The MP3 Phenomena and Innovative Music
Other codecs have been developed that have better audio quality than MP3. Q-Design is probably one of the most impressive of these. The files are much smaller than MP3s and the sound is superior. The primary drawback of Q-Design is that it is proprietary and contains security features. In other words, you can’t obtain and use it for free.
RealAudio is one of the most frequently utilized alternative formats. It is primarily used for streaming audio and video at low bit-rates. The Real codec can reproduce sound at a quality similar to that of FM radio. In addition to its own format, Real technology has the ability to create and play back regular MP3s. RealAudio is the only popular format, other than MP3, that can support all major operating systems, including Windows, MacOS, Linux and BeOS.
Other codecs have been developed, not for better sound quality but for security reasons. For instance, Liquid Audio tracks can only be played on the computer of the person who downloaded them. With Liquid Audio, the listener can view album cover art, read lyrics and liner notes, and hear a sample track from the CD, all before deciding to make the actual (and legal) purchase. The security features also allow you to burn a single CD copy of the material you purchase.
I spoke to representatives from two new music record labels, innova and Tzadik, that offer their music on Liquid Audio. Both labels said that though they had made some sales via Liquid Audio, they still sell vastly more CDs than downloads. Nonetheless, both labels noted that Liquid Audio allowed them to reach a certain segment of users they may not reach otherwise. Philip Blackburn at innova said "innova’s music is not as visible as that of major labels and shelf space is largely at the whim of the store buyer for our kind of music, thus a service such as Liquid Audio is an attractive addition to our distribution system." He also noted, "Another advantage is that innova artists can point their fans directly to any of over 1000 sites that offer the Liquid Audio service, or indeed register their own site as an affiliate, thus vastly increasing their work’s accessibility."
A format that bypasses many of the aforementioned issues is the newly developed Ogg Vorbis. It was created by the Xiph.org Foundation, a non-profit organization based in the U.S., whose stated goal is to "promote the creation of free, unencumbered, and interoperable multimedia standards." Ogg Vorbis is an audio compression format that is comparable to MP3, but does not use any of the Fraunhofer/Thomson patents.
Like MP3 and RealAudio, Ogg Vorbis offers full encoding and decoding capability for Windows, Linux, MacOS and BeOS. Ogg Vorbis uses a "lossy" format, but claims to have better sound quality and smaller file sizes than MP3.
Because of the Xiph.org Foundation’s interest in public service and its freedom from obligations to Fraunhofer/Thomson, Ogg Vorbis does not require any sorts of licensing fees from artists, webcasts or developers. Artists may sell any amount of music, developers can use the source code to create and sell an unlimited amount of encoders and decoders, and webcasts can use it for webcasting music, all with no restrictions, royalty payments, or limits on distribution, because the OggVorbis specification is in the public domain. It is completely free for commercial or noncommercial use.
The creators of Ogg Vorbis feel that it is important to continue to have a free and open format for sound on the Internet. They fear that Fraunhofer/Thomson’s corporate alliances could result in more control and regulation of MP3. Thomson became a private company in late 2000, and its shareholders include Microsoft, NEC, DirectTV and Alcatel. Additionally, Fraunhofer and Thomson are currently participants in the Secure Digital Music Initiative (SDMI), which some feel is an effort by the international recording industry to regain total control of music distribution.
OggVorbis is still very new and only available in a limited number of players and encoders. They do not yet have the capability for real-time streaming. Nevertheless, future actions by Fraunhofer/Thomson or the recording industry could push a format such as OggVorbis to become the preferred format worldwide. (Listen to Angry Coffee Artists Encoded with Vorbis.)
For now though, MP3 remains the preferred format, not because of its sound quality or even its size (Q-Design is the smallest), but because MP3s are free, provide adequate sound at higher bitrates, and they can be used on almost any operating system. MP3 is the most commonly used format and it is available worldwide. The appeal of MP3 is its convenience and availability, not its high-quality sound. Obviously, MP3 is mainly a sociological issue, not a technological one.