M4A vs MP3 (Newbie Q)



This is a general question I would like some assistance or insight into.

I recently downloaded an album via iTunes.
Upon attempted playback I was unable to do so (on either my MP3 player or on my computer through Media Player Classic).
I did some googling as to what an M4A file was and found numerous websites with claims such as M4A is next generation file format, is better than MP3, smaller compression/better quality etc etc
I even found a couple of utilities on the web that claim to convert M4A to MP3 format.

Ok so my initial reaction was this means I had some strange Apple proprietary format which doesn’t need to pay any royalties and presumably will sound better than an MP3.

This is where it gets weird and I wonder if anyone else has ever tried this or can offer any insight into this.
I took the M4A file that was downloaded via iTunes.
I changed the file extension from M4A to MP3.
And playback of the file actually works on both hardware and software now?
Is M4A really an improved format or is it simply an Apple marketing fraud?


m4a is the default unprotected file format for iTunes

An Explanation from Wikipedia (why write when I can cut and paste?)

.MP4 versus .M4A

M4A stands for MPEG 4 Audio and is a filename extension used to represent audio files.

The existence of two different filename extensions, .MP4 and .M4A, for naming audio-only MP4 files has been a source of confusion among users and multimedia playback software. Some file managers, such as Windows Explorer, look up the media type and associated applications of a file based on its filename extension. But since MPEG-4 Part 14 is a container format, MPEG-4 files may contain any number of audio, video, and even subtitle streams, making it impossible to determine the type of streams in an MPEG-4 file based on its filename extension alone. In response, Apple Inc. started using and popularizing the .m4a filename extension, which is used for MP4 containers with audio data in the Advanced Audio Coding (AAC) or its own Apple Lossless (ALE, ALAC) formats. Software capable of audio/video playback should recognize files with either .m4a or .mp4 filename extensions, as would be expected, since there are no file format differences between the two. Most software capable of creating MPEG-4 audio will allow the user to choose the filename extension of the created MPEG-4 files.

You can read the entire wikipedia page at

Many people think iTunes audio is “aac” but I’ve never actually seen an .aac file extension on a file.

m4a and m4p often…