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Converting MP3 to M4A with Tags

There is no shortage of audio and video software that support converting MP3 to M4A. Most of them are freeware, though premium alternatives with extra features do also exist.

The problem however with most audio converters is that only a few support transferring tags between different audio formats. Thus, while MP3 tags are widely supported, there’s a very high chance of losing them should you convert them to another format like M4A.

The second issue is to do with the audio codec. This is a minor issue for most but some people prefer certain encoders for their quality and/or output size. The ones you’re bound to encounter being used by most converters include:

  • Qaac
  • Faac
  • FDK
  • FhG
  • NeroAAC

As far as tag preservation is concerned, we can classify audio converters into 4 categories:

  1. The type that discards the tags completely.
  2. The type that partially discards the tags but overwrites some fields with its own metadata, e.g., converted by [software name here] in the comment field.
  3. The type that transfers the tags partially, e.g. they may discard the cover art or truncate some fields even though they are fully supported by the M4A/AAC audio format.
  4. The type that keeps all the intact.

Let’s take a look at a few that fall in the two latter categories.

Note:

  • I personally tested all the software featured below while converting my own music collection. The results are based on the versions I tested at the time which I’ve included.
  • M4A and AAC are essentially the same audio format, just different extensions.

Foobar2000

Foorbar2000 is more of an audio player but it does include a handy audio converter and tagger / organizer. The software transfers most of the tags when converting MP3 to M4A but it ignores the embedded lyrics.

Pros

  • Freeware
  • Supports multiple AAC codecs: Apple iTunes, Fraunhofer FDK AAC, Exhale, Winamp FhG
  • Transfers most tag fields including album covert art and comments
  • Transfers full MP3 comments field tag to M4A (no character limit)
  • Encoding parameters can be fine-tuned
  • Supports custom encoding presets
  • Supports drag and drop
  • Supports unicode characters in tag metadata
  • Conversion is quite fast

Cons

  • AAC codecs have to be installed separately
  • Does not transfer embedded lyrics field tag (only lyricist field is transferred)

Version tested: 1.6.8

Fre:ac

Fre:ac preserves all the MP3 tags however just like Foobar200 it ignores the lyric field.

Pros

  • Free and open Source
  • Transfers most tag fields including album covert art and comments
  • Transfers full MP3 comments field tag to M4A (no character limit)
  • Encoding parameters can be fine-tuned
  • Supports multiple containers: m4a, mp4, m4r, m4b, aac
  • Supports drag and drop
  • Supports unicode characters in tag metadata
  • Conversion is fast

Cons

  • Supports only FDK AAC codec
  • Does not transfer embedded lyrics field tag (only lyricist field is transferred)
  • Does not support custom encoding presets

Version tested: 1.1.5

MusicBee

MusicBee is an excellent music organizer that supports audio conversion too. It preserves all the tags including lyrics (yay!) but unfortunately has a 255-character limit for the comment field.

Pros

  • Freeware
  • Supports Nero AAC codec and other codecs (Apple, FDK etc) via command line
  • Transfers most tag fields including album cover art and embedded lyrics
  • Supports unicode characters in tag metadata
  • Conversion is quite fast

Cons

  • Codecs have to be installed manually
  • Encoding parameters for Nero AAC cannot be fine-tuned (uses four profiles instead Max, High, Standard & Small). Parameters can however be configured when using a codec over command line.
  • Does not transfer full MP3 comments (characters beyond 255 character are truncated)
  • Files need to be added to library first to be converted (workaround: drag and drop files into the queue then select all to convert)

Version tested: 3.4.7805

dBpoweramp Music Converter

dBpoweramp is shareware, however it’s fully functional for a 21-day trial period. It was by far the fastest in conversion speed however just like MusicBee it has a 255-character limit for the comment field.

Pros

  • Uses Fraunhofer FDK AAC though Apple’s iTunes codec can be configured manually
  • Transfers most tag fields including album cover art and embedded lyrics
  • Encoding parameters can be fine-tuned
  • Supports drag and drop and comes with a batch converter
  • Supports unicode characters in tag metadata
  • Conversion is very fast

Cons

  • Does not transfer full MP3 comments (characters beyond 255 character are truncated)

Version tested: R17.4

Helium Converter

Helium is strictly an audio converter much like Freac but with a polished interface. It preserves most of the tags with the exception for the comment field which it discards completely.

Pros

  • Freeware
  • Transfers most tag fields including album cover art and embedded lyrics
  • Supports drag and drop
  • Conversion is quite fast

Cons

  • Supports only Apple iTunes AAC codec (FAAC)
  • Encoding parameters cannot be fine-tuned (uses bitrate presets instead)
  • Does not transfer comments tag

Version tested: 2.9.147.0

Conclusion

All the tools listed above will suffice for casual MP3 to M4A conversions. The only trouble is if you, one, need to transfer all the tags, or two, need to use a specific audio codec. On these two points a compromise may have to be reached.

As a summary here are your options:

  • For the widest support for M4A audio codecs use Foobar2000.
  • For the best tag preservation, use MusicBee or dBpoweramp — their only limitation in this regard is the 255-character limit for the comment field which is a minor issue for most people. All the other tags including lyrics will be transferred.
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Kelvin Kathia

Kelvin Kathia is a writer based in Kenya that's passionate about sharing solutions to everyday tech problems. He's the founder and editor of Journey Bytes, a tech blog and web design agency. Feel free to leave him comments or questions regarding this post, or by leaving him a message on the contact page. If you found his content helpful, a donation is much appreciated.