Pandora – Tale of two codecs

About two weeks ago, Pandora.com started switching their audio streams from 128kbps MP3 to 64kpbs AAC. It may be a permanent change, or a behind the scenes experiment. I have yet to find anything about this on the official Pandora blog.

Since quite a few PandoraJam users have enquired about this, I thought I would mention that:

  • I haven’t noticed any drop in audio quality, although I’m not an audiophile and I have a rather unimpressive audio set-up.
  • Due to the change in audio compression technology, a higher bitrate does not necessarily mean higher quality audio. As an old Apple document points out, “AAC-encoded files sound as good as or better than MP3 files encoded at the same or even a higher bit rate”.
  • If you like a song, buy the high quality 256kps AAC version of the song from the iTunes Plus store. It’s not quite lossless, but plenty good.

Pandora.com is a great web-site… don’t worry about the technology and just enjoy the tunes 🙂

UPDATE: Pandora.com is streaming in HE-AAC (aka aacPlus) and the recordings are also in this format. iTunes does not fully support playback of HE-AAC resulting in 44.1k Hz HE-AAC/aacPlus recordings being played back as 22 kHz AAC tunes. The recordings sound better when listened to in applications which support HE-AAC such as VLC.

UPDATE 2: According to a user who contacted Pandora.com, downgrade your flash version to 47 or before, and you’ll continue hearing 128 kbps mp3s.

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15 Responses to Pandora – Tale of two codecs

  1. Anonymous says:

    And you can enjoy your Pandorajam recordings in HE-AAC quality with softwares like Real Player 11 MPlayer Songbird or VLC

  2. Anonymous says:

    I must say the sound quality, when listening through iTunes, is noticeably worse when compared to the previous 128 kbps streams. Yes, listening through VLC does make it sound better, but isn’t the whole point to be able to listen to it on your iPod? I guess we either wait for this Pandora “experiment” to end or for iTunes to start supporting HE-AAC (or whichever AAC version this is).

  3. Simon says:

    It’s AAC LC (low complexity). It would have made sense to switch to AAC 128kbps, rather than 64 kbps. Perhaps Pandora.com are thinking of offering their paying subscribers a higher bitrate.

  4. elaine says:

    I’m sure this is an inappropriate question, but I’m going to ask anyway. 🙂 Have you heard any talk about an application like Pandora Jam being adapted for Linux and Amarok?I’ve been demoing Pandora Jam on the Mac at work and it’s FANTASTIC. I’ve been waiting for a great Pandora app like this ever since I discovered (and got addicted to) it!

  5. Simon says:

    Correction: Anonymous is right, recordings are in HE-AAC (the broadcast format), which iTunes and iPod do not fully support yet.

  6. Dr says:

    still the first anonymous, just to say that I tried to encode the Pandorajam recordings in mp3 with XLD, because it’s supposed to support HE-AAC, but XLD doesn’t recognize the files.”Impossible to open the source file”Let’s be patient. Applications such as Max started again their development recently. Perhaps the solution is not so far

  7. Andy says:

    Got this reply from Pandora Listener Support today. Anybody care to comment? Maybe his comment does not apply to iTunes since iTunes apparently does not take full advantage of the HE-AAC (AAC+) format.”For Pandora on the Web and Pandora in the Home, our music streams are based on mp3 and AAC+, comparable in fidelity to all high-end Internet radio services. Most experts concur that properly tuned AAC+ is at least as good as mp3 at twice the bit rate. Our bitrate strikes a good balance between full, rich sound quality, and the bandwidth required for each listener to use Pandora. It is planned to be a permanent change. Thanks for writing.Pandora Listener SupportSince iTunes does not work with AAC+ can you do better by first converting the AAC+ files to mp3’s before importing them into iTunes?

  8. Anonymous says:

    As posted here for a possible solution of converting the HE-AAC format to something we’re more familiar with such as an mp3 file, once again reclaiming the quality we deserve.

  9. Ryan says:

    Hey guys, HE-AAC at 64kbits is the same or better than MP3 at 128kbits.I can’t blame them for wanting to half their bandwidth costs and I thank them for saving ME bandwidth too. 🙂

  10. Andy says:

    Yeah but, iTunes currently will not play back HE-AAC/aacPlus audio streams correctly. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/ITunes

  11. Anonymous says:

    “Yeah but, iTunes currently will not play back HE-AAC/aacPlus audio streams correctly.”Use something else. Either something other than iTunes or something other than Pandora.

  12. Anonymous says:

    does anyone know what the format is that pandora is streaming to the pandora one service? $36/year seems pretty reasonable to me if i can get 44Khz that way.

  13. Andy says:

    Pandora One service is 192 bps MPEG Audio Format (mp3), with a sample rate of 44.1 khz. Sounds great to my ears on my equipment!

  14. Andy says:

    Update: As of Snow Leopard, iTunes 9 (Mac) will play HE-AAC / AAC+ internet streams. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/ITunes.

  15. Anonymous says:

    I know this is a bit out of date, but iTunes still sounds pretty muffled compared to VLC when playing these HE-AAC files. I tried to convert one to 192 kbps mp3 using VLC on my Mac, which didn't work (resulted in a 0kb file), then on Windows, which worked, and sounded a lot better in iTunes. No idea what that's all about…

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