Even my parents, who are definitely not the most tech savvy people around, are familiar with it. MP3 is short for MPEG-1 (Moving Picture Experts Group), Audio Layer 3, after the working group tasked with developing digital audio and video encoding standards.

MP3 has become the most popular, and dominant, audio format. It's used everywhere -- from songs ripped from CDs to audio podcasts. Few, if any, portable audio players or software media players don't play MP3 files.

An MP3 file can be quite small. That's because the software used to create an MP3 file, called an encoder, uses what is called lossy compression. The encoder shrinks the file by tossing out bits of audio that, in theory, most people can't hear. When the MP3 file is created with a reasonable bit rate (the number of bits of data converted each second, which helps determine the sound quality), you get near CD-quality sound. However, the more you compress the file, the worse the audio quality becomes. And when you convert an MP3 file to another format, the audio quality noticeably degrades.

One major issue with the MP3 format is that a company named Thomson Consumer Electronics holds the patents for the MP3 format, and charges royalties for its use. Because of this, a number of Open Source software developers decided to create...

Ogg Vorbis

Ogg Vorbis which has the extension .ogg, was developed as a patent-free alternative to MP3. In doing so, the developers managed to "out-MP3" the MP3 format.

Like MP3, Ogg Vorbis uses lossy compression. However, the compression scheme that Ogg Vorbis uses is superior to that used by MP3. You get an equal or greater reduction in file size, but with sound quality better than MP3 when a file is created with the same bit rate.

Ogg Vorbis is widely supported in desktop audio players, including WinAmp, XMMS, RhythmBox, and Quintessential. You can also get a plug-in for the Windows Media Player that gives it solid support for Ogg Vorbis. However, few portable audio players can play back Ogg Vorbis files. Some older players from iRiver, Samsung, and Neuros did support the format, but that support seems to have vanished from newer models.

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