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What's the Difference Between MP3 and MP4?

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You have a favorite podcast. Maybe you keep an extensive (and legally-acquired) music library. Sometimes those audio files have an MP3 format noted. Other times, it might be designated MP4. Should you be concerned over audio quality? Is MP3 vs. MP4 a comparison you should worry about making?

First, let's take a quick look at the basics: MP3 stands for MPEG-1 Audio Layer 3. The format was approved in 1991 as a way for audio to be compressed and reduced to a file that was more easily transmitted online. In the simplest definition, MP3s keep their size to a minimum by reducing the information, or sound, that the human ear can’t pick up on. While there were MP1 and MP2 file formats, MP3 improved on the compression and became the standard in audio files that could be shared without sacrificing a noticeable amount of quality in the process—though that is, obviously, highly subjective.

In 2003, the MP4 format was finalized. Short for MPEG-4 Part 14, it’s based on the Apple QuickTime MOV format. While MP3 and MP4 comfortably coexist, there are some significant differences, with the most prominent being MP4’s versatility.

MP3s are generally audio-only files; the format is not able to handle video or imaging. MP4, on the other hand, is a multimedia facilitator. It can handle video, stills, subtitles, or text because it’s a “container” format that stores data rather than just code.

Debating the versatility merits of MP3 vs. MP4 doesn’t really answer the question of which is better for audio purposes or whether you should seek out one type over the other. For audio, the reality is that neither one offers a superior sound experience on format alone. “Lossy” audio, or audio that loses information so it can be reduced in size, is the case for both MP3 and MP4. MP4, however, makes use of codecs that may compress files in different ways. So, while MP4 is not inherently a superior format for sound, it has the capability to offer an upgrade in quality depending on how it’s being used. MP4s typically have the ability to take advantage of Advanced Audio Coding, or AAC, which can encode audio at a higher bitrate (the data used) than MP3s can, and usually sound better even if the bitrate is the same. AAC is what you’ll find in Apple’s iTunes store.

Naturally, a recording is only as good as the source material. If your favorite podcast is taking place in a poorly arranged studio setup, it doesn’t matter what format it’s being offered in. And if you're listening on a pair of cheap earbuds while jogging, you're less likely to hear major differences in audio than if you were using a sensitive pair of headphones.

Still, as with most tech innovations, the standards are always changing; in May 2017, the Fraunhofer Institute for Integrated Circuits—the group that helped to develop the MP3 technology—claimed that the format is essentially dead and announced that its "licensing program for certain MP3 related patents and software of Technicolor and Fraunhofer IIS has been terminated."

You may want to consider converting from one file format to another if your phone or other playback device only supports one type. Otherwise, audiophiles truly concerned about sound quality should probably disregard any MP3 vs. MP4 discussion and opt for FLAC, WAV, or other files that are “lossless.” They’ll take up a lot of storage space due to a lack of compression, but they’ll typically sound better than the rest of the internet’s alphabet soup.

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Big Questions
Why Do Fruitcakes Last So Long?
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Fruitcake is a shelf-stable food unlike any other. One Ohio family has kept the same fruitcake uneaten (except for periodic taste tests) since it was baked in 1878. In Antarctica, a century-old fruitcake discovered in artifacts left by explorer Robert Falcon Scott’s 1910 expedition remains “almost edible,” according to the researchers who found it. So what is it that makes fruitcake so freakishly hardy?

It comes down to the ingredients. Fruitcake is notoriously dense. Unlike almost any other cake, it’s packed chock-full of already-preserved foods, like dried and candied nuts and fruit. All those dry ingredients don’t give microorganisms enough moisture to reproduce, as Ben Chapman, a food safety specialist at North Carolina State University, explained in 2014. That keeps bacteria from developing on the cake.

Oh, and the booze helps. A good fruitcake involves plenty of alcohol to help it stay shelf-stable for years on end. Immediately after a fruitcake cools, most bakers will wrap it in a cheesecloth soaked in liquor and store it in an airtight container. This keeps mold and yeast from developing on the surface. It also keeps the cake deliciously moist.

In fact, fruitcakes aren’t just capable of surviving unspoiled for months on end; some people contend they’re better that way. Fruitcake fans swear by the aging process, letting their cakes sit for months or even years at a stretch. Like what happens to a wine with age, this allows the tannins in the fruit to mellow, according to the Wisconsin bakery Swiss Colony, which has been selling fruitcakes since the 1960s. As it ages, it becomes even more flavorful, bringing out complex notes that a young fruitcake (or wine) lacks.

If you want your fruitcake to age gracefully, you’ll have to give it a little more hooch every once in a while. If you’re keeping it on the counter in advance of a holiday feast a few weeks away, the King Arthur Flour Company recommends unwrapping it and brushing it with whatever alcohol you’ve chosen (brandy and rum are popular choices) every few days. This is called “feeding” the cake, and should happen every week or so.

The aging process is built into our traditions around fruitcakes. In Great Britain, one wedding tradition calls for the bride and groom to save the top tier of a three-tier fruitcake to eat until the christening of the couple’s first child—presumably at least a year later, if not more.

Though true fruitcake aficionados argue over exactly how long you should be marinating your fruitcake in the fridge, The Spruce says that “it's generally recommended that soaked fruitcake should be consumed within two years.” Which isn't to say that the cake couldn’t last longer, as our century-old Antarctic fruitcake proves. Honestly, it would probably taste OK if you let it sit in brandy for a few days.

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What's the Difference Between Stuffing and Dressing?
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For carbohydrate consumers, nothing completes a Thanksgiving meal like stuffing—shovelfuls of bread, celery, mushrooms, and other ingredients that complement all of that turkey protein.

Some people don’t say “stuffing,” though. They say “dressing.” In these calamitous times, knowing how to properly refer to the giant glob of insulin-spiking bread seems necessary. So what's the difference?

Let’s dismiss one theory off the bat: Dressing and stuffing do not correlate with how the side dish is prepared. A turkey can be stuffed with dressing, and stuffing can be served in a casserole dish. Whether it’s ever seen the inside of a bird is irrelevant, and anyone who tells you otherwise is wrong and should be met with suspicion, if not outright derision.

The terms are actually separated due to regional dialects. “Dressing” seems to be the favored descriptor for southern states like Mississippi, Tennessee, South Carolina, and Georgia, while “stuffing” is preferred by Maine, New York, and other northern areas. (Some parts of Pennsylvania call it "filling," which is a bit too on the nose, but to each their own.)

If “stuffing” stemmed from the common practice of filling a turkey with carbs, why the division? According to The Huffington Post, it may have been because Southerners considered the word “stuffing” impolite, so never embraced it.

While you should experience no material difference in asking for stuffing or dressing, when visiting relatives it might be helpful to keep to their regionally-preferred word to avoid confusion. Enjoy stuffing yourselves.

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