What is the Difference Between MP3 & MP4? [Technology Explained]

MP3vsMP4   What is the Difference Between MP3 & MP4? [Technology Explained]In our ever-modernizing age, things are constantly changing and being updated.  What the standard was yesterday may not necessarily still be the standard today.  All of these quick changes creates a market with tons and tons of options when it comes to every aspect of our lives.

Music is no exception.  For years, MP3’s were the standard for music files.  Then that all changed as more extensions were developed and released.  Suddenly MP3’s weren’t the only things available.  One of the extensions that came around was MP4.

MP3 and MP4 sure sound similar, one might just assume MP4 is the next step for MP3, but that is not the case.  In fact, they are rather different, with distinct histories and uses.

Let’s examine the difference between mp3 and mp4 by looking at what each file extension is individually.


LEGO MP3 Player1   What is the Difference Between MP3 & MP4? [Technology Explained]MP3 is short for MPEG-1 Audio Layer 3.  It is used for audio and uses a compression algorithm that introduces loss, meaning it is a “lossy” compression format.  It is one of the most commonly used audio formats available and has been the standard for quite some time.

Uncompressed audio files are rather large, just look at any WAV file.  This is because sound is very complex and the translation of it into a digital format that a computer can understand takes a lot of data.

MP3 works to make file sizes smaller by using what is called psychoacoustic models.  They get rid of data that most people would not hear because it is too low or high.  By doing this, files sizes can be greatly reduced.  A 128 kbit/s MP3 file is about 1/11th the size of the corresponding file on an uncompressed CD.


new ipod nano   What is the Difference Between MP3 & MP4? [Technology Explained]MP4 is short for MPEG-4 Part 14.  MP4 is based on MPEG-4 Part 12 which was in turn based on Apple’s MOV file type.  MP4 is a container format, meaning it is used to store audio and/or video data, rather than to code the information.  MP4 video and audio can also be streamed over the internet.  This is also true of most other modern container formats.

Because MP4 is a container format, it does not have a standard method of coding the audio or video information.  Instead, codecs dictate how the audio or video will be coded and possibly compressed.  For audio, Advanced Audio Coding, or AAC, is the most popular codec for compressing audio for transfer on the internet.

So What’s the Difference Then?

From these two descriptions, we can note a few major differences.  First, MP3 is an audio compression format used to compress and store audio on a computer.  MP4 is a media container format used to store media of many possible types on a computer.

Therefore, an MP3 file is limited with regard to the method of compression and can only store audio.  MP4 on the other hand, can store video as well as audio.  It can even store subtitles for a video file.  Also, since MP4 is a container, it can store audio and video that have been compressed in different fashions.  In fact, an MP4 file could be audio that has been compressed as an MP3.

These differences make it so that a program that plays an MP3 cannot necessarily play an MP4 and vice versa.  The same goes for portable music players, though there are plenty of software options and portable players out there that can play both, for example Winamp.

Both formats have their uses and things that they are better at than the other.  Do you have any opinions on what each format does better?  Let us know in the comments below.

The comments were closed because the article is more than 180 days old.

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Ringo Starr

Good stuff. Hey, maybe next you can enlighten us on the difference between a .txt and a .jpg? Or an iPhone and a toaster oven? Or my grandma and the Russian Revolution?

MakeUseOf primarily targets people with at least SOME savvy–hell, you yourself posted on how to make Atari 2600 games! I’d think this info would already be buried into the minds of the people who frequent this site. If I’m wrong, though, sorry. It just struck me as a strange thing to post about.

Jackson Chung

Hey Ringo,

Thanks for your comment. Please do not assume to know our reader base. We may have frequent readers who are savvy but we must also think about the others who may be wondering about the difference.

Technology Explained articles are meant to target these topics and elaborate on subjects which not everyone may be familiar with.


Ringo Starr, I couldn’t disagree with you more.

Technology Explained articles have actually become my favorite part of the site — I learn a lot from the more advanced ones and I pass along some of the simpler ones (like this) to less technologically-inclined friends.

Thanks Jackson!

San Diego John

Yeah, I consider myself fairly savvy. But if asked, no, I wouldn’t have been able to explain the difference. Besides, I often take things I read here and forward them to friends or family. This is written clear and simple enough that it would be an easy way to explain the difference to even my not-so-savvy friends.

As to the others, here goes. A text file is just words and a jpeg is an image. An iPhone dropped in the ocean is toast. And unlike the Russian Revolution, your Grandma is obviously well remembered.


Jackson Chung

Thanks John. You’re right. Not many people know that MP4 isn’t a codec, it’s a container. A frequent misnomer.


I´m one of the “not-so-savvy” readers and I appreciate your easy explanation. Thanks!

Mike Fagan

No problem Inger. Glad you found it useful!

Crazy Dave

Thanks for this article… I am one of the dumb people who thought that MP$ was an update on MP3…. :)

Crazy Dave

Thanks for this article… I am one of the dumb people who thought that MP4 was an update on MP3…. :)

Mike Fagan

Yeah. That’s another common mistake. Glad to help clear that up.


I enjoyed this article! I have always found the container-codec relationship somewhat confusing. Thanks!

Mike Fagan

Glad it was enjoyable!


Hey Mike

Great pos. Well explained!

Mike Fagan

Thanks Aibek!


I’m another one of those ‘savvy but didn’t know this stuff’ tech types. Can you recommend sites that explain these and other differences to beginners? I’m often having to do conversions from, say, Quicktime or MP4 to .wmv. And while I can do it (usually) successfully, I don’t really know what’s going on. For instance, in a conversion such as the above I sometimes lose audio, and don’t know why that time but not other times…

Mike Fagan

You can never really go wrong with the basics. Wikipedia is nice,but can sometimes get a little technical. Differencebetween.net also has some nice article and is definitely worth a look. You can never go wrong just Googling “difference between A and B.” Thanks for the comment.

Toney Starks

Very useful

Mike Fagan



It is useful to have these type of articles and good to see it. I was linked here from a retweet and I’ve retweeted it myself. Say if I googled for this question it may not come to an answer that easy. Like when I tried to explain to a friend the difference between .jpg and .jp2 and couldn’t find a straight explanation in any search.

I hope you tagged this post straight to the point Mike so the bots know I’m searching for the difference between mp3 and mp4 ;)


Mike Fagan

Thanks for the support!


Count me as another who says articles like this are why I subscribe to your feed. Keep it up!