Popular Audio Formats Tests
Audio Format Test Results - MP3, WMA, OGG, VGQ and MP3Pro
In fact, no one expected such a result: of course, everybody thought that the manufacturers' promises about "almost CD-quality" or even "CD-quality" were pure fiction but one could suppose that the different audio-formats do not differ that much concerning sound-quality. But that's especially where some noticable differences arise. Right now there are two high-end-formats at the very top that have been sadly smiled upon a few years ago. The lowest-quality format of the ones tested is however the long-proven MP3.
And yet, the only real "loser" of these tests has emerged quite clearly: not only does VQF offer a worse sound-quality than anyone should accept in the presented bitrates, but also the tremendously long-lasting encoding time and the fact that VQF is hardly known anywhere almost disqualify the format even before the sound-tests. What good is a sound-format no one uses except yourself and that takes up to two hours to encode an average 60 minutes running time CD? And above all its sound-quality is not completely convincing anyway. On the VQF-homepage it's claimed that thousands of songs can be found on the internet, at music exchange programs like Napster however, VQF isn't represented at all.
MP3 is, regarding its sound-quality, surely worse than VQF at the same bitrates - that would mean also at 128 kbps - that statement can be made due to the results at 96 kbps quite certain - if it was techincally possible to encode VQF at 128 kbps . MP3 however benefits from being known all over the world and its support by many hardware MP3-players and last but not least, its popularity. This is why MP3 won't be pushed off the market in the next few years. The roots it has in the internet and the portable MP3 recorders reach way too deep for that. Even most DVD-players offer MP3-support.
It's successor mp3PRO is really not as good as promised but the technology obviously hasn't rested. The sound-quality at these low bitrates is not fantastic but certainly remarkable. In the long term mp3PRO will quite possibly settle a standard whether as a substitute or a companion to MP3 - who knows, mp3PRO does have some convincing advantages concerning portable MP3-players where the prices for memory-sticks are not as low to accept double filesize instead. How good the codec actually is, has to prove itself, since the 64 kbps-limitation doesn't allow a final result. But the result will most likeably be the same like WMA or OGG: with classical music CD-quality is given only at 128 kbps; pop-music however sounds almost like CD when encoded at 96 kbps or even a higher bitrate. Once again you may ask whether MP3, WMA and OGG aren't enough standards for the time being. Above all mp3PRO doesn't offer the important 100 % backwards compatibility like WMA does, that actually shows when playing mp3PRO songs with an ordinary MP3-player: the songs sound very mustly and rustled. mp3PRO also needs a better hardware than WMA as you can hear in the little interruptions while seeking through the individual songs. Unfortunately the mp3PRO-encoder won't be free of charge and third-party-manufacturers that will offer their own mp3PRO-encoders later on won't use the original codec technology which will result in different compression-ratios and (as known from MP3) quality-differences - mp3PRO won't be the same as mp3PRO then.
WMA had a very heavy start, especially version 7 that was designed as a substitute to MP3 and that became its toughest opponent; that was mainly because it lacked the quality MP3 had, but since then a lot of things have changed. Version 8 of Microsoft's product beats MP3 clearly in every single point. However the format still has the same old problems: many users are not willing to give up the MP3-collection they have gathered the last few years. Compatibility is one of the magic words and WMA certainly has advantages here in favour of mp3PRO. It is 100 % backwards compatible and even the interruptions that occur when seeking through songs are (despite similar comression ratios) not that big. The most convincing reason for WMA instead of mp3PRO certainly is the fact that mp3PRO is not free of charge. You can encode WMAs for free with the Windows Media-encoder Microsoft offers on their website. Using the WM8-encoder-frontend this is a cheaper solution than the mp3PRO-encoder on which is a charge when encoding in higher bitrates than 64 kbps. This is why all WMAs are actually encoded with the same codec.
The "old" newcomer OGG became a quiet tip for audio-collectors in a very short period of time. The reason for this only becomes obvious when listening to OGG-files closer, for example by converting them back to WAV. The well-known OGG-plugins for the very popular software-player WinAmp make OGG-songs sound worse than they really are. Maybe this changes once the final version of the plugin is published. OGG has by now many many fans out there, this is why OGG is most likely to exist longer than VQF. Unfortunately it is not represented that much at the music exchange programs or anywhere in the internet like MP3 or WMA.
No one can tell which format is to remain forever, that completely depends on the users themselves. There is a saying that says "competition livens up business", that would mean the new audio-formats can do no harm. Fraunhofer unintentionally showed with their own MP3-successor AAC (Advanced Audio Coding), developed in 1999, that most formats won't stand a chance in the long term. And yet the MPEG-standard put great hopes in the new format. Whether they will succeed with it - unlikely since hardly anyone has heard of AAC in the last few years and on the other hand Fraunhofer seems to favour the new MP3-successor mp3PRO themselves. The time to mothball one's MP3-collection is far from coming. Even the new Windows Media player will be able to play MP3-files like most other software-players as well. However it is certainly time to consider a change to another format than MP3 since 100 megabytes more WMA- or OGG-files fit on an ordinary CD at the same quality of MP3. Or the same number of files in an audibly higher quality.
Since most portable MP3-players support WMA-files this certainly is not the worst idea to think about.
It'll have to prove itself which format will last in the long term: MP3 is very popular and well known all over the world, OGG has got a marvelous reputation, where to Microsoft has the better product regarding MP3 and it is firmly integrated in all existing operating systems and even those to come especially the poor OGG-support by music- and multimedia-companies will give the outstanding format a very tough time.
We also have to wait till the physical limits of audio-compressions are reached. At least at an acceptable, hardly audible loss of quality. Sooner or later the developers will reach some limits here although mp3PRO, OGG and WMA are certainly very close to these.
Because of compatibility, popularity and the soft- and hardware-support, home-users should decide in favour of Microsoft's product (WMA).
There are however only two bitrates one should choose in order to get the best sound-quality without any audible differences to the original files:
- with classical music: 160 kbps
- with rock/pop-music: 128 kbps
Everybody who still uses the long-proven MP3 should take the following bitrates to get the best sound-quality without any audible differences to the original files for MP3 recorder software:
- with classical music: 192 kbps
- with rock/pop-music: 160 kbps
At lower bitrates a significant loss of quality is audible with both audio-formats after encoding / decoding the files a second time.
Article and tests by Jens Adrian