M3U files: How to play or download the contents of an M3U playlist

“If you have ever downloaded an M3U file thinking you were going to get a song, audio file, or podcast, you’ve probably noticed the file size is tiny, and the m3u doesn’t really do anything on it’s own,” OS X Daily writes.

“This leads many users to wonder how to play the audio file, or how to convert that m3u into an mp3, m4a, or turn it into another familiar audio format,” OS X Daily explains. “M3Us are fairly misunderstood in that sense, they’re actually just a plain text playlist container file that is either a local playlist of audio, or a simple URL (link) to the actual audio content, usually intended to play as an audio stream.”

OS X Daily writes, “Playing the audio from an m3u is made easy with iTunes, but perhaps more useful is getting the actual audio files out of an m3u container by downloading the source audio to a local hard drive.”

Read more in the full article here.

5 Comments

  1. That’s usually correct for simple usage, but m3u files aren’t entirely useless which is why iTunes can not only read them, but can write them as well (along with a variety of other metafile formats).

    For example, an m3u file can be used to import/export a playlist that is not local, whether that’s for streaming media or for transferring playlists (and their media files) to another iTunes library.

    There are a lot of extremely powerful things you can do with metafiles and iTunes that shouldn’t be dismissed as “metafiles are just those stupid m3u files that live in the same folder as MP3s that I downloaded and resulted in weird duplicate playlists when I dragged the folder into iTunes”.

    Even taking your example… if I created a playlist of music and put those files all in a folder to send to you along with an m3u, and you deleted the m3u, and dragged the files into a new iTunes playlist, they would likely end up in a different order based on Finder settings than the order the playlist was created and generated in the m3u.

    TL;DR: If you toss out the m3u (or other metafile) you’re tossing out the meta-information the creator of the playlist generated with the media files and possibly even access to those media files, if they’re not local. Under simple usage though, this may not be a problem.

  2. I also wanted to add that this is one of the things I love about iTunes. It has a graduated interface that works very well for novice users and simple usage, but has some incredibly well thought out and executed features for power users and unique situations.

    Most people have never even heard of m3u files. Of those that have, most just think they’re garbage, but for those in unique situation, the ability for iTunes to generate and import these files can be incredibly powerful.

    This comes from someone who routinely exports data from iTunes directly into Excel to provide media reports for clients… yes… that’s right, I said, iTunes into Excel!

    1. I applaud the use of Excel for comprehensive data reporting. Nothing wrong with that. But I still see the m3u as no more than a txt file that doesn’t leverage the metadata that your music files all should have.

      An m3u file is a static list of file order. Sure, i suppose it’s possible that one would need to export a specific playlist order to a non-Apple user. But if the metadata of your audio tracks is complete and correct, then the m3u file is redundant, no matter whether your tunes are local or not. Every iPod can reads your predefined playlist without resorting to separate text files. Any decent non-Apple players can do the same.

      I propose that it is BAD form to rely on separate text files to tell someone how a playlist should go. Might as well just copy and paste the text directly from the iTunes view window if you want to just email someone track information in a particular order, no need for an m3u file there either.

      Finally, if you are dealing with people who have a really archaic mindset, you can set iTunes to automatically rename your music files with track number prefix. Stupid, in my opinion, when every file contains metadata to do this, but then even Windows gives you a way to sort your files before importing into iTunes.

      1. “But I still see the m3u as no more than a txt file that doesn’t leverage the metadata that your music files all should have.”

        Yes, that’s pretty much all an m3u is, it’s an ID, Title, Artist and Location in a text format in order of the playlist that generated it. You could export a playlist in XML format which include all kinds of other information. While an XML export is highly valuable in some contexts, it too is overkill and redundant in others.

        I think you’re glossing over the details that make the use of metafiles as powerful as they can be. Again, if you’re just importing an album that’s a local folder of files that are properly tagged, it makes sense to toss that metafile away and be done with it.

        However, without a metafile how do you…
        1) Create a link on a web page that allows a user to click on it and then stream the media through iTunes? With an m3u or m3u8 metafile, the web page link can download and essentially tell iTunes to start streaming (as in any number of the streaming radio stations). The “send text” alternative would require someone to copy the address from the webpage, launch iTunes and then File->Open Stream and enter the URL… doable, but not as elegant, quick or easy as “Click here to play in iTunes”.

        2) How can you send an email of a bazillion media files to be imported into iTunes that reside on a server? With an m3u file, I can send a small email with that file as an attachment and the recipient can open that m3u file and import all of the files directly from the server. The “send text” equivalent would mean sending an email with links to every single file that would then need to be individually clicked on to download, and then when all finished, they’d have to be imported, and then organized. That’s incredibly time consuming for both the sender and the receiver compared to “File->Export Playlist” and “Drag m3u file to iTunes”.

        “Every iPod can reads your predefined playlist without resorting to separate text files.”

        No, that’s not true at all. Every iTunes compatible thing, software or hardware requires the reading of a metafile, either XML, ITL, M3U or M38 to know about a playlist. Playlist information and file location are never attached to any actual media file. Which brings me to…

        3) How do you send a bazillion files and have a recipient organize them without sending a metafile? Yes, relying on a m3u as the sole means may be bad form, but you’re going to need some meta information whether it’s a meta-tag or metafile (even if it is just a listing in an email). If that metafile is just text in an email, imagine how annoying it’s going to be to organize a huge playlist when you could’ve just exported the m3u and imported the m3u? Metatagging isn’t always an option since the track numbers may be in use from track numbers needed to represent the tracks of albums, but even if it or another field were available, that would be just as tedious to enter all of that instead of doing an export/import of the metafile. Again, in the context of “here’s an album of files and an m3u”, that doesn’t make sense and the m3u can easily be discarded, but in the context of “here’s a bunch of files from various albums that need to be in this order”, an m3u is a very quick and easy way to accomplish this for both the sender and the recipient.

        4) How do you send a playlist just by itself when the recipient already has the files? Sure, you could compose an email listing everything out and the recipient can one-by-one go through and find the songs and place each one into a playlist, but again, that’s incredibly time consuming as compared to just taking the playlist, exporting the m3u and having the recipient import it.

        Again, don’t get me wrong, m3u files are probably used 90% of the time by dunderheads using lame and archaic software on Windows all the while saying iTunes sucks, but there are legitimate and extremely powerful reasons why Apple put the ability to import and export m3u files into iTunes.

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