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Turbocharged MPEG audio on the way

The group overseeing the audio portion of the MPEG-4 digital-media standard is close to approving a new technology that promises to squeeze digital music into smaller files.

A key multimedia-standards body is close to approving a digital-audio proposal that promises digital music in smaller files, with no significant loss in quality.

Last month, the section of the Moving Picture Experts Group responsible for the digital-audio portion of the sprawling MPEG-4 digital-media standard said it was recommending an addition to its existing audio guidelines. The new proposal, using technology from Swedish company Coding Technologies, would let digital-audio data be compressed into files half the size of what they would have been using the most recent set of standards--without a perceptible dip in sound quality.

The same technology was used to upgrade MP3 to the newer MP3Pro, halving the size of MP3 audio files. The proposal won't replace the group's original MPEG-4 audio standard, but it will expand the standard for people who wish to take advantage of the file-crunching technology.

"This is not taking anything away," said David Frerichs, general manager of Coding Technologies' operations in the United States. "It's just adding something new."

MPEG-4 is a wide set of audio and video standards still under development for applications ranging from downloadable Internet video to satellite radio. The latest audio portion of the standard, called AAC, is the equivalent of MP3, which dates from an earlier set of MPEG standards.

Most consumers are still more familiar with MP3 or Windows Media multimedia standards, but AAC is slowly being adopted by some companies looking for high-quality next-generation technologies.

AACPlus, which uses Coding Technologies' work, is already being used by the XM satellite radio system. Frerichs said the technology is also being looked at by wireless companies interested in sending high-quality audio signals over low-bandwidth connections, such as cell phone networks.

The MPEG-4 organization will hold a final vote in March on whether to make AACPlus part of the evolving audio standard.