What Is an M4A File?

How to open, edit, and convert M4A files

A file with the M4A file extension is an MPEG-4 Audio file. They're most often found in Apple's iTunes Store as the format of song downloads.

Many M4A files are encoded with the lossy Advanced Audio Coding (AAC) codec in order to reduce the size of the file. Some may instead be lossless and use the Apple Lossless Audio Codec (ALAC).

If you're downloading a song through the iTunes Store that's copy protected, it's saved with the M4P file extension.

Screenshot of several M4A files in Windows 10
Tim Fisher / Lifewire

M4A files are similar to MPEG-4 Video files (MP4s) since they both use the MPEG-4 container format. The former, however, can only hold audio data.

How to Open an M4A File

Lots of programs support playback, including VLC, iTunes, QuickTime, Windows Media Player (v11 requires the K-Lite Codec Pack), Media Player Classic, Winamp, and very likely some other popular media player applications as well.

Android tablets and phones, plus Apple's iPhone, iPad, and iPod touch, function as M4A players, too, and can play the file directly from an email or website without needing a special app, regardless of whether the file uses AAC or ALAC. Other mobile devices may have built-in support as well.

Rhythmbox is another player for Linux, while Mac users can open M4A files with Elmedia Player.

Because the MPEG-4 format is used for both M4A and MP4 files, any video player that supports the playback of one file should also play the other since the two are the exact same file format.

Still Won't Open?

If your file doesn't open with the programs mentioned above, it's quite possible that you're misreading the file extension.

For example, 4MP files might be confused for M4A files but won't work properly if you try to open one with an M4A player. 4MP files are 4-MP3 Database files that hold references to audio files but don't actually contain any audio data themselves. 

M and MFA files are similar but they, too, don't work with those same players and are, for the most part, completely unrelated to audio files.

How to Convert an M4A File

While M4A files may be a common file type, they certainly don't trump the MP3 format, which is why you might want to convert M4A to MP3. You can do this with iTunes, which is helpful if the song is already in your iTunes library. Another option is to convert with a free file converter.

To save an M4A to MP3 with iTunes, change the program's import settings and then use the Convert menu option.

  1. Go to Edit > Preferences and then make sure you're focused in the General tab.

  2. Select Import Settings.

  3. Choose MP3 Encoder from the drop-down menu.

    Screenshot of the iTunes import settings with MP3 encoder selected
  4. Select OK and then OK again on the General Preferences window.

  5. Select the M4A file from your library that you want to convert.

    To access your music library, choose Library at the top of the program and then ensure Music is chosen from the drop-down menu to the left. Finally, select Songs from the left pane to list all your music.

  6. Go to File > Convert > Create MP3 Version.

    Create MP3 Version option highlighted in iTunes Convert menu

    iTunes doesn't delete the M4A when you convert it to MP3. Both will remain in your iTunes library.

    A few free M4A converters that can save the file to not only MP3 but others like WAV, M4R, WMA, AIFF, and AC3, include Freemake Audio Converter and MediaHuman Audio Converter.

    Something else you can do is convert M4A to MP3 online with a tool like FileZigZag or Zamzar. Upload the file to one of those websites and you'll be given many output options in addition to MP3, including FLAC, M4R, WAV, OPUS, and OGG, among others.

    Online M4A converters are useful because they work from any operating system and run basically instantly without a software installation. However, unlike desktop converters, you have to upload the file, wait for it to convert, and then download the new one.

    You might also be able to "convert" the file to text using speech recognition software like Dragon. Programs like this can transcribe live, spoken words into text, and Dragon is one example that can even do it with an audio file. However, you may have to first convert it to MP3 using one of the converters mentioned above.

    More Info on File Extensions

    Some audiobooks and podcasts use the M4A file extension, but because it doesn't support bookmarks to save your last accessed place in the file, that kind of content is generally saved in the M4B format, which can store this information.

    The MPEG-4 Audio format is used by iPhones in the form of ringtones, but they're saved with the M4R file extension instead.

    Compared to MP3s, M4As are usually smaller and have better quality. This is because of enhancements in the format that was intended to replace MP3, such as perception-based compression, larger block sizes in stationary signals, and smaller sample block sizes.

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