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New Zealand's longest-running online daily news and commentary publication, now in its 23rd year. The opinion pieces presented here are not purported to be fact but reasonable effort is made to ensure accuracy.

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MP3, it's dead Jim!

16 May 2017

I recall when MP3 changed the world.

Suddenly, a popular music track could be compressed into a file that was just a few hundred KB in size -- rather than the multi-megabyte .WAV file that was normally found on a CD.

It was mainly thanks to the MP3 format that music piracy took off in a big way back in the 1990s and the format also made portable digital music players not only practical but essential.

I never had an iPod but I did have an MP3 disk-man which allowed me to fit lots of albums on a single CDR disk which was great for traveling. What's more, things like podcasts became a practical reality and because of MP3, the world became a whole lot richer and more accessible.

But I have bad news.

MP3 is officially dead.

The creators and patent-holders of the MP3 format, The Fraunhofer Institute, have announced that it is terminating all patent licenses for the technology and (it would appear) have given up further attempts to leverage the intellectual property for profit.

Should we be happy or sad?

Putting on our happy-face, this means that using MP3 will now no longer require licensing of the technology and that would make it cheaper and more accessible to all.

Putting on our sad-face, it means that yet another icon of the digital age is well on its way to becoming just a note in a tech-history textbook.

Of course if you wanted ultimate fidelity and high-quality audio, MP3 was never really that good -- even at higher bitrates. Its handling of sibilants was amazingly poor and at lower bitrates the audio became decidedly "fuzzy" to even the untrained ear.

These days there are much better ways of compressing audio (if you have to) and that includes some kick-arse lossless formats which reproduce the original waveform with ultimate precision. From this perspective -- thank God MP3 is dead!

However, just because Fraunhofer says it's dead doesn't mean it's going away any time soon.

I have a library of MP3 files which I ripped from store-bought CDs over many years and I find that as I get older, my hearing is less able to pick up the nastiness that hides in the background of these recordings. I'm going to be happy to continue listening to these tracks until the ground reaches up and swallows me so for that reason, MP3 isn't dead, it's just on life-support.

It's kind of funny though -- the whole concept of "ownership" of digital recordings is rapidly becoming "so last century". The power of streaming services such as Spotify and the ubiquitous nature of broadband digital connections means that it won't be long before our kids consider our collection of vinyl, CDs and MP3s to be "so quaint" -- rather than practical.

Ah well -- that's progress I guess.

Now I have to check eBay to see if I can find something to convert my wax cylinder recordings to AAC :-)

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