mp3HD or FLAC
When Apple’s iPod became mainstream and the most popular portable music player with came the standardization of the mp3 file format. In some ways this format has served us well. It simplified things so we didn’t have to worry about compatibility. Despite other formats that are open or better mp3 makes for a universally positive experience. One key feature of mp3 is that it compresses the music file and takes out “unneeded” data. This is why mp3 is dubbed a lossy file format. This is good because file sizes remain small while the whole of the music remains the same. The bad part is that certain aspects, particularly ranges of music, are dropped to save file space. There is great debate about how noticeable or serious this is, but nonetheless mp3s are lower quality than cds. At the time giving up quality for quantity was needed with the small file capacity of most audio players. Even our HD based computers were limited. Today this isn’t so much the case. You can easily get cheap 500GB and even 1TB drives, external or internal, and flash memory is increasing in capacity and decreasing in price. I’m fairly certain I would fill up my 8GB iPhone, but in a few years iPhones will likely have 3-5X the capacity at the same size and price. So we may be at a turning point. A turning point where we can take back quality and still have quantity. This leads to lossless file formats.
Ars ran a good article discussing mp3HD. On the surface it would sound like a good thing. Take the popularity and universality of mp3 and make a lossless “HD” version. There are a few problems in the details as Ars points out. First the basic premise is to have both the mp3 compressed version and a compatible HD version. That is essentially doubling the file size and while capacity is growing the last thing you want to do is add extra burden during the transition. There are few other details, but you can read the article for that. What I want to point out is there is already a gold standard in lossless file formats. It is FLAC. Now yes I am an open source nut, but here me out. FLAC is currently already support in most every audio “mp3” player out there with the exception of Apple’s line of mp3 players. Most people already recognize that if you want a lossless library FLAC is what you use…as such the few store fronts that sell digital lossless files do so in FLAC already. Since FLAC is open source there is no licensing, regional, patent, or development limitations. Basically I am arguing that FLAC is already the platinum standard for lossless formats and because it is open source it becomes a win win situation. Believe it or not mp3 is not an open or free codec. You have to license your product to play the files. When you buy Windows or Mac you are paying to play your mp3s. Now all of that happens in the background, but it is still happening. Now I am not a purist, in fact, my library is mostly made of mp3s. I see no reason to switch to the open OGG format because it isn’t universal. But if FLAC is already well supported and is the non-stated lossless file format why muddy the waters with another closed and licensed product? Believe me when I say that if the world starts heading towards lossless distribution of music Apple will come around.
Honestly, I hope mp3HD never sees the light of day. We have an industry leader and we should keep it that way…and of course since it happens to be open source I am all the more for it. If you are considering going lossless I hope you consider FLAC as your format of choice.