MP3Pro Released Today by RCA

By Richard Menta - 6/14/01

RCA today posted the first MP3Pro Coder/Decoder (codec) to rip CD tracks into the new high quality compression format. Created by the Fraunhofer Institute and RCA parent company Thomson Multimedia, MP3Pro is the first major update to the MP3 format in its decade old history. You can download it below.

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MP3Pro drops compressed files sizes by one half, while retaining the same sound quality. Normal encoding for the standard MP3 format is 128 kilobits, which produce file sizes of around 1MB for every minute of music. At the 64 kilobits compression, standard MP3 knocks out audio above 10 kilohertz (human hearing can detect up to 20 kilohertz) to save space. File sizes are reduced, but at the cost of muffling the high frequency sounds. At 64 kilobits MP3Pro retains the previously discarded frequency range thus offering a brighter, less tinny, sound.

At 80 kilobits compression, MP3Pro will offer both better sound and smaller files than standard MP3s at 128 kilobit hinting that will become the default for most users. Right now, the first version of the encoder only offers 64bit compression.

"I expect that MP3 and MP3Pro will gain acceptance by the content owners," said Thomson vice president Henri Linde. "If there are 12 million users of MP3 hardware devices, and if everyone has players for MP3s (on their computers), that's a fact that the industry cannot continue to ignore." MP3Pro supports the standard MP3 format so users can continue listen to their already established MP3 collections.

While MP3 is by far the dominant format online, it is faced with competition from several newer formats who have already taken advantage of more recent technology in their products. This includes Microsoft's WMA format and Sony's ATRAC3 format.

No anti-swap security added

Like standard MP3 - and unlike competitor formats - MP3Pro has no built-in mechanism to thwart the trading of music files with others. We were surprised to learn that some analysts feel this will hurt MP3Pro because the recording industry will not adopt any technology without file security protocols imbedded within. We think they missed the point.

It is the user, not the record labels that will drive which format will be dominant. File security software offers little incentive for users to switch away from a format they have already invested heavily in. It is a disincentive to be honest. The record labels also have another front to deal with in this matter, the big electronic companies.

The electronic giants are investing heavily in the MP3 format because that is the one the consumers are demanding. While many digital music products are capable of multiple formats, only the MP3 format is ubiquitous. Digital music products are expected to replace the aging cassette format over the next several years and that means billions of potential new revenue for the likes of Toshiba, RCA, and Panasonic. Even Intel and Kodak have entered the arena with MP3 products, that's how lucrative it is expected to be.

The electronic manufacturers must pay licensing fees for each format their product is capable of reading. It costs a manufacturer $3.75 per unit they distribute for the standard MP3 license and it will cost $7.50 per unit to license both the MP3 and MP3Pro formats. Add to that the licensing fees of any additional formats like WMA or AAC and you can see how manufacturers have incentive to keep the available formats their products are able to decode to a minimum.

Only the more expensive units will carry more than two. In a couple of years when we expect lower priced models will be introduced between $50 to $75, economics might force these units to carry only one.

As long as MP3 is dominant online, it will be the dominant format in the electronic stores. Conversely, if MP3 is dominant in the electronic stores, consumers are compelled to stay with it rather than risk limiting their options when they go to buy a digital music product. How many people with a couple of hundred MP3 tunes in their collection are going to be interested in a digital music player that handles only the WMA format? It's a catch 22 that works against Microsoft right now. Things could change though.

Microsoft's Push

Lately Microsoft has made the news in the digital music front with rumors that Windows XP will be designed to discourage MP3 use as a tactic to promote the company's own WMA format. Because most people play their digital tunes through their computer system, Microsoft has a clear advantage should they wire WMA more indelibly into its operating system.

Can Microsoft be number one in the digital music arena? This tactic did work against Netscape and quite well. MP3 does have a big branding and adoption advantage, but so did Netscape.

Still, MP3 is more consumer friendly where WMA is more record industry friendly, a fact that plays against Microsoft. As NY Times reporter Matt Richtel found in his article New Economy: Curdled Musical Romance Gets Couples Counseling there are some 70 million music-consuming Napster users, and many of them say they don't trust the recording companies. That's millions of users who may extend that distrust to any products that declare themselves as anti-piracy (a record industry term abhored by many Napster users) like Microsoft has done with WMA.

The major labels may now appear in the drivers seat as far as the distribution of online music goes, but as long as the likes of Morpheus, Imesh, and the various Gnutella spin-offs like BearShare and Limewire exist and pick up users, free MP3 music will continue to be available and MP3Pro offerings will grow.

Download MP3Pro here.


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We Test Drive the Lyra 2 MP3 Portable


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