Higher Fidelity

MP3 Vs. MP3Pro

 Q: Just got done reading this magazine paean to the MP3Pro format. The article said an MP3Pro song takes up just half the space of a traditional MP3, with no drop-off in quality. Is that really the case? And if so, heck, how do I get rocking on this stuff? My 20-gig player is maxed out on storage space.

MP3Pro's got some promise, but much depends on how sharp an ear you've got, as well as your preferred listening apparatus. The rule of thumb, according to MP3Pro's marketing mavens, is that an MP3Pro file encoded at 64 kilobits per second will sound identical to an MP3 at 128 kbps. For the majority of listeners—that is, anyone turned off by super-geek phrases like "psychoacoustic algorithms"—that rule generally holds true. The thornier problem is the dearth of portable devices that are simpatico with the format.

MP3Pro is the brainchild of Sweden's Coding Technologies and Germany's Fraunhofer Institute. The company boasts that its patented "spectral band replication" technology preserves all those lovely high-frequency sounds lost in MP3s recorded at less than 128 kbps. (Aspiring engineers who'd like a deeper explanation should visit mp3prozone.com, Coding's all-you-need-to-know site.) And with lower bitrates, you can fit twice as many songs on your player.

illustration: Matthew Martin

Question numero uno, then, is whether MP3Pro's quality claims pass muster. Always hot to use his state-of-the-art laboratory equipment, Mr. Roboto encoded six songs in both the MP3 (at 128 kbps) and MP3Pro (64 kbps) formats, using MusicMatch Jukebox 8.0 Plus. The resulting tracks were played first through a pair of studio monitor headphones connected to a laptop's audio jack, then piped into a stereo (through a Y cable) outfitted with Sony APM-790 floor speakers. Just as Coding Technologies claims, it was pretty much impossible to tell the difference between the two formats during the headphone playback; the only song where the MP3 won out was a snippet from Gustav Mahler's Symphony No. 3 in D Minor. MP3 notched another victory during the stereo portion of the test, as Raekwon the Chef's "Criminology" sounded much better as an MP3.

The difference-maker was the portable audio test, which involved both a Flash-based player (a Samsung YEPP) and a hard-driver (a 10-gig, old-model iPod). In addition to the Raekwon and Mahler cuts, At the Drive-In's "Pickpocket" and Autechre's "Tilapia" sounded way too muddy as MP3Pros, while the drop-off in King Tubby's "King at the Controls" was noticeable, albeit not fatal. (For reasons well beyond Mr. Roboto's comprehension, Lil' Flip's "Candy on Chrome" invariably sounded fine.)

In all fairness, the culprit here isn't the MP3Pro technology, but the slowness of hardware manufacturers to pick up on the new format. Unless your player was specifically designed to be compatible with MP3Pro, you won't get the benefits of the new technology. What you're basically left with, then, is a low-bitrate MP3. PC Magazine recently pointed out that the high frequencies in question comprise only about 6 percent of every song, but you know what? Every little bit matters.

The list of MP3Pro-compatible devices can charitably be described as short—mostly RCA's Lyra jukeboxes, nice little players that suffer for lack of Firewire support. But Coding has set up shop in the U.S. specifically to cut some deals with hardware makers, so expect more compatible gizmos to arise shortly. In the meantime, you can conduct your own little lab test by visiting mp3prozone.com and downloading the Thomson Demo MP3Pro Player/Encoder, a freebie that lets you convert your .wav files into MP3Pros. Get rocking if the spirit moves you; just be aware that MP3Pro's just as likely to end up the next Sega Dreamcast as it is the next, well, MP3.


Since the Constitution has yet to enfranchise artificial life forms, Mr. Roboto's not big on politics. Corporate scumbaggery, however, is quite another matter, which is why killercoke.org's now on the Favorites list. No idea as to the veracity of this exposé, which takes the soft-drink giant to task for allegedly abetting anti-union violence in Colombia, but there are some intriguing anecdotes strewn about. If you're convinced, sign the handy petition. And maybe think about forgoing that next midday Barq's.


Input questions at bkoerner@villagevoice.com.

 
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