A music file's bit rate refers to the number of bits each second-long music sample contains. A music file on a CD contains 16 bits of data for each of its 44,100 samples, but an MP3 file discards some of those bits, using compression to create a smaller file size. You can create different MP3 files with different sound quality for the same song, because most compression and encoding software lets you choose the bit rate you want. The lower the bit rate, the more data that is lost compared with the original file, and bit rates typically range from 96 to 320 kilobytes per second (Kbps). It generally takes a bit rate of 160 Kbps or above to produce sound quality comparable to a CD.
Though the MP3 music file format revolutionized the distribution of music, some people who value the best possible music experience look down on MP3s. These audiophiles believe that MP3s, no matter how high their bit rates, are inferior to vinyl records and CDs. Others argue that the human ear could never hear the data that's lost to create a 320-Kbps bit rate song in the first place, so they say there is effectively no difference. Many musicians also believe that songs are increasingly being recorded with fewer variations in volume and pitch, to accommodate the MP3 format, which results in inferior recordings and music with a generic sound.
It's useful to note that MP3 wasn't the end of the line for media compression that could help consumers and producers alike. There is also the MP4 compression format, which is typically used for video, audio and multimedia content. (The MP3 format, by contrast, is for audio only.) Content that can be streamed -- for example, an Internet podcast -- is often created and distributed in the MP4 format. A multitude of media players will play files in the format, including the iPod.
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