October 17, 2012 at 11:31 am

Introducing Opus, the Codec That Could Maybe Improve Spotify

opus codec

Chart courtesy of Xiph, which admittedly has a horse in this race (link below).

Ogg Vorbis has a super weird name but basically, it’s just like MP3 — except nobody has to pay for it, because it’s open source. Yes, MP3 is proprietary, even though it doesn’t feel that way to music fan. Some behind-the-scenes company or other typically foots the bill for encoding them. This is why Spotify uses Ogg Vorbis to play every song in its catalog; doing so means avoiding paying to use MP3, AAC, or any other proprietary codec.

When I first met Spotify CEO Daniel Ek, I asked him whether he was worried about that, because one of the folks who built Ogg Vorbis had told me earlier that commercial services were scared of it because it might infringe on some of the many patents involved in audio compression. He said he was not, and that if necessary, Spotify could switch to another compression technology fairly easily.

Years later, it’s unclear whether it would still be as easy to switch, although as of this fall, Spotify has a reason to think about it: Opus Codec, the next-generation version of Ogg Vorbis, also from the audio and software engineers at Xiph.org. (“Codec” stands for compression/decompression, as in the smushing up of sound files to make them easier to zap around the internet and store on devices).

Why would Spotify, which we believe to be the most significant user of Ogg Vorbis in the world, want to upgrade?

“The reasons Vorbis never took off big didn’t actually have much to do with the patent thing [more on that below],” explained  Xiph developer (and recent Evolver.fm guest opinion contributor) Monty Montgomery. “It was harder to put into hardware than it could have been, because it hadn’t really been designed for it. It didn’t require much CPU, but it did require lots of working memory. [Microsoft's] WMA had a similar problem. Opus fixes all of these concerns, and is just a better codec in general.”

Evolver.fm confirmed with Spotify spokesman Graham James that Spotify currently uses Ogg Vorbis on both desktop and mobile. Meanwhile, Xiph’s Montgomery says patent concerns with Ogg Vorbis (and by extension Opus) have largely evaporated:

“There are two sides to the patent thing,” said Montgomery. “A few commercial outfits did have legitimate concerns it could be a risk.  Mostly, though, MPEG and the direct competition love harping on the patent angle for marketing and buzz-kill purposes, regardless the actual risk.  Lots of sabre rattling, not much actual swashbuckling. Remember Steve Jobs telling everyone [link] he was coming after Theora?  Yeah.”

On top of that, Opus Codec has been through the Internet Engineering Task Force standardization process. So the door should be open for Spotify to switch to it and start using less working memory on your phone — and, if the above chart is accurate, maybe sounding a little better too.

Caveats: I am not a software engineer, and majored in literature — and besides, Spotify runs fine and sounds great on my phone today, using Ogg Vorbis. However, this move would appear to make sense, assuming it’s not too much of a hassle to switch — and for too little (relatively)| gain.

(Another big plus with Opus is that it’s low-latency, so don’t be surprised if it shows up in your Skype too.)

(Chart courtesy of Xiph.org)