Data Compression: Comparison of audio codecs

“MP3 is 20 years old.” In the meantime, many audio codecs are on the market, which could take the classic of data compression. Will the MP3 format soon be replaced by an alternative?

In the beginning God created heaven and earth. And the earth was desolate and empty. Only the WAV floated above the water. One way or another, today’s hi-fi enthusiast may remember this format. Although WAV is still the standard in music production today, it has never really been possible for the end users.

The reason for this was the file size. When the call for a digital format became loud, which makes it possible to play music on the computer and on mobile terminals, MP3 has made the race. The format developed by the Fraunhofer Institute had exactly what the WAV lacked. It was small.

By data compression and data reduction a file could be evaporated to about 15 percent of its original size. When it came to the digitization of their own music collection, or to carry with them several CDs on a mobile player, this was the only way for most of them, given the storage capacity that was available to the end devices.

Initially, the playing of MP3s is limited to the PC (who still remembers Winamp?). The Diamond RIO PMP 300 was one of the first mobile players for MP3 files. It came to the market in 1998 and offered 32 MB of storage space, which could be extended via SmartMedia cards.

This has changed in the meantime. For years now, there are mobile phones, which are delivered with 64 GB flash memory from factory and three Terabyte hard drives are available at affordable prices. Storage space for audio data is nowadays, as regards quantity, no longer an issue.

An excuse to cut the quality of your own audio collection has now no more. In addition to the popularity of the MP3, other formats have developed that offer a much better alternative. They can essentially be divided into two groups: Lossless formats, HiRes formats.

Audio data in lossless formats are not loss-prone when generated by ripping an audio CD. They do not provide data reduction like MP3, but still have a data compression that reduces the file to about 60 percent of its original size.

Common representatives of this group are the freely available FLAC, the ALAC developed by Apple or the Microsoft-licensed WMA Lossless. ALAC, however, is not yet widely available outside the Apple world. Similarly, WMA Lossless is outside of Microsoft’s exclusive programs. Of course these are not all formats that are suitable for lossless coding.

More exotic formats, such as Monkey’s Audio, APE for short, Shorten with SHN and WavPack, WV, also offer great possibilities to conserve your own CD collection for eternity. However, none of these candidates offers significant advantages over FLAC as far as the compression rate is concerned. In terms of distribution, FLAC among them, however, is clearly the leader at the moment.

In addition to the Lossless faction, there is another set of formats that are even more exciting: the HiRes formats. These enable music from the recording studio to enjoy higher quality than the Redbook standard for CDs has provided. Instead of the rate of 16 bits, it is not uncommon to have 24 bits, and instead of the standardized frequency of 44100 Hz, 96000 or even 192000 Hz are often reached here.

You need a top facility to hear the differences

It is necessary, however, already a system with high equipment, in order to hear the sound difference from Lossless to HiRes.

But whoever has it, the representatives of the Group are worth more than just a glance. Common formats that transport this quality are WAV and FLAC.

Not to be neglected at this point also DSD and DXD. These two formats are based on a special codec, which can transport higher sampling rates than FLAC would allow at all. Since this only makes sense in music, which has already been driven with this special codec in all steps of the production and also mixed and mastered accordingly, these two candidates are not particularly widespread. At the moment they are definitely still to be seen as lovers.

Conclusion: What comes after MP3?
In the end, the relay of the relay did not yet take place. MP3 is still the most widely used format. If there is a successor, the MP3 can run the rank, then it is FLAC. It is possible in this format to transport lossless audio data as well as HiRes music.

The free availability and the relatively high distribution relative to the other competitors also speak for FLAC. Although WAV fulfills nearly the same criteria as FLAC, WAV files are nevertheless in the ratio to the 40 per cent larger and toponymously not tagbar. The latter is a problem with a large music collection when a title has to be found quickly.

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