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Posted on: Wednesday, January 31, 2001

Upgraded MP3 format offered

By Vic Caleca
Gannett News Service

Less is more in the world of digital music. But more is more, too.

Which is precisely the dilemma Thomson Multimedia tried to address by announcing that it will release an upgraded version of its MP3 audio format, called mp3PRO, in April.

The new format, it said, will double the capacity of MP3 files, allowing music lovers to cram more songs onto their computer hard drives or portable players - while maintaining audio quality nearly as good as compact discs.

In other words, less is more and more is more. Not to mention just in time.

Industry experts say that MP3, while still the leading digital audio format, is facing competition from some formidable sources - especially the newest versions of Microsoft’s Windows Media and RealNetworks’ Real Audio formats.

"Both of those have been getting a lot of attention because they can store higher-quality audio in a lot less space than the original MP3," said Ben Sawyer of Digitalmill, a Portland, Maine, consulting company.

"That makes sense, because MP3 has been around a long time. But some of the newer programs have really improved on it. Windows Media, in particular, has been making inroads on MP3, so Thomson had to do something."

Which Thomson freely acknowledged: "From a competitive standpoint, there is a perception out there that MP3 is old technology and it’s going to be eclipsed by the next great, new thing," said David Arland, a spokesman at the U.S. headquarters in Carmel, Ind.

MP3 is a software program known as a codec - or coder/decoder - that takes digital music files from compact discs or other sources and compresses them.

Here’s why that’s significant: High-quality digital music files like those on CDs sound great, but they’re huge. A handful of songs would quickly fill up all but the biggest computer hard drives and take hours to download or upload over standard Internet connections.

Compression programs, such as MP3, take huge audio files, remove bits of data, and shrink them to a size that can be realistically stored or transmitted without significantly hurting the audio quality.

MP3 does that through a technique called "perceptual noise shaping," which takes into account characteristics of the human ear when it decides what parts of a song to remove when it’s compressing a file.

With the current MP3 codec, experience has shown that songs compressed to a size of 128 kilobits of data per second sound virtually indistinguishable from a CD.

Another popular bit-rate size is 64 kbps - typically described as FM-radio quality - that doesn’t sound quite as rich as 128 kbs, but allows users to fit twice as many songs onto computers or hard drives.

The advantage to those smaller MP3 files? With a big enough hard drive, a music fan can store his or her entire song collection on a computer, use a software jukebox program to play them in any order, compile favorite song playlists, burn them onto custom CDs, or load them into portable audio players.

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