The MP3 format has officially been discontinued by their creators the Fraunhofer-Institut. The audio format, which had been kept on life support for the past years can now finally rest in peace and make way for its successors. We decided to have a look back at the MP3's origins as well as what's in store for the future.
The MPEG-1 Layer III - better known as MP3 (not MPEG3) truly revolutionized how we consumed music in the 90's - and still does to this day. CDs were beginning to appear bulky and cumbersome to use. Cassette tapes had reached their technological plateau and their usage quickly fizzled out. Enter the MP3.
Researchers from Erlangen and Nuremberg in Germany managed to develop a new compression method, which in simple terms meant that they could compress vastly greater amounts of data with comparably little deterioration in quality. While initially developed in 1983, the .MP3 format as we tend to know it today saw the light of day in 1995, after researchers at the Fraunhofer-Institut held a vote to standardize the file extension name from .bit to .mp3. While the mp3 format truly was a revolution, from today's point of view the quality and sound of an MP3 with 128 kbit/s is absolutely terrible.
Now that the deal that Technicolor and the Fraunhofer-Institut had around the MP3 format has ended, so ends the official support for the format. Let's have a quick look back at how it all began.
A file sharer's dream, the music industry's worst nightmare
Towards the end of the 90s, those who had an internet connection had the joy of experiencing the wonders of dial-up internet (think of AOL CDs and that nostalgic modem noise). The speed of a dial-up connection was a mesmerizing 7 Kbps. Every download took an eternity, but every successful download brought an immense feeling of success. As a teenager, I never saw the slow dial-up speeds as an obstacle and continued downloading to my heart's content.
At the time, there were no real laws against file sharing, and the ones that existed were so vague that you always found yourself in a legal grey zone. Queue me downloading Kazaa, Napster and WinMX. A song with MP3 format with 128 Kbps, had a file size of about 4-5 MB - each download took around 5 minutes. File sharers and download programs updated their technology as well. At one point you could simultaneously download a song and play it at the same time. The word streaming hadn't become ubiquitous yet - but the experience was already "similar".
Once downloaded, we saved the songs on our 128 MB MP3 players. They had just enough space to save about two hours worth of music. Basically enough to listen to music on your way to school, during your lunch break and on the way back home. The AAA batteries that powered these MP3 players often didn’t last more than three uses.
And then came iTunes
But at some point, effective (and stricter) laws were introduced, which were accompanied copyright lawyers. Users still wanted to acquire music from the comfort of their own home - especially since internet speeds had vastly improved, allowing one to download a complete album in under ten minutes.
The iTunes Store continued where Napster left off: We were able to download songs again. The novelty here: We could pay for songs legally just like in a record store. It seems like no one else aside from Steve Jobs realized that people would actually pay to download music.
The MP3 was already dead when iTunes appeared
iTunes launched with the MP4 format. The new format compressed files using the AAC codec, which is still the standard today. This is based on new psychoacoustic methods, which are said to be closer to the original. The MP3 format was already considered obsolete at that time, but was still used parallel to the new format.
CDs continued to exist side by side with the MP3 and MP4 formats. CD ripping for personal use was legal - as long as it was for personal use. iTunes kindly facilitated this feature. Numerous tools sprung up, helping you to tag, sort and most importantly convert your CDs into digital files. With today's available codecs for lossy compression, the MP3 landed somewhere in the middle.
If you have a look at the documentation of the open source transcoder FFmpeg, it recommends the audio compression codecs in the following order - starting with the best quality: Opus> Vorbis> = AAC> MP3> = AC3> MP2> WMA. Android devices can natively play Opus, Vorbis, AAC, MP3 as well as the lossless FLAC format.
Only researchers seem to care about the "right" codec at this point
To be quite honest, I'm not too bothered by which codec hides behind the music that I stream. The last CD that I ripped was a CD that I needed for my Italian language course. The 90 minutes worth of content was quickly compressed down to a size of 64 MB. I still use FLAC for my music, as the quality of the compression is still more important to me than the amount of space it will eventually take up.
Streaming services also compress their data streams to reduce their costs. The following list shows you the maximum available quality by provider:
Maximum bitrates available by streaming service
|Spotify||Apple Music||Tidal Hifi|
|Max. Bitrate||320 kbit/s||256 kbit/s||1411 kbit/s|
So, when was the last time you ripped a CD? Do you notice a difference in quality when you stream music or play it on your phone?