What Is a M4a File?


Finding strange files on your computer can be frustrating if you've no idea what to open them with. If you find a m4a file on your computer, don't worry: it's easy to open. It's actually a media file based on an international standard and can be opened with most media players.


  • The Moving Picture Experts Group, a part of the International Organization for Standardization, put together the standard for the m4a, properly called the MPEG-4 standard. This file format was designed to be an international standard for delivering video, online and otherwise. In 1998, according to Apple.com, the hundreds of researchers who contributed to the format completed their work, which became an international standard in 2000 and part of QuickTime in 2002.


  • Using Quick Time as a base, the organization created the MPEG-4 standard to replace the MPEG-2 standard, which is used in older technology including DVDs. Today BluRay discs are encoded in MPEG-4.

    The MPEG-4 standard is widely used today for the distribution of electronic media, with iTunes using the format for all music and videos sold on it. Apple's use of the file type is appropriate, as MPEG-4 is actually an adaptation of Apple's own Quick Time format (.mov files).


  • An m4a or MPEG-4 provides a good example of a container file. These sorts of file types, which also include Microsoft's AVI standard and the open source OGG standard, store media of various types.

    An .m4a file could be a variety of things: a video, an audio file and in some instances ready-to-render 3D objects. The MPEG-4 standard even includes specifications for including text (such as subtitles) and sprites. This means any .m4a file you find on your computer can be opened with a media player.


  • Most modern video players should be able to open m4a files, including Mac's default Quick Time and Window's default Windows Media Player. If for any reason you have trouble opening an m4a file check out VLC player. This open source media player can open almost any media file you through at it; find it in the Resources section of this article.

Expert Insight

  • "It (MPEG-4) delivers video quality as good as MPEG-2 at about one-third less the bit rate. But then you can crank down the bit rate for lower bandwidth connections and it scales down beautifully. So you can deliver incredible streaming video with MPEG-4. It has got higher quality than anything out there--including Microsoft's upcoming Corona--and it's totally scalable. Everybody's jumping on this bandwagon." -- Apple Computer's Steve Jobs, in a 2002 interview with Znet.com.

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