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Heir To The MP3 Throne: OGG or MPC ?
October 15, 2002

MP3 encoders have pretty much reached the end of the line. Every last drop of quality has been squeezed out of the MP3 format and now the audio world wonders which (if any) encoder can take the title away.

The candidate with the most potential appears to be OGG Vorbis, but those in the MPC camp say their encoder is the best in terms of quality.

Who would want to replace MP3s?

After I posted an article entitled 'The Quintessential Guide To Creating The Highest Quality MP3s On Earth' I received many comments about both OGG and MPC, which are both merely audio compression formats just as MP3 is.

The MP3 format by it's very nature has some limitations. The team involved with the LAME project has squeezed pretty much every last drop of quality out of the MP3 sponge.

While a properly encoded MP3 can sound exactly like the original CD to most people, there are those who strive to find imperfections, and those who would like to see a new format replace MP3 for good.

Better compression formats are able to make CD quality files at lower bitrates, which means smaller filesizes, which means you can fit more high quality songs your hard drive or portable player.

Have you ever tried encoding a live CD to MP3 and noticed there was a gap between songs that you couldn't get rid of? That is yet another limitation of the MP3 format which newer formats can handle with ease.

Also, MP3 is actually a proprietary format, patented by the Fraunhofer Institute in Germany who licenses it to Thomson MultiMedia.

In theory, anyone who makes an MP3 player, be it hardware or software, is supposed to pay them royalties. In the past, the company has let this slide, but recently they've decided to start cashing in.

Now if you were a hardware manufacturer, creating portable devices, which format would you support? MP3, which requires you to pay a royalty for every device that you ship, or OGG which is a completely open and free format, owned by nobody?

Of course, as a smart manufacturer you would also realize that everyone still wants to play MP3s, because that's what we've been downloading for the past 6 years or so. As a savvy manufacturer though, you are likely hoping the public will start supporting OGG so you can start selling OGG-only players and boost your profits.

Don't go deleting your MP3s just yet though, they are a long ways away from being replaced, but you should be aware of what looms on the horizon.

Ok, so OGG is free, what about MPC?

According to MusePack.org the MPC format will not stay freeware. Since MP+/MPC utilizes some patented mp2-algorithms there are royalties to be paid to the patent holders. This means mpc will be distributed as shareware. The decoder as well as the plugin and the related sources will stay free.

However, MPC should not be dismissed merely because of this. As of this writing, MPC is regarded by many as being the best lossy audio compression format available. According to audiophiles, MPC is actually 100% transparent.

What does transparent mean? Let's say you have a pure, uncompressed .WAV file, and you compress it with something. Be it MP3, or OGG, or MPC, it doesn't matter. Now let's say you play that compressed file back and it sounds exactly like the original .WAV file. You are then able to say, "The compressed file is transparent, because it sounds exactly like the original."

Now remember, the people who perform these transparency tests are usually audio freaks with highly trained ears and very expensive equipment. What sounds transparent to you might not sound transparent to them. Also, some types of music are harder to encode than others, and there are certain samples that give nearly every encoder trouble.

So for MPC to boast that their encoder is 100% transparent is very impressive. (It's achieved with an average bit-rate of about 230kb/s).

And what about OGG, is it any good?

Make no mistake, OGG is very, very good, but it has not even come close to reaching it's potential yet. While MP3 and MPC have pretty much reached the end of the line in terms of being tweaked and improved, OGG is just starting to receive the necessary attention.

Most have no doubt that OGG will eventually overtake both MP3 and MPC but it will be a little while yet.

So which encoder should you use?

A properly encoded MP3 should sound exactly like the original 99.9% of the time to 99.% of the population. There are some audio freaks out there who claim they can hear differences, and if you are one of them you may wish to consider MPC.

If you're like most people and fortunate enough to be ignorant to the differences, you will enjoy the advantage of being able to play your music wherever you go, whenever you want, however you want. You won't find many players that can play MPC or OGG files.

I would have a hard time recommending OGG over MP3 at this point in time, simply because there isn't much advantage (even in file size). Once OGG is tuned a little more, and there are more OGG players on the market it will be a different story. If you want to get a head start in the OGG world though, maybe now is the time.