Media Players

MP3 or WMA: Which one sounds better?

Many people wonder, with so many audio formats out there, which one has the best sound quality?

First of all, we're talking about “lossy” audio formats. If you're an audiophile and require the utmost in sound quality, you may want to use a lossless audio format like FLAC or WMA lossless. Those formats have the same sound quality as a music CD. You may also want to check out OGG Vorbis lossy format, or WMA professional. These are the only 2 lossy audio formats which support bitrates beyond 320 kbps.

The problem with lossless and high-quality lossy audio formats are that they take up a lot of storage space on your music equipment. For those music funs who own tons of albums, the space requirement becomes a real problem when they transfer the music files onto hardware such as MP3 players, hard-disks in their car or even thin laptops.

That's topic of this segment. People want to hear high quality sound with lower storage requirements. We need to balance between sound quality and file size.

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MP3 Pros

MP3 is most popular audio format around the world. It got this way for many reasons:

  1. It provides very good general sound quality while using approximately 1/10 the space of a lossless music CD.
  2. The sound quality of MP3 is basically linear to the bitrate which ranges from 32 kbps to 320 kbps.
  3. It is well supported by pretty much every music device you would ever have a chance to use.

MP3 Cons

When compared with WMA format, MP3 is considered to have poor sound quality in low bitrates, especially less than 64 kbps. In addition, MP3 uses a bit more storage space.

But many comparisons between MP3 and WMA are somewhat unfair. The MP3 files might have been generated by Windows Media Player or other conversion tools. However, those MP3s sound very different from the MP3 files generated with the MP3 encoder known as LAME. That's to say, if you want the best sound quality, you need to convert your MP3 files with the LAME encoder from your lossless music sources. This, however, has not always been so simple for an average user who doesn't even know what LAME is all about.

In short, MP3’s shortcomings are:

  1. Loss of a lot of sonic details, particularly with low bitrates and higher frequencies
  2. A bit difficult to optimize for high sound quality MP3 songs

WMA Pros

The accepted conclusion for WMA audio format was that it has better sound quality in low bitrates like 64 kbps. But others disagree, and believe they could hear significant crackling in the bass, and the overall sound is tinny. But from my own experience, as for the 128 kbps, the high-frequency details sound much better than non-LAME MP3.

  1. Better sound quality in low bitrates
  2. Beats none-LAME MP3 at popular bitrate 128 kbps
  3. Could be convenient for Windows users

WMA Cons

WMA was designed by Microsoft, so it was supported really well on Windows platform. However, this also means it has compatibility problems with other platforms, and various hardware devices.

  1. Less support compared to MP3
  2. WMA Standard was not good enough to beat LAME MP3
  3. WMA Professional bests LAME MP3, but it remains unpopular nonetheless

It's interesting to see many people against WMA format for anti-monopolist reasons. They don't want to see Microsoft issue another different standard unique to them yet again.

Conclusions

In the end, it all depends on the listener’s ears. If you can’t distinguish any significant quality difference, both formats work great for you. If you feel the sound could be better, you can compress the original lossless audio source with higher bitrates, using your preferred audio format.

  1. For people who aren’t discerning regarding sound quality, or they hear their music in a noisy environment, 128 kbps is probably just fine for both WMA and MP3.
  2. For people working in a quiet environment and want to hear music in better quality, 192 kbps MP3 could be a better choice.
  3. For audiophiles, 320 kbps is the best option regardless of desired format.