Windows Media Audio and You

They've made ten of these things

As you might assume after reading its full name, the Windows Media Audio format was developed by everyone's favorite "Big Brother" corporation, Microsoft. Long before it failed to trump the Playstation 2with the Xbox, the Redmond-based Microsoft was failing to trump the MP3 codec with its less popular WMA.

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Although not as popular as the MP3 (and none of the other audio formats are), WMA is still a significant codec. It supports a number of sampling and bitrates, including pretty much anything that is related to the all-encompassing Windows operating system. As a part of Microsoft's growing library of digital and home audio tools, WMA is positioned directly opposite Apple's Advanced Audio Coding, or AAC.

Because WMA files support so many sampling and bitrates, it allows a file producer to mess around with the quality and bandwidth requirements for the application at hand. It's part of the WMA's attempt to someday rival the quantity-over-quality competition from MP3, since the latter does lose some value through compression and decompression.

Clearly, support for poor, 'lil .wma is the main concern with the codec itself. Although this writer has experienced his own frustrating moments when trying to use .wma files for a variety of "sure would be useful" applications, I am assured by my editor and other encyclopedic sources that it is second only to MP3 in the number of devices that support it.

Aside from my whining, WMA files really are designed with a few Windows-specific players in mind. Most users who know what they're doing will execute .wma files with three key programs, including Mplayer, Winamp, and RealPlayer.

In addition, the Playstation Portable (PSP) gaming and digital media player introduced support for .wma files in November of 2005. It begs the question that if Microsoft and Sony can get along here, why not in the gaming world? I mean, how about Master Chief as a villain in the next Metal Gear Solid? Genius!

Windows Media Audio might still need a few tweaks to take down the MP3 audio format

The central question regarding any audio format/codec is: what does it sound like?

At first, Microsoft claimed that music files at the same bitrate – say, 128 kb/s – would sound better through .wma than .mp3. In fact, Bill Gates and the boys also told consumers that Windows Media Audio would produce better quality at even higher bitrates, perhaps as steep as 320 kb/s.

Despite all these dandy promises, Microsoft's media files haven't lived up to the billing. By way of independent tests on the major audio file types, listeners could not tell the difference between MP3 and WMA with both running at 128 kb/s. What's worse is that Apple's sound file, AAC, and the lesser known Ogg Vorbis media both trounced WMA.

Say it ain't so, Bill. Say it ain't so.