Gizmodo reported yesterday that Fraunhofer Institute for Integrated Circuits IIS, developer of the MP3 audio data-compression system, has terminated the licensing program that allows companies to create MP3 encoders and decoders. This is probably not sad news for many audiophiles, who disdain the format’s lower audio quality compared with uncompressed CD quality. But there’s no doubt that MP3 fundamentally changed the face of music distribution, which makes it important in the history of our hobby.
Developed in the late 1980s and early ’90s, MP3 is an abbreviation for MPEG 1 Layer 3. It’s a lossy data-compression algorithm that reduces the size of an audio file by a factor of 10 or more—theoretically, without degrading the quality of the audio as perceived by humans. To accomplish this feat, the algorithm identifies and eliminates frequencies in the original file that are masked by other nearby frequencies. Since those frequencies are masked, they can’t be heard, so eliminating them shouldn’t degrade the sound quality.
In the real world, of course, the sound quality is degraded to one degree or another, though many people can’t distinguish that degradation until the amount of compression reaches a certain threshold. Check out this video of some comparative testing conducted in Germany by EB.TV, followed by an explanation of MP3 by one of its developers, Dr. Jurgen Herre:
But even if some people can’t hear the degradation in sound quality of MP3-encoded audio, they can often feel it. Late last year, the Audio Engineering Society (AES) published a study called “The Effects of MP3 Compression on Perceived Emotional Characteristics in Musical Instruments”; click here to check it out.
As always, technology continues to improve, and MP3 has now been supplanted by better, more efficient codecs. According to a statement from Fraunhofer IIS, “Although there are more efficient audio codecs with advanced features available today, MP3 is still very popular amongst consumers. However, most state-of-the-art media services such as streaming or TV and radio broadcasting use modern ISO-MPEG codecs such as the AAC family or in the future MPEG-H. Those can deliver more features and a higher audio quality at much lower bitrates compared to MP3.”
Of course, this doesn’t mean that all the MP3 files and players out there will suddenly stop working. In fact, now that there’s no licensing, anyone can build MP3 encoders and decoders without paying a fee. So perhaps this will encourage even more products to appear in the marketplace. On the other hand, maybe not; as Fraunhofer’s statement says, the industry has largely moved on to other, better codecs.
So RIP MP3. It may be dead, but it’s impact on the entire musical landscape cannot be overstated. The format facilitated the emergence of iPods, iTunes, streaming—in fact, most of the ways we consume music these days. For more on the history of this groundbreaking technology, click here.