MP3 versus WMA


Jul 26, 2001


The Bottom Line The 64kbps sounded a little less full than the MP3, but the format is ideal to fill MP3-players and small hard drives with. The 128kbps-WMA sounded exactly the same.

Note: this is a personal test of the MP3 versus WMA, not based on experience but on a single test, and should be taken like that. I didn’t know exactly where to put this essay, so if you believe I should move it, please let me know.

Everybody knows the MP3-format by now. MP3 is short for MPEG Layer 3 and is a form of audio compression. The best way to describe it is this: the inaudible tones are filtered out, leaving a much smaller file with almost the same sound quality. So converting something to MP3 – also called ripping makes a cd-song almost ten times smaller, while you hear practically no difference in quality. Ideal to put songs onto your hard drive, and creating a huge jukebox on your computer. Or you can download ripped songs onto an MP3-player, sort of a personal stereo for MP3s (I’ve reviewed the one I have, the SonicBlue Rio 600).

MP3 files don’t earn their success because you can rip them to cd-roms though, but mainly because of the ease with which they allow illegal actions. Everybody has heard of Napster and other programs that allow you to download full CDs from the internet. Of course this is no laughing matter for the music industry, and they’re still looking for a good solution. Last year Microsoft announced their own WMA format - Windows Media Audio. The new property of these files is that you can add a sort of autograph to it, so ripped audio fragments (songs in this case) can be protected, and piracy can be stopped. But nobody will drop the mega-popular MP3-format for that reason alone, of course – and Microsoft knew that. That’s why they gave an additional reason for choosing the WMA format: a WMA-file is half as big as an MP3-file, and according to Microsoft the quality is even better. I figured “hearing is believing” and started ripping. If WMA was better indeed, then my Jukebox’s capacity would be doubled! Just like that!

I decided to rip the same number on the same computer in both MP3 and WMA format. My computer is a Pentium III with 256 MB ram and a Soundblaster Live! soundcard. As a ripper I used the superior piece of software called Playcenter 2.1. It would allow me to rip files into an MP3-format and – after downloading the latest patch – WMA. I chose the song The Ballad of Ray Suzuki by Looper. Not because I like it so much, but because it seems to contain nearly every sound ever produced ;-)

In exactly 45 seconds the song – lasting 4 minutes and 41 seconds – was transformed into an MP3- file of 4.29 MB. Let me be clear: I sampled it at 128 kbps (kilobits per second), which is pretty much standard. When I ripped it to WMA-format, also at 128 kbps, I got a file that was practically as big as the MP3 one (4.3 MB), but it took 10 seconds longer.
Now Microsoft claims that ripping at 64 kbps gives the same quality as an MP3 file ripped at 128 kbps. Note: ripping an MP3-file at 64 kbps greatly reduces the quality. So that’s what I did, and 50 seconds later I had my 64kbps-WMA, that was indeed only half as big: 2.17 MB. As you can see, there’s not that big a difference in the time it takes to rip the different files.

Over to the most important part: the sound test. Me, my brother and my wife (to get some different opinions) put the MP3, the 128kbps-WMA and the 64kbps-WMA through our soundcard and compared the goods. The MP3 – as expected – sounded very good, but we already knew that this format was excellent. The 128kbps-WMA didn’t sound very different – I’d go so far as to say it sounded exactly the same. So there wasn’t any improvement, though I wasn’t expecting any in the first place. Then came the 64kbps-WMA. Hmmmm… a toughie… With the volume at the normal setting (read: “the neighbours aren’t banging on the walls”) we really didn’t hear any difference. But once we cranked the volume button to “plane lifting off”-level, it became clear: it all sounds much more… bland. There’s simply less difference between the high and low sounds, making it sound that little bit flatter than an MP3. Don’t get me wrong, it was definitely not a bad sound, but we all thought the MP3 sounded a bit… “fuller”.

So what’s the conclusion? First of all let me state that WMA is not a bad format, not by far. Ripping is fast and the files are smaller. So if you have a relatively small hard drive or if you want to get more music onto your MP3-player, I would advise you to switch to WMA. But check first to see if your MP3-player supports WMA! Most do though – some after updating the software. But if you don’t have an MP3-player or if your hard drive is about the size of Canada, I don’t see the use in switching to WMA. MP3 does a good job and I believe it will continue to do so in the future.

The Bottom Line:

The 64 kbps sounded a little less full than the MP3, but the format is ideal to fill MP3-players and small hard drives with. The 128kbps-WMA sounded exactly the same and is the same size, so I can’t see the purpose of switching to this format.


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