Technology Explained

What Is MP4? The Difference Between MP3 and MP4

Dan Price 11-12-2019

MP4 files are just a newer and better version of MP3 files, right?


Well, no.

That single-digit difference might give the impression that they are more-or-less the same thing, but nothing could be farther from the truth. They each have their own distinct uses, histories, and advantages — so allow me to repeat, MP3 and MP4 are not two editions of the same thing.

In this article, we’ll explain some of the key differences that everyone should know about. By the time you’ve finished reading, you’ll know exactly which file type is right for your needs.

Understanding MPEG

But before I dive into the differences, it’s important to understand from where the two file types originated.

MP3 is short for MPEG-1 Audio Layer 3. It was one of two formats that were considered for the MPEG audio standard back in the early-1990s. Electronics firm Philips, French research institute CCETT, and Germany’s Institute for Broadcast Technology backed the format thanks to its simplicity, lack of errors, and computational efficiency.


The decision was reached in 1991 and MP3 files entered the public domain in 1993.

MP4 stands for MPEG-4 Part 14. This technology is based on Apple’s QuickTime MOV format, but adds support for various other MPEG features. The file type was first released in 2001, but it’s the 2003 re-release that’s now commonly used when you see MP4 files.

Audio-Only vs. Digital Multimedia

The most fundamental difference between MP3 and MP4 is the type of data they store.

MP3 files can only be used for audio, whereas MP4 files can store audio, video, still images, subtitles, and text. In technical terms, MP3 is an “audio coding” format while MP4 is a “digital multimedia container” format.


MP3: The King of Audio

Because they are so good at storing audio, MP3 files have become the de facto standard The 10 Most Common Audio Formats: Which One Should You Use? You know about MP3, but what about AAC, FLAC, OGG, or WMA? Why do so many audio file formats exist and is there a best audio format? Read More for music software, digital audio players, and music streaming sites. No matter which operating system or device you own, you can be confident MP3s will work right out of the box without a hitch. It’s why MP3 players might still be worth buying Should You Still Buy an MP3 Player? Here are the pros and cons of using MP3 players and help you decide whether it's worth buying an MP3 player these days. Read More .

The main reason they’re so popular is the way the file type works. MP3s use lossy compression How Does File Compression Work? How does file compression work? Learn the basics of file compression and the difference between lossy versus lossless compression. Read More , which vastly reduces the size of an audio file while barely affecting its quality. The process works by stripping out all the data that’s beyond the hearing range of the average person, then compressing the rest as efficiently as possible.

MP3s also allow users to balance the trade-off between audio quality and file size How To Quickly Improve The Quality of MP3s With GarageBand [Mac] Read More . If you’re an audiophile, you can opt for larger file sizes with higher bitrates and better audio quality. On the other hand, if you want to squeeze as much music as possible onto your portable device, you can reduce the file size and audio quality accordingly.

Furthermore, MP3s will always be smaller than equivalent MP4 files. If your audio player or smartphone is getting full, you should convert any audio saved as MP4 into the MP3 format. Note that you may take a hit to audio quality in the process!


MP4: More Uses, More Flexibility

MP4 files are “containers” — instead of storing the code for the file, they store the data. As such, MP4 files do not have a native way of handling the coding of the file. To determine how the coding and compression will be handled, they rely on specific codecs.

There are hundreds of codecs out there today, but not many will work with mainstream MP4 players. In order for a player to be able to read and play an MP4 file, it must have the same codec itself. The most widely-supported codecs are:

  • Video — MPEG-4 Part 10 (H.264) and MPEG-4 Part 2.
  • Audio — AAC, ALS, SLS, TTSI, MP3, and ALAC.
  • Subtitles — MPEG-4 Timed Text.

These codecs give MP4s a lot more flexibility than MP3. For example, M4A files (which are MP4 files that only contain audio) can handle both Advanced Audio Coding (AAC) and Apple Lossless Audio Coding (ALAC). The choice on quality resides with the user. Either way the file will appear as an MP4 file, but the data within the file will differ vastly.

Besides audio, MP4 files can also contain video, images, and text. You’ll often see various file extensions that give an indication of the type of data within the container. Here are some of the most common:

  • MP4 — The only official extension.
  • M4A — Non-protected audio.
  • M4P — Audio encrypted by FairPlay Digital Rights Management.
  • M4B — Audiobooks and podcasts.
  • M4V — MPEG-4 Visual bitstreams.

Understanding File Metadata

Both MP3 and MP4 files support metadata. Without it, it would be impossible to effectively use music player apps (like iTunes) or home media servers (like Plex).

MP3 files use ID3 tags. They allow information such as song title, artist, album, track number, and even album artwork to be stored within the file itself. The tags are saved at the end of the file’s code — their content is either extracted by decoders or ignored as junk non-MP3 data. You can edit these tags using the popular Mp3tag.


Other pertinent information, such as ReplayGain data or DRM restrictions Remove DRM From iTunes Videos Quickly And Easily With M4VGear M4VGear simply takes DRM videos downloaded from iTunes and makes them DRM-free Read More , can also be saved within the metadata.

MP4 files can implement metadata in the same way as MP3s, but they also introduce the Extensible Metadata Platform (XMP). XMP metadata is well-suited for MP4’s container format thanks to its compatibility with a vast number of file types, including PDF, JPEG, GIF, PNG, HTML, TIFF, Adobe Illustrator, PSD, WAV, and PostScript.

MP3 and MP4 in a Nutshell

I’ve tried to give you a balanced insight into the two file types without being too technical, and I hope you’ve now got a clearer understanding of the two formats.

In summary, if you’re saving audio for use on portable players, you should look to MP3. If you want to save video, or you want to stream your content over the internet, you should use MP4.

Audio file formats go beyond MP3 and MP4. Take a look at the most common audio formats and when to use them The 10 Most Common Audio Formats: Which One Should You Use? You know about MP3, but what about AAC, FLAC, OGG, or WMA? Why do so many audio file formats exist and is there a best audio format? Read More .

Image Credit: Antonio Guillem via Shutterstock

Originally written by Mike Fagan on December 8, 2009

Related topics: Audio Converter, MP3, MP4.

Affiliate Disclosure: By buying the products we recommend, you help keep the site alive. Read more.

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  1. Austin
    June 23, 2019 at 4:03 pm

    You can make MP4 any bitrate you want, same as MP3. MP4 is far more efficient, way better compression. Why isn't this mentioned in the article?

  2. Suresh vadgama
    February 5, 2019 at 4:27 am

    Does mp4 consumes/uses more data than mp3 does?

    • Barry McCockiner
      May 9, 2019 at 10:13 am


  3. Bree
    January 13, 2019 at 6:53 am

    Im clearly late to the show. However, i have one question or clarification. If i understand correctly a youtube audiobook would be best converted into or as a mp4 file? Right?

  4. Bree
    January 13, 2019 at 6:48 am

    Clearly i understand im late to show, however, i do have one question or clarification.. If i understand correctly a YouTube audiobook would be best converted into or as an mp4 file?... Right?

  5. Mel Rotthlisberger
    November 11, 2018 at 6:46 am

    Very good. In a way all can understand. Most of us are just making family videos or music to play on USB plug in car radios etc. So the KISS method ( Keep It Simple Stupid ) works just fine. Thanks.

  6. Dave walsh
    January 3, 2018 at 6:26 pm

    I downloaded some music via iTunes in mp4a format but my device won’t play it. It does play mp3 music what can I do. ? Thanks

    • Zsolt
      March 21, 2018 at 10:32 pm

      The easy way is to convert it to mp3 file. Since its not a movie ore a video (clip). It should not be a problem to convert it to mp3 media file.

      Now it will be a litle to long to read and hard to folow if i tell you how to do it, so i suggest you search it upp on google ore even easyer way just search it on youtoube.

      I hope it will help you, have a good day !

  7. Kathy Heelan
    December 11, 2017 at 11:25 pm

    For learning a language on the go which is most suitable

  8. vikram
    July 1, 2017 at 9:39 am

    Excellent article that explains the MP3 MP4 terms succinctly

  9. Bazzbozz
    November 4, 2016 at 6:47 pm

    Ok, I kinda get the difference between the two, however, when I try to burn a CD from itunes it won't burn the MP4 files from itunes downloads. Is this because you can't burn the MP4 to a CD or is there something else going on from itunes that it won't let me burn the MP4 files, and if so should I convert all my MP4 files to MP3 files if I only 'listen' to my songs on in Itunes?

  10. Doc
    October 30, 2016 at 9:14 pm

    "MP3 files can only be used for audio, whereas MP4 files can store audio, video, still images, subtitles, and text."

    Sorry, I've got LOTS of MP3s that include covers (images), lyrics (subtitles), and metadata. #factfail

    • Dan Price
      October 31, 2016 at 4:22 pm

      Read the metadata section.

      • Doc
        October 31, 2016 at 4:33 pm

        I did. In fact, I read the whole article thoroughly. It failed to explain that, while MP3 files *primarily* contain audio, they can also contain everything that an MP4 can, *except video* - which should have been the distinction between formats, rather than implying that the MP3 format was inferior.

        • Tor
          December 7, 2016 at 10:03 pm

          MP3Files use ID3 tags to contain metadata. ID3 tags can contain up to 265MB of data split between frames of up to 16MB. Further, while there are several predefined frames, applications can define their own frames and use the space however they like. There is nothing keeping an application from thoroughly following the ID3 tag specification AND storing video data within a set of frames. In fact, while we're at it, let's use it to throw some MP4 files in there. Thus, you are incorrect in stating they cannot store video.

          At the end of the day, any application can interpret any set of data in any way, as long as they are programmed to do so. I think you're being a bit misleading in stating that the distinction between formats is that MP3 cannot store video. The MP3 format was a tool designed to store audio data, while the MP4 format was a tool designed to contain a variety of data types. But hey, who says you can't can't use a hammer (That's a tool, BTW) to dig a 10 meter deep hole, right?

          Really, who cares what I think, right? I'm really here just to prove you wrong, since, you know, MP3 CAN store video XD


        • Doc
          December 8, 2016 at 4:53 pm

          @Tor: Wow, I was not aware that metadata could include video. Also, the "265MB of data" looks like a typo (256MB). That amount of metadata isn't enough for a feature-length movie...although stuffing a music video in a MP3 sounds like fun. :)

      • klockwerk
        March 20, 2019 at 1:02 pm

        Get-em Doc, you are correct and the inaccuracies here show up when you google info about mp4s. Tor: We care.

  11. Tony McGovern
    October 27, 2016 at 8:14 pm

    Not a bad summary, but I think the key differences to explain are the difference between video and audio PLUS all the other file extensions you see (eg mkv, etc)
    When people see a file they only see the extension, & there's loads of them...

  12. David Gennaro
    March 22, 2016 at 7:08 pm

    That was great. I've read many opinions previous to your article and that's all they were, opinions.
    Now I know.
    Thank You

  13. RandomX
    March 17, 2016 at 3:17 am

    Umm..I can't seem to find the difference between a 'mp3 player' and a 'mp4 player'. Someone said that the fuze+ was a 'mp4 player' but I think that it's just a mp3 player. Anyone can shed some light on this? Thanks, my google searches turn up nothing but the format 'mp3' vs the format 'mp4' which has nothing to do with the difference between the two different players.
    Thanks again! ^_^~

    • Doc
      October 30, 2016 at 9:19 pm

      "MP4 players" are devices that can play back MP3s, but also have a (usually small) color screen that can play back MP4 (video) files as well. If you want to play back video, you're usually better off buying an inexpensive Android tablet (6" and up); you won't be left with a one-trick device with a postage-stamp sized screen I bought a 4" iPhone-style MP3/MP4 player a few years ago, and it crashed a lot; a malformed MP3 file actually caused it to crash on startup, as its low-budget custom software couldn't handle the file, and it required indexing all my files on startup, so every time I unplugged the USB cable it crashed. Had to send it back to the eBay seller to get it replaced. No such worries with Android - any decent vendor (Samsung, Nextbook, even Amazon Kindle) will have a better-supported device.

  14. Mahantesh
    December 20, 2015 at 5:11 am

    Very crisp and clear explanation to understand the differences of these formats. Thanks so much. Very useful

  15. Anonymous
    June 23, 2015 at 9:15 pm

    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

    • jo
      December 7, 2015 at 5:33 am

      Depends if that other car can read mp4 or not. Maybe the stereo is too old to read mp3, and therefore, will not read mp4 either. Change the format to something the stereo can read.

  16. Chris
    May 22, 2015 at 8:38 pm

    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?

  17. marilyn chauvin
    May 21, 2015 at 9:57 pm

    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

  18. he5rdn
    May 18, 2015 at 3:49 am

    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.

    • jo
      December 7, 2015 at 5:34 am

      What's "it"? If you have older devices, then use mp3 or older. Obvious. Do some research.

  19. Trimbun fausting achmed ali mochamed
    May 12, 2015 at 4:27 pm

    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 :)

  20. Scorpion
    May 9, 2015 at 1:49 pm

    That guy Ringo Starr what a douche. Use the name of a famous Beetle and then make comments like that. Found your response very helpfull. Thanks

  21. Imogen
    March 28, 2015 at 9:33 am

    So if i were to download a music video on youtube but only wanted the sound i would use .mp3?

  22. Jessica
    March 17, 2015 at 3:06 am

    Thank you for this article. I've been searching for almost an hour trying to figure out the difference between mp3 and mp4. This was the first site that explained it in an easy-to-understand way.

  23. Anonymous
    March 17, 2015 at 3:05 am

    Thank you for this article. I've been searching for almost an hour trying to figure out the difference between mp3 and mp4. This was the first site that explained it in an easy-to-understand way.

  24. Lee
    March 16, 2015 at 11:00 am

    More savvy now than before read the article, but reminds me of Texas joke: Question - What's the difference between an orange? Answer - (thumb and first finger close together, not touching, measuring...) About that much.

  25. jimmy
    January 8, 2015 at 12:17 pm

    thankyou so much .. this is a amazing article ..

  26. mamerica
    January 7, 2015 at 2:48 pm

    There are always people who think that passing on a little knowledge somehow makes them less knollegeable. I imagine Ringo is one of them. He has deep-rooted insecurity and identity issues that we probably won't be solving anytime soon.

  27. Greg ALLEY
    December 29, 2014 at 7:29 am

    As a so-so user I appreciate the explanation. So many people "ass u me" one is literate when actually ignorant of pertinent facts. Ignorance can be cured but one cannot fix stupid. Thank you much.

  28. tongjoophoon
    December 15, 2014 at 3:35 am

    Simple but concise article, well done.

  29. Lisa
    December 19, 2009 at 7:49 am

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

  30. andjoh
    December 18, 2009 at 5:58 am

    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
      December 18, 2009 at 9:31 am

      Thanks for the support!

  31. Toney Starks
    December 9, 2009 at 3:32 pm

    Very useful

    • Mike Fagan
      December 9, 2009 at 5:30 pm


  32. Stefan
    December 9, 2009 at 1:17 pm

    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
      December 9, 2009 at 1:52 pm

      You can never really go wrong with the basics. Wikipedia is nice,but can sometimes get a little technical. 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.

  33. Aibek
    December 9, 2009 at 5:20 am

    Hey Mike

    Great pos. Well explained!

    • Mike Fagan
      December 9, 2009 at 1:34 pm

      Thanks Aibek!

  34. Albert
    December 9, 2009 at 4:19 am

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

    • Mike Fagan
      December 9, 2009 at 1:33 pm

      Glad it was enjoyable!

  35. Crazy Dave
    December 9, 2009 at 12:27 am

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

    • Mike Fagan
      December 9, 2009 at 12:46 am

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

  36. Crazy Dave
    December 9, 2009 at 12:27 am

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

  37. Inger
    December 9, 2009 at 12:13 am

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

    • Mike Fagan
      December 9, 2009 at 12:18 am

      No problem Inger. Glad you found it useful!

  38. San Diego John
    December 8, 2009 at 3:59 pm

    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
      December 8, 2009 at 4:03 pm

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

    • Jameson
      February 3, 2015 at 8:02 am

      Thanks! You said it!

  39. Ringo Starr
    December 8, 2009 at 3:37 pm

    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
      December 8, 2009 at 4:01 pm

      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.

      • Ravi
        December 9, 2009 at 7:02 am

        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!