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AAC vs MP3 Full Comparison: Which One Is Better

Some of my music on iTunes was converted to AAC, others are just left as MP3, which has the more clear sound and best sound quality? - From Yahoo Answer

AAC (Advanced Audio Coding) and MP3 (MPEG-1 Audio Layer 3) are two mainstream music audio formats. AAC is written as file extension type .m4a, .m4b, .m4p, .m4v, .m4r, .3gp, .mp4, .aac, widely used in iTunes while MP3, written as .mp3, is so much employed on digital audio players. And MP3 player is now the synonym of portable media player.

But which audio file format is better, AAC or MP3? What's the difference between those two music formats? Is it really true that AAC sounds better and owns smaller file size than MP3 of the same bit rate? It's time to weigh in. This article will give you an overall AAC MP3 comparison to let you get the answer.

Comparison between AAC and MP3

Firstly, you should make it clear that both AAC and MP3 are audio coding standards for lossy compression. AAC was released for public on 1997, 3 years later than the release date of MP3, to be the heres of MP3 format. Compared to MP3, AAC generally performs better than MP3 just at the same or similar bit rates. This difference in quality is more obvious at lower bitrates.

Note: WAV Losseless and AIFF are two high-quality, uncompressed file types used for CD burning, much larger than other formats. If you call for lossless compression music formats, Apple Lossless, FLAC and APE are recommended.

1. AAC vs. MP3 Sound Quality Comparison

An engineer once did a music quality summary of AAC and MP3 on iTunes and iPhone. It's clear that AAC file generally sounds much better than MP3 at 128kbps or even lower bitrate. For even higher bit rate, e.g., 192Kbps, 256kbps, 288kbps or 320kbps, there is no clear distinction betwen AAC and MP3 in naked ear. Certainly, theoritically speaking, AAC has higher audio quality than MP3 by courtesy of more effective algorithm AAC adopts for determining what audiences will and won't hear.

What's more, Dolby Laboratories also comes to a conclusion through tests:

  1. Experts said it's not easy to tell the difference between 256Kbps stereophonic sound AAC music and the uncompressed audio;
  2. AAC file at 96Kbps retains more bits (less distortion) than MP3 file at 128Kbps;
  3. AAC file at 288Kbps sounds much better than MP3 file at 320 Kbps;
  4. AAC is the only network broadcast audio format that can get "Excellent" at all EBU listening test project.
AAC VS MP3 Quality Comparison
AAC VS MP3 Quality Comparison

To get more detailed comparison among lossy AAC, MP3 and lossless WAV in audio quality, check here, which uses professional device phase inverter to create the null test.

2. AAC vs. MP3 File Size Comparison

Here we'll convert the original WAV music file - Butterfly from Jason Mraz (62.38M) to MP3 and AAC with one of the most popular audio converter software - Freemake Audio Converter, and compare their file size. In order to keep the converting test as accurate as possible, we only change the bitrate parameter from 96 to 256, no audio channel or sample rate (default 4.41 kHZ) change.

AAC VS MP3 File Size Comparison
AAC VS MP3 File Size Comparison

From the table above, it's obvious to see that AAC and MP3 own the similar size at lower bitrate and that AAC is much smaller in size at higher bitrate.

3. AAC vs. MP3 Compatibility Comparison (Why AAC is not So Popular as MP3?)

AAC is less compatible: available on iTunes, iPhone, iPad, iPod, Microsoft's Zune, Sony PS5/4/PSP, and some mobile phones.

MP3 is more compatible: actually works with every cellphones, pads and audio players.

AAC is less widely supported than MP3, partly because it's relatively newer and Windows Media has risen constantly. Although AAC was developed by Nokia, Sony, AT&T Bell Laboratories and Dolby Laboratories, Apple takes it as "Apple's baby" - a standard audio format for iPhone, iPod, iTunes, and iPad. Maybe AAC can be used with a wide variety of non-Apple devices in near future.

4. AAC vs. MP3: License and Patents

No licenses or payments are needed for a user to stream or distribute content in AAC format. But a patent license is required for all manufacturers or developers of AAC codecs. Click here to get the whole picture about AAC license and patents from wikipedia.

Unlike AAC, the legal control of relevant MP3 patents (concerning decoders) is unclear. Consequently, the legal status of MP3 is up in the air in countries where those patents are valid. This won't stop the popularity of MP3 audio format adopted by common consumers.

Summary: Objectively speaking, taking all the factors into consideration, AAC does have higher quality sound and smaller size than MP3 at the same or similar high bitrate. But MP3 is much more compatible than AAC. Since different file formats have different merit and demerit, different users have different preference and needs, neither AAC nor MP3 can rank the first. One word to tell, the best format is the one that is compatible with your device and meets your needs!

Update 1: Recently, The Fraunhofer Institute for Integrated Circuits, the founder of MP3, has officially terminated his licensing program for "certain MP3-related patents and software" after almost two decades. And Fraunhofer IIS also says more advanced, effecitent AAC is supposed to supersede MP3 despite MP3 is still the NO.1 widely-used audio codec right now. >> See the official statement

Tool 1 - Audio Converter Format Factory to Convert AAC to MP3 and Vice Versa

If you plan to stand on iTunes and iPod for a long time, go with AAC. You can convert AAC to MP3 or MP3 to AAC by iTunes as you like. But if you'd like to switch to a device with AAC unsupported, multifunctional AAC encoder Format Factory is a good choice. Check the step-by-step guide of transferring AAC to MP3.

Step 1. Click "-> MP3 file" icon to open the converting setting profile;

Step 2. Click "Add File" to add AAC file into the converting list and hit "OK" to get back to main profile. Here you can do some output settings like quality, bitrate, sample rate etc. and select output folder;

Convert AAC to MP3 with Format Factory
Convert AAC to MP3 with Format Factory

Step 3. Hit "Start" button to begin AAC to MP3 shifting.

Still have question on AAC vs. MP3 and audio conversion, please feel free to Mail Us >>

Tool 2 - Free Music Player

5KPlayer, lets you free play AAC, MP3, lossless WAV, FLAC, M4A, as well as MP4, MOV, M4V, MKV, AVI, H264, H265, AV1, VP9, etc. any music and video files without downloading any codec package. It also free downloads AAC, MP3, iPhone ringtone music from Vimeo, Vevo, audiomack, grooveshark, musicplayon, etc. 1000+ music video sharing sites. 100% free, clean and safe! No ads, malware or spyware!


author - Kistent Waung

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Graduated from Nanyang Technological University, Singapore, she employs herself in IT related content creation (since 2013) and happens to perfectly combine her major (computer & science) and her gusto (writing). She's seasoned at offering video audio conversion workarounds and always passionate about new trends, from hot HEVC, 4K to the new AV1 codec.

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