Officially known as the MPEG-4 Audio format, the M4A was developed by many companies, like Bell Labs, Dolby Laboratories, Microsoft, the Fraunhofer Society, and others. It was released in 1997, and its filename extension is .m4a.
Designed to be the successor to MP3, M4A is an audio format whose data is encoded with the Advanced Audio Coding (AAC). It's also part of the MPEG-2 and MPEG-4 standards.
Since this format uses the AAC codec, it's also known by that name.
It is mainly used by Apple. So it is the default music format in iTunes, Apple Music, and it is compatible with iOS devices.
Advantages and disadvantages of M4A format
M4A is a standard format for digital audio, valid for the digital distribution of music. But, as with everything, it has its benefits and drawbacks. You can see them in detail below.
- Small file sizes. The M4A format uses lossy compression. As such, it is around ten times smaller than uncompressed files while maintaining an acceptable audio quality. This undoubtedly makes it a suitable format for the digital distribution of audio content.
- Better compression technology. M4A has more advanced compression technology than MP3. As a result, M4A files are smaller than MP3 files.
- Quality. The M4A format sounds better than MP3, even at the same bitrate.
- Compatibility. Although M4A is an audio standard, it's not precisely universal. Just a few devices support it natively, and those are Apple devices and Android phones. Most devices and media players can't open M4A files.
- Quality. Although M4A sounds better than MP3, it's still a lossy format. That means it's decent but not as high as lossless formats like FLAC or ALAC.
Frequently Answered Questions
Can Windows 10 open M4A files?
No, Windows 10 does not support the M4A format. In fact, no Windows device does it. Unfortunately, that means you can't open M4A files with Windows Media Player, at least no natively.
Even so, it is possible to open M4A files with a Windows computer installing the proper codec in your device. For example, by downloading and installing the K-Lite Codec Pack on your computer, Windows Media Player should be able to open M4A files.
Another way to open M4A files in Windows would be to download a media player that supports the M4A format, such as the VLC Media Player.
Is M4A lossless?
No, M4A files are not usually lossless. In most cases, M4A files use the AAC codec, which is a lossy compression technology. It discards unnoticeable audio data from the original file to reduce its size. And such a thing affects the audio quality and fidelity.
But .m4a is also the filename extension of ALAC (Apple Lossless Audio Codec) files, which is a lossless format. So in those cases, M4A is lossless, of course.
But the common thing is that the M4A format refers to AAC, and for this reason, M4A is lossy most of the time.
Is M4A better than MP3?
Yes, M4A is better than MP3 in almost every way.
M4A uses more advanced compression technology than MP3. For that reason, the former reaches smaller file sizes than the latter. M4A also has a higher quality than MP3. So in terms of technology and audio quality, M4A is better.
MP3 is better than M4A in terms of accessibility since it is a universal audio format, and M4A isn't.
Can Windows Media Player convert M4A to other formats?
No, you can't use Windows Media Player to convert M4A files to other formats. Windows Media Player cannot convert any file to different formats because it's just player software. Its only purpose is to play multimedia (video/audio) content and nothing more.
Is M4A an open format?
M4A is not an open format. But, despite that, you can legally use it for free to distribute and stream content online.
However, if you intend to develop an M4A codec, you must pay for a patent license.