VQF Digital Audio Format Enjoying Renewed Interest

Fans of Macintosh computers and Betamax videotape are fond of pointing out that in the free market, the best technologies don't necessarily win. That scenario may be playing out again in the case of VQF, a digital audio transfer and storage technology originally developed several years ago by Nippon Telegraph and Telephone.

Officially dubbed TwinVQ, the system was licensed to Yamaha for its SoundVQ player and its SolidAudio portable. Over the years, interested engineers and hobbyists have developed several software utilities, encoders, and players for the format. Its adherents claim VQF offers a much higher level of quality that does MP3, but admit that its proprietary nature prevents its widespread development. "Yamaha doesn't allow anyone to access its files," French software developer Christophe Thibault told Wired's Christopher Jones.

VQF files are compressed at a much higher ratio than are MP3's, which translates into faster download times and also guarantees higher quality, according to fans of the format. [In general with perceptual coding algorithms, the lower the data rate/higher the compression ratio, the worse the sound.---John Atkinson.] MP3 is admitted to be a low-resolution format by even its most rabid supporters, but has developed a tremendous grassroots following, mostly of college students who use the system to download and share music. Diamond Multimedia, maker of the solid-state Rio MP3 player, claims to be selling 300,000 of the devices every quarter.

Internet audiophiles, if they may be called that, recognize the technical superiority of VQF over MP3. "For people serious about audio encoding and audio quality, it is superior," said VQF.com's webmaster Joe Koeniger, who admits that he still uses MP3 frequently. "They coexist nicely since there are players that play both MP3 and VQF seamlessly."

Developers of MPEG4, the likely successor to MP3, also haven't overlooked the superiority of VQF. Some of VQF's specifications are being incorporated into MPEG4, which also uses AAC (advanced audio coding) techniques. Yamaha and Nippon, unfortunately, have never promoted the format and have heavy licensing restrictions for anyone wanting to work with it, resulting in very little outside development.

Accessibility, not sound quality, has always been the dominant theme in Internet audio. The MP3 phenomenon is primarily a mass rebellion against an impenetrable, fossilized music industry. "It's not about the quality, it's about the features. MP3 seems to be good enough in terms of quality and size to fill the niche," said Eric Scheirer, a researcher at MIT's Media Lab. "VQF doesn't really offer anything new; in fact, it offers less, since there are few tools and little music today." Thus is marginalized another good and useful technology.