MP3 vs MP4: Which Is Better? The Key Differences Explained

MP3 vs MP4: Which Is Better? The Key Differences Explained

MP3 vs. MP4: 5 Need to Know Facts

  • MP3 compression can reduce file sizes by more than 90% compared to CD quality audio.
  • If you’re looking for an MP3 setting that matches lossless audio that’s most comparable to CDs while also reducing file sizes, look for 320 kbps bitrates. At that level
  • MP4s are different than MP3 files in that they’re a container file type that’s more generalized.
  • While MP3s are audio only, MP4 files can embed video, audio, subtitles, and images.
  • Since MP4 files are containers, they can utilize newer audio codec standards. For this reason, MP4 files can be superior if you’re creating new digital audio files today.

MP3 vs MP4 might sound like the improvement of a file type, but the truth is that MP3 and MP4 files are two very different things!

In a nutshell, MP3 is for compressing audio while MP4 has broader multimedia uses that include audio but also video, text, and images. If you’re looking for the key differences between MP3 and MP4 files, or looking for which one is right for your use, read on below.

MP3 vs MP4 Comparison: The Differences Side-by-Side

MP3 MP4 
What it is Audio coding file format that compresses file sizes More broad-based multimedia container 
Primary UseAudio Audio, text, video, images 
Name MPEG-1 Audio Layer 3 MPEG-4 Part 14 
Conceived1991 2001
Initial Release August 1993 October 2001 
Technical Committee ISO/IEC JTC 1/SC 29 ISO/IEC JTC 1/SC 29
Influential Developers Karl Brandenberg and the Franhofer Intitute, Philips, CCETInternational Organization for Standardization 
Open formatYesYes
Technologies influencedMP3 players, peer-to-peer software, digital music downloads Portable media players 

MP3: The Complete History

MP3s are a file type that compresses the data required for audio files. Developed primarily in Germany in the early 1990s, MP3s use lossy data-compression that creates audio files that are a fraction the size of CD-quality audio.

For example, compact discs (CDs) that were growing in popularity in the early 1990s held about 650 MB of data. Pulling audio onto a computer at CD quality was cost prohibitive, as the typical hard drive in the mid-1990s had only about 1 gigabyte of capacity (or enough for less than two albums at CD-quality).

However, the invention of MP3 compression could reduce file sizes by up to 95%. For example, an MP3 at a bitrate of 128 kbit/s will be approximately 90% smaller in size than CD-quality audio. With hard drives expanding beyond 5 gigabytes in the late 1990s, MP3 files allowed people to suddenly store dozens of albums on their computer and drove the growth of music to digital formats.

Loss of audio-quality in MP3s

With MP3s compressing file sizes by ten-fold or more, something has to be cut out. The fact is, CDs sound better and maintain a higher bitrate, which is commonly associated with audio quality. Below, you can see the bitrate of some common audio file types.

  • 9,216 kbps: Bitrate of High-Resolution Audio
  • 1,411 kbps: Bitrate of compact discs
  • 320 kbps: Bitrate of high-quality MP3s
  • 128 kbps: Bitrate at which audio blemishes become more notable in MP3 files

Bitrate comes with a tradeoff, file sizes generally increase with bitrates. That is to say, a 1,411 bitrate audio file at CD quality will be roughly 10 times the size of a 128 kbps MP3 file.

The developers of MP3s attempted to compress out data that was imperceptible to human hearing, but at a certain compression rate, the challenge of keeping audio of MP3s comparable to compact discs is simply too great for MP3’s audio coding.

Today, bitrates are most important for streaming audio. As of 2021, Spotify delivered its “low” quality audio at 24 kbits while its “very high” quality delivers at 320 kbits.

MP4: Used in Much More than Audio

As opposed to MP3s that were developed primarily at a German Institute, MP4 technology is based on Apple’s QuickTime file format. In addition, while MP3s are a coding format for reducing file size of audio, MP4s are a more generalized multimedia container.

As a container, different types of data can be embedded in MP4 files. That means MP4s can include video, audio, and subtitles while MP3 files are limited to just audio.

So does that mean MP4s are strictly for videos? Not quite, an MP4 file can be only audio as well. For example, audio codes that are supported by MP4 files include AAC (or Advanced Audio Coding). Like MP3s, AAC uses lossy compression. However, since it was released later than MP3s (first in 1997), AAC generally has higher sound quality than MP3s at similar bitrates. For this reason, AAC is the default audio format for devices such as the iPhone, Playstation 4, and Android.

The bottom line is that MP3s use an audio codec for compression that’s significantly older than many codecs standards that have been introduced since. Since MP4 files are a container, that means they can utilize newer audio codecs that provide higher fidelity audio at lower file sizes.

MP3 vs. MP4: Which One Is Better? Which One Should You Use?

While MP3 technology might have “peaked” in cultural relevance back in the 1990s when peer-to-peer networks like Napster took off, the technology is very much in use today.

However, as we noted above, the MP3 standard was first released in 1993. As an audio codec, there are better options today that deliver superior audio at similar file sizes.

For that reason, if you’re storing audio files today the better option could be MP4 files utilizing audio codecs like AAC or ALAC . All that being said, MP3 files that are at bitrates like 320 kbps per second are still very good audio quality and you’d struggle to hear the difference between higher quality audio formats.

Up Next…

Interested in finding out more about awesome technological strides that changed the course of history? Read about them in these articles here.

  • The Complete History of the iPod: The story of this device is one of tenacity thanks to a former electronics executive on a quest for a legal and convenient means of playing music who wouldn’t take no for an answer. Here’s how it came to be.
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