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MP3 is a popular digital audio encoding and lossy compression format invented and standardized in 1991 by a team of engineers working in the framework of the ISO/IEC MPEG audio committee under the chairmanship of Professor Hans Musmann (University of Hannover - Germany).

MP3 was designed to greatly reduce the amount of data required to represent audio, yet still sound like a faithful reproduction of the original uncompressed audio to most listeners. In popular usage, MP3 also refers to files of sound or music recordings stored in the MP3 format on computers.

MP3: Overview

In the simplest respect, MP3 is a compression format. It provides a representation of pulse-code modulation-encoded (PCM) audio data in a much smaller size by discarding portions that are considered less important to human hearing (similar to JPEG, a lossy compression for images).

A number of techniques are employed in MP3 to determine which portions of the audio can be discarded, including psychoacoustics. MP3 audio can be compressed with different bit rates, providing a range of tradeoffs between data size and sound quality.

In terms of the MPEG specifications, AAC (Advanced audio coding) from MPEG-4 is to be the successor of the MP3 format, although there has been a significant movement to create and popularize other audio formats. Nevertheless, any succession is not likely to happen for a significant amount of time due to MP3's overwhelming popularity (MP3 enjoys extremely wide popularity and support, not just by end-users and software but by hardware such as DVD and CD players).

Quality of MP3 audio

Because MP3 is a lossy format, it is able to provide a number of different options for its "bit rate" -- that is, the number of bits of encoded data that are used to represent each second of audio. Typically rates chosen are between 128 and 256 kilobit per second. By contrast, uncompressed audio as stored on a compact disc has a bit rate of about 1400 kbit/s.

MP3 files encoded with a lower bit rate will generally play back at a lower quality. With too low a bit rate, "compression artifacts" (i.e., sounds that were not present in the original recording) may appear in the reproduction. A good demonstration of compression artifacts is provided by the sound of applause: it is hard to compress because it is random, therefore the failings of the encoder are more obvious, and are audible as ringing.

As well as the bit rate of the encoded file, the quality of MP3 files depend on the quality of the encoder and the difficulty of the signal being encoded. For average signals with good encoders, many listeners accept the MP3 bit rate of 128 kibit/s as near enough to compact disc quality for them, providing a compression ratio of approximately 11:1. However, listening tests show that with a bit of practice many listeners can reliably distinguish 128 kbit/s MP3s from CD originals; in many cases reaching the point where they consider the MP3 audio to be of unacceptably low quality. Yet other listeners, and the same listeners in other environments (such as in a noisy moving vehicle or at a party) will consider the quality acceptable.

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