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It’s Time for Internet Radio to Retire MP3 Streaming

I have been listening to computer-based digital music for nearly two decades now. This includes streaming internet radio as well as music files like MP3s. It’s amazing to recall my first efforts to play then-new MP2 and MP3 format files I downloaded, very slowly, over my 56kbps dial-up connection, around 1996 or ’97. In fact, my computer at the time (a first-generation Pentium class PC) couldn’t even handle the computational overhead needed to play back an MP3 file smoothly.

These compressed files were fascinating to me because they represented the first practical way to distribute something that resembled high fidelity audio files over the internet. Sure, Real Audio and Windows Media Audio were also early, and successful, methods for streaming audio to listeners who were mostly accessing the ’net at glacial dial-up speeds. But over a modem their sound quality was closer to shortwave or AM than FM–good for talk, but not so great for music.

MP3, like RealAudio and Windows Media Audio, belong to a class of audio compression formats (a/k/a “codecs”) known as “lossy.” That means audio information is discarded when the file or stream is created. The neat thing about lossy codecs is that they’re clever about what info they throw away. The strategy is to get rid of frequencies and information that are less likely to be heard or important to the overall intelligibility of the audio. In general, they work remarkably, but not perfectly. While some argue that CDs are also imperfect, pretty much every file encoded with a lossy codec, like MP3, is inferior to the CD original, though the differences range from nearly imperceptible to glaringly obvious.

Now with both home and mobile broadband, downloading MP3 files is trivial, requiring mere minutes to get a whole albums’ worth of music, rather than the hour or two it took over dial-up. Furthermore, there are much superior alternatives. That’s why I’m ready to bid the MP3 farewell.

The Right Tech at the Right Time, but that Time Has Passed

Don’t get me wrong, I have very warm feelings for the MP3 format. The eventual standardization on MP3 helped make internet radio nearly ubiquitous, especially by unchaining listeners from having to install two or three different proprietary players–I’m looking at you Real Player and Windows Media Player–in order to hear different stations. For broadcasters, MP3 still keeps bandwidth bills under control.

Moreover, podcasting owes its very existence to MP3, which still reigns as the medium’s default format, even if there are plenty of podcasters who pine away for something better.

The reasons for MP3’s popularity are also the reasons why it’s ready for retirement. MP3 was a brilliant solution at just the right time. At the turn of the century the format brought the ability to store and share a full CD’s worth of music in about 1/10 the space (at 128 kbps) at the same time that computers became powerful enough to play these files effortlessly and hard drives became big enough–holding as much 100 GB, or 1,500 CDs in MP3–to amass a sizable music collection. Though far from sonically perfect, MP3 was better than anything else you would find online.

Now, even MP3s have improved over the last fifteen years as the compression and playback software have gotten better. Also, the distribution of music has moved to higher bitrates (256 kbps – 320 kbps) that deliver substantial sonic benefits while maintaining bandwidth efficiency.

At the same MP3s have been outclassed by newer compression technologies–like AAC (Advanced Audio Coding) and Ogg Vorbis. While there is a strong case for internet radio to continue using lossy codecs, MP3 is no longer the best choice.

When it comes to selling music downloads, I also think that it’s unnecessary to use MP3s. Even other lossy compression formats (including AAC) no increasingly less necessary. At the very least they should be only one of many available options. I’ll take up this aspect in a follow-up post.

MP3 No Longer Needed for Internet Radio

Using lossy compression for streaming music and internet radio is still both reasonable and practical because there are good reasons for both broadcasters and listeners to want or need to conserve bandwidth. For broadcasters, it costs money to serve each listener, and so the difference between delivering 128 kbps and 1 mbps per stream can add up quickly when we’re talking about thousands of listeners.

Listeners on mobile may only be able to receive so much bandwidth, and they’re much more likely to be paying for every megabyte, or have a monthly quota. At home the case for lossy compression is less clear-cut, especially when people routinely watch streaming video that consumes several times the bandwidth. But I’m also realistic, recognizing that users listening through tinny PC speakers or cheap earbuds have little for full CD quality. Plus, a home with a few teenagers in it can quickly test the bandwidth limits of your cable modem service.

But not needing full CD quality is not an argument for MP3. Alternative formats like AAC or the open source Ogg Vorbis deliver a better experience at equivalent bitrates. Importantly for mobile users, variants of AAC provide surprisingly good fidelity over very restricted bandwidth conditions where MP3 streams sound pretty atrocious.

For the most part, internet radio listeners are ready to migrate away from MP3, too. Most desktop player apps–like iTunes or WinAmp–handle formats like AAC. Plus, many desktop listeners use embedded web players that can handle other formats, too. So do the Android and iOS mobile operating systems, meaning some 96% of mobile users in the US are ready for a switch.

Pretty much the only listeners not ready for the switch are those using older dedicated internet radios that either don’t have the capability to use other formats, or that don’t support the protocols used to deliver them. That’s the problem with the BBC’s recent near-wholesale transition away from MP3, which has left some internet radio users less well served. However, from both a cost and technical standpoint, in most cases it’s not a big deal to leave a legacy MP3 stream running.

Better Alternatives for Internet Radio

Realistically, while analog radio analog FM radio can sound very good, broadcasts only occasionally approach fidelity one might call CD-quality. So, I’m perfectly happy with internet radio that achieves similar results. I’ll even admit that high bitrate MP3 streaming (256kbps and higher) can meet that standard.

The thing is, AAC definitely qualifies as near-CD quality at 256 kbps, and I’ve heard AAC+ streams at bitrates as low as 96 kbps that meet or beat 256kbps MP3 streams (Radio Swiss Jazz’s 96kbps AAC+ stream is one example). That means using AAC offers potential cost savings for stations in terms of bandwidth, while also offering higher fidelity to listeners. I’d call that a win-win.

On top of AAC’s greater bandwidth efficiency, using it actually costs a broadcaster less than MP3. That’s because running an MP3 stream requires a royalty fee that many people–and broadcasters–are probably not aware of. Those fees start at $2,000 a year, though non-commercial and non-revenue-generating broadcasters should be exempt. Although MP3 is freely used and feels free to average user, it still contains technologies that are licensed under patent.

Now, AAC has patent-protected technology, too. The difference is that it is explicitly licensed for broadcasters to use for free.

Why MP3 Persists

Given all of this, the only reason why MP3 still seems to dominate internet radio is just tradition, really. The support for AAC, in particular, is nearly as widespread as MP3, and it costs less. Pretty much all MP3 has going for it is name recognition and the fact that many stations otherwise don’t have the incentive to fix what does not appear to be broken.

Surfing around stations I certainly find many that do offer AAC streams. My completely unscientific sample shows that amongst terrestrial broadcasters public and community stations are more likely to offer an AAC stream, or even make AAC the default format, as Seattle’s KEXP does. Commercial stations often only provide an in-browser player where the format is unknown, or direct you to a platform like iHeartRadio, which is similarly opaque (though I suspect iHeartRadio actually uses AAC for its mobile apps).

Pure-play internet stations are all over the map. However–again, unscientifically–it seems like stations with a web presence that are music-focused are more likely to offer not just AAC, but a variety of different codecs and bitrates. San Francisco-based Soma FM is one example. This listener-supported platform of 28 different stations offers at least three bitrates each of MP3 and AAC.

To be clear, I don’t necessarily care if a station explicitly tells me what format it streams in, as long as that stream sounds good. It’s just that too much internet radio doesn’t sound that great, and when I dig under the hood I usually find an MP3 stream (and usually a lower bitrate one, at that). I don’t blame a broadcaster for wanting to save money with a lower bitrate–I only wish they’d use a better codec than MP3.

What About Full CD-Quality Internet Radio?

Given my preference for full CD-quality digital music that doesn’t use lossy compression, I’m also an advocate for its use in internet radio. I’ve even written about the few stations that deliver these streams.

However, I’m also aware that streaming CD-quality FLAC or ALAC means 5 to 10 times more bandwidth for a station to cover, at a commensurately higher cost. Additionally, support for lossless streaming is much less universal than it is for AAC. For instance, iTunes doesn’t support FLAC, while pretty much only Apple products support ALAC natively. A station can offer an in-browser player that will work on most desktops, but that still counts out a healthy percentage of potential audience.

For the same reasons why I’m OK with analog FM’s near CD-quality fidelity, I’m fine listening to a good internet stream that matches the sound quality of a decent FM broadcast. Sure, I’d love to hear more uncompressed internet radio, but I can live without it.

Streaming music services are a different deal. First, I’m pretty sure the major streaming services have all abandoned MP3. As one would expect, Apple-owned Beats and iTunes Radio both use AAC, as do Rdio and Pandora. Rhapsody has used both AAC and MP3 in the past, while Spotify uses Ogg Vorbis. Google Play Music and Amazon Prime Music are stuck with MP3. That said, the paid subscription versions of these services generally sound pretty good under most circumstances–paid subscribers, predictably, get served the highest bitrates. I think they’re a reasonable value, but I’m personally not terrifically happy to pay for access to lossy streams.

I’m glad to see the recent introduction of full CD-quality streaming services like TIDAL and Deezer Elite, and I’m perfectly good with paying the subscription fee to get them. I also have no problem with the fact that CD-quality costs more than the lossy versions because I do hear and appreciate the difference.

The War of Attrition

The good news is that I do think AAC is edging MP3 out, primarily due to its superior sound quality over bandwidth restricted mobile broadband. For big streaming platforms using AAC means both savings and preventing mobile listeners from choosing other apps that sound better.

Yet, there are still hundreds, if not thousands, of internet stations–commercial and noncommercial–that still only offer MP3, often with middling to poor sound quality. I don’t want to call any out, but I’m surprised how many great community and college stations I like still offer up mediocre-sounding MP3 streams. They could sound better without any additional cost–maybe even some savings.

It may seem too geekily technical or esoteric, but I think internet radio can and should sound good, and that radio stations–especially great independent stations–will only thrive by embracing new, better sounding technologies.

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0 Responses to It’s Time for Internet Radio to Retire MP3 Streaming

  1. Fred Stiening May 11, 2015 at 4:47 pm #

    Assorted thoughts…

    Does a person listening to the tiny speaker on a mobile phone get any benefit from audiophile quality music?

    How prevelant is multicasting? A multicast stream does not consume more bandwidth as the number of listeners increases – the replication of the stream occurs only at the listening end point where the connection count is down to 1 – typically within the listener’s internet provider.

    What is the underlying encoding used by HTLML5? abacast, tunegenie and Triton Digital are rapidly moving to streaming for mobile devices that doesn’t need any app or third party codecs

    Due to the legal implications, I don’t reverse engineer the streaming players. The issue with browser based streaming is that many listeners are not using a browser – the have things like wifi portable radios that are not computers and need access to a widely supported format with a bare stream URI. That’s why many stations – colleges and other noncoms mostly – are reluctant to turn them off. The MP3 patent issue is less of a concern to noncoms

  2. Paul Riismandel May 11, 2015 at 5:20 pm #

    Thanks for the questions, Fred. Here are some answers:

    >Does a person listening to the tiny speaker on a mobile phone get any benefit from audiophile quality music?

    I’m not arguing for audiophile quality of music, just something that approaches the same quality as analog FM. So I guess my question is, how does a station know whether a listener is using a tiny speaker or a pair of decent headphones? And how many listeners with good headphones are lost when the stream they get is more like AM radio?

    Why should broadcast stations, in particular, provide a less quality experience online than they do on air?

    >How prevalent is multicasting?

    I first started researching multicasting almost 20 years ago, when the protocols were first established. The short answer is that it never caught on with most public internet environments. There are intranets that support it–for instance some colleges provide IPTV to dorms and campus buildings using multicast. But a local ISP has almost no incentive to support it for any third-parties that aren’t paying for it, so it’s basically DOA for average internet radio user.

    >What is the underlying encoding used by HTLML5? abacast, tunegenie and Triton Digital are rapidly moving to streaming for mobile devices that doesn’t need any app or third party codecs

    HTML5 supports four codecs, and it’s up to the browser to choose which ones. Modern versions of Firefox, Opera, Chrome, IE and Safari all support MP3 and AAC.

    While I think that MP3 needs to be sunset, I do get that there are reasons to maintain some minimal support for the few listeners using internet radios and non-computer devices. However, those are a dwindling number of users, since most modern devices (like a Sonos) support AAC.

  3. Gerwin van der Kamp May 12, 2015 at 6:20 am #

    Thanx to youre article I decided that the popup player on from now on preferred the 256kbps AAC+ stream (although the standard for that was 320kbps mp3)

    And I saw the FLAC streaming section and decided to build that too 🙂 So we have now :

    HE-AAC+ (256kbps)
    MP3 320kbps

    (and a slow mobile connection option: 32kbps aac+)

  4. Ken Dardis May 12, 2015 at 9:10 am #


    With respect, I believe you are searching for a solution to a problem that doesn’t exist.

    The base data you speak of, bitrates and various codecs, are there, but do enough people care to make the change? I haven’t seen data to say yes. (It’s like the conundrum facing HD Radio.)

    Your statement of opinions come from someone who is too deep with knowledge to reason what a common listener looks for – the audio file, and not much more. The majority are not concerned with hi-fidelity (as your statement about earbuds and poor speakers alludes).

    I was SVP at Spacial Audio until it was purchase by Triton Digital. I saw nothing then, and don’t see a lot of reason now, on why a move to better online fidelity matters to the masses. Losing MP3 appears as a change for change’s sake.

    As for SOMA FM: There are few people with the knowledge and foresight of its owner, Rusty Hodge. He’s always been at the top of the list with innovation. I suspect nothing will change in this arena as he moves his stations into the future.

    • Paul Riismandel May 12, 2015 at 9:47 am #

      Hi Ken, thanks for sharing your thoughts.

      I don’t think HD Radio is a useful comparison, since the technology barely offers any sonic improvements.

      I’m not sure what data you’re relying on to say that there isn’t any desire for better fidelity, though I don’t doubt you’re deep knowledge and experience in this area.

      However, improved fidelity isn’t the kind of thing that it’s easy to measure demand for. Instead, I think you have to look at some broader trends.

      First, in the last few years we’ve seen an explosion in the market for premium headphones. Though there is a fashion element to it, I think it undoubtedly indicates a desire for better sound on the part of a significant number of people.

      Second, listening to internet streams of terrestrial radio has gone flat, while use of Pandora and Spotify continues to grow. My experience is that services like Pandora and Spotify consistently sound better than the average commercial radio station’s stream. I can’t imagine I’m the only person to notice, and I suspect that many listeners are voting with their apps, by choosing Pandora instead of terrestrial radio.

      Of course, customization and listener experience are also different with Pandora and Spotify, but sound quality is part of that package.

      And, I must admit, some commercial stations on iHeartRadio do actually sound pretty good, though not all do. iHeartRadio appears to be using AAC for the mobile streams, which is at least part of the sonic integrity. My complaint with many stations on this platform is that the heavy-handed compression they use in the air signal is fatiguing when listening on headphones, and sometimes results in audible distortion.

      It’s a mistake to ignore sound quality under the assumption that listeners don’t care. If it were a very expensive proposition to upgrade to another codec I would be more sympathetic. As it is, I think it makes for both a wise business decision, as well as one that benefits listeners.

  5. Ken Dardis May 13, 2015 at 10:34 am #


    I didn’t say anything that relates to your quote of “I’m not sure what data you’re relying on to say that there isn’t any desire for better fidelity…”

    I did say “… [I] don’t see a lot of reason now, on why a move to better online fidelity matters to the masses.”

    These are two different concepts. You reflect an audiophiliac’s opinion, which I understand.

    I’m also not seeing where your comments on trendy headphones or online services translates into a proven desire for better fidelity. There are many more items defining why people use either, than the sound.

    Nobody suggested ignoring sound quality. MP3 works well. I was speaking of moving the masses, which your first commnets support as not probable.

    I’ll stick by my “do enough people care to make the change?”

    And, about that HD Radio. Remember, according to 6 years of radio promos, it makes “AM sound like FM, and FM sound like CD.” The whole premise of this movement is improved sound. 🙂

    Best wishes,
    Ken Dardis

  6. Jim ODonnell May 16, 2015 at 5:16 pm #

    Some of the higher end headphones are being used by gamers, though they’re also microphone-equipped. Many of the so-called ‘high end’ headphones today are tailored to play back crappy compressed audio by limiting their response curve. They sound good to the Beats generation, but aren’t really hi-fi.

    Thanks for mentioning us Wifi radio listeners. Though I’m a relative rarity being in the U.S. where smartphones rule, across the pond web radios are far more prevalent. I have five wifi radios around the house – one of which is a fine sounding tuner (with s/pdif out into a decent outboard d/a) that doesn’t even handle AAC+, so I’m not that jazzed about abandoning 128K MP3, which can sound quite good. Offer a separate higher fi solution, as Soma and others do. But leave my legacy format in place. I have a studio full of dead formats (reel to reel, DAT, minidisc, early flash recorders, outboard compellors), all replaced by a laptop and a few decent outboard interfaces. Let’s buy my wifi boxes at least a few more years of use.

  7. Dennis Nilsson May 28, 2015 at 1:42 pm #

    The MP3 is now free. It is in public domain. The patent license has run out.

    It is a art to get good audio quality on a stream, whatever codec you are using.

  8. RK Henderson July 16, 2015 at 10:57 am #

    My position as a listener is this: as long as I can play. We finally got that WMA nonsense out of our systems (no pun intended), which fenced iTunes users out of a lot of attractive stations. Most of the tech I use now handles either MP3 or AAC without protest, though to get AAC to run on my browser would take some dancing around I’m not wiling to do. (Not a problem, really; I refuse to listen to radio on my browser, for anything other than checking out a new station I just surfed into.)

    The great advantage of MP3 is that (finally, at the moment) it’s universal. And we literally just got here; several stations I’ve been bugging about their WMA streams (grrrrr….) have just converted over. So when I hear calls to abandon MP3 now, I start to grit my teeth.

    That said, I like stations that offer multiple stream choices. Different bit rates, different formats. I realise this takes funding and expertise that not all stations have, but if you’re going to try something that’s not MP3 (or at least AAC), that’s the way to go. Because if you can’t connect, you can’t listen. (C.f. recent BBC shenanigans.)

    Net Radio Blog

  9. Milton August 18, 2015 at 5:24 pm #

    Siding with the patent and copywrite brown-shirts, I see. As stated above mp3 is in the public domain and is near universal. Besides, a large number of listeners are seeking informative voices from around the world and would like to breach the walled environs for views not co-opted and bought by rent-seeking services Such as iHeart and Spotify.

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