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

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what is the difference between mp3 and mp4In 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.

MP3

what is the difference between mp3 and mp4MP3 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.

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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.

MP4

what is the difference between mp3 and mp4MP4 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.

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Comments (36)
  • Rich Martin

    Burned a copy of music as an mp3 and it worked in one car but not another. Should I burn another copy as an mp4? Interesting huh? I’m using Windows 8.1, CyberLink Media Suite So I can burn either mp3 or mp4 Thank you

  • Chris

    Thank you very much for this enlightening explanations! At least I know now how to pose my question!
    I got here trying to figure out how to extract the audio from a DVD by using VLC.
    I suppose I could use for a first step the profile “mp3 (mp4)”. This writes a file with the extension *.mp4, while choosing mp3 only leads to a file with the extension *.ts, which is totally unfamiliar to me.
    But how do I extract the mp3 from the container mp4, so that it can be played by an mp3-player?
    Would this be a helpful expansion of this article?

  • marilyn chauvin

    I’m a 68 yr. old computer dummy. But when this showed up on my tablet I was amazed!!!!!!!!!!!!I love this,no more trying to decide how to download anything!!!!!!LOVE THIS, MARILYN

  • he5rdn

    so, which one should i use. MP3 or MP4? if I want to burn it to a CD or record it to tape player? cause i cant stand modern devices.

  • Trimbun fausting achmed ali mochamed

    This article help alot. very thanks, because, i wondred if the diference was realy big, but i guess that it wasnt that big, thanks for ur help i feel blesed to have peple like u help us that dont have very good teknolchgi knoladge, very thanks again :)

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Affiliate Disclamer

This review may contain affiliate links, which pays us a small compensation if you do decide to make a purchase based on our recommendation. Our judgement is in no way biased, and our recommendations are always based on the merits of the items.

For more details, please read our disclosure.