Understanding Your MP3 Player

Understanding Your MP3 Player

The history of the MP3 player dates back 40 years to a time when Prof. Dieter Seitzer of Erlangen-Nuremberg University in Germany began to look into how music could be compressed over phone lines. This led to a substantial amount of research being carried out into audio codecs which, to cut a long story short, eventually led to the creation of the MP3 format in 1992, although it wouldn’t adopt that name until later in 1995.

This led to further work to adapt the technology in order to make MP3 a portable format and the first compression standard (MPEG-1, which MP3 is based upon) which was used in video CDs. However, it wasn’t until the year 2000 that the first MP3 players came onto the market in the US, when headphone stereos equipped with a hard drive began to emerge.

Since then MP3 players have become a phenomenal success, helped along by the launch of the incredibly popular iPod range designed and manufactured by Apple. Nowadays, MP3 players have an incredible amount of functions and you can buy basic models that just play music right up to all singing, all dancing models that allow you to play games, watch TV and video and much, much more.

MP3 players are simply devices that allow the playback of compressed audio files, which are compressed to make them small enough to fit plenty on one device. Players vary and there is much discussion about what is the best MP3 player but all of them have internal storage which comes in various sizes that allows you to store hundreds of tracks in one place.

A typical music track is around 50MB in size, so you can see that without MP3 it would be very difficult to store a lot of songs at this size, even with the ever-shrinking hard drive technology we enjoy today. MP3 strips out a lot of the sounds in a track that our ears can’t discern and uses complicated maths in order to further reduce file sizes until they are around 11 times smaller than their predecessors.

However, MP3 players don’t just play MP3 formats; there are also AAC (used in Apple devices in addition to MP3), WMA, OGG and FLAC. The main difference between any of these formats is that they use different codecs to compress and decompress the files and some of them discard some of the indiscernible sounds whilst others keep them in. This leads to some formats offering a better quality of sound and these are known as ‘lossless’ devices.

The following will give you a better idea of which is which:

  • AAC is used in Apple devices and is a part of the MPEG standard
  • WMA is Microsoft based and the main competitor to AAC
  • OGG is not yet widely supported but has excellent sound quality
  • FLAC is not widely supported but offers great sound quality but larger file sizes
  • MP3 is the popular standard

Which is the best MP3 player?

This will depend largely on what you want to use it for and the quality of the sound you require. Apple’s AAC was originally developed to offer a better sound quality than MP3, but you are bound to Apple devices if you want to download this format only.WMA is thought to be Apple’s main competitor (unless you count MP3) as it supports DRM and provides an improved sound quality.  

When deciding on the best MP3 player to buy, it’s worth considering what formats it supports as obviously many are hard to find. So if you want to buy a player because it supports OGG, then it’s worth bearing in mind that there won’t be many downloadable tunes in this format, although you can download a convertor that will change the format to OGG.

However, this is something of a pain if you want to be able to organise and create playlists on your computer. It also means that you will be unable to find songs on commercial sites such as iTunes, Amazon and HMV in this format and it limits your choices, even if the sound quality is superior.

Whilst the quality may be better, there really isn’t that much difference between the quality of an MP3 or AAC file to that of OGG or FLAC. Another thing to consider is that finding music in this format may contravene copyright laws, something that is a big problem we’re sure you don’t want to contribute to.

Copyright – can I legally rip music to use on my MP3 player?

Copyright laws in the UK state that is completely legal to copy a CD in order to make a back-up copy so long as you own the disc and it’s strictly for your personal use. It’s illegal to copy and distribute music in this way, even if you’re just sharing with friends.

It’s illegal to download music from the internet via file sharing sites and this is something that governments the world over are now clamping down heavily on. However, there are plenty of places to buy music from at low prices such as iTunes, HMV, Amazon and Play and all of these sources are 100% legal.

There’s so much choice

We would recommend that you do a lot of reading before purchasing an MP3 player if you’re thinking about spending a lot of money. Cheap MP3 players are fine if you just want a simple device that does what it says on the tin, ie: plays music only, whilst if you want a player that has other functions such as video then a more expensive model is probably the best MP3 player for you.

Apple’s iPods come in a range of different abilities, from the iPod nano that is quite basic and just plays music, to the iPod Touch, which is really just like a mini iPad and allows you to do everything from playing games to video calling and watching movies.

The nano would be perfect for someone who wants to use an MP3 player for accompaniment when exercising as it is tiny and can be easily clipped to a belt. However, the Touch would be expensive to replace if it happened to fall out of your pocket as you were jogging along and so would be better placed to be used more as the multimedia device it is.

Lots of companies make MP3 players these days, Sony have introduced a Walkman range, SanDisk make the cute and affordable little Sansa, which is a cheap MP3 player and Samsung have brought out a lovely Galaxy S E-Series Android MP3 player which rivals the iPod Touch as it is packed with features and can also be used to surf etc., just like the Touch.

Another thing to consider is disc size; so if you want to store a lot of photos or video then make sure you get an MP3 player that has a lot of memory or an expandable card slot so that you can store everything you need.