Windows Media Audio versus MP3

by Chris Walton
April 14, 2001

Despite the claims of Microsoft, the new Windows Media Audio v. 8 algorithms yet remain clearly inferior to those of the Fraunhofer Layer-3 codec at high bitrates. I suspect that, either Microsoft deliberately misrepresents the performance of their product and counts on the public to be gullible enough to fall for the hype despite the evidence of their own ears, or their programmers are so wrapped up in number-crunching that their sense of hearing becomes incidental to the development process.

My feeling is that somebody should set the record straight. So to that end, here is my biased comparison of a few selected routines of the new audio codec to those of the old and of Fraunhofer Layer-3:

20 kbps, mono
The new codec does marginally better than the old, preserving more apparent high end with slightly less artifact. At this bitrate the MP3 is deficient of high frequencies.

32 kbps, stereo
The new codec does considerably worse here. Whereas it delivers more highs, the artifact is unacceptable. In this case you definitely want to use the old encoder. At this bitrate the MP3 is yet still deficient of high frequencies.

64 kbps, mono and stereo
In two channels, MP3 and Windows Media 8 both show a prominent "swishy" artifact, though the frequency range is broader (ostensibly twice as broad) in the .wma. The single-channel 44.1 kHz .mp3 is, predictably, a good deal clearer and brighter than either of the stereo encodings.

128 kbps, stereo
At this bitrate MP3 (Fraunhofer specifically) is in its element, and is increasingly faithful to the source as the bitrate is increased. Windows Media, on the other hand, displays distinctly audible artifact even here, in spite of Microsoft's claims that this represents "CD Audiophile Quality", and that your recordings will sound like CD audio even at 64 kbps.


For internet streaming, Windows Media offers a viable alternative to other configurations and is one of the best choices available at present. However, in situations where bandwidth is less of an issue, such as CD-ROM distribution and archiving, Layer-3 remains at this writing indisputably the unrivalled codec - indisputably, that is, if you have ears to hear, and if you don't, well, none of this matters. In which case you might consider applying for a position at Microsoft.

Digital Audio Guide