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If you’ve ever downloaded an M3U file thinking you’d get a song, audio file, or podcast, you’ve probably noticed that the file size is small and the m3u isn’t really doing anything on its own. This leads many users to wonder how to play the audio file, or how to convert that m3u to an mp3, m4a, or turn it into another known audio format. M3u’s are quite misunderstood in that sense, they are really just a plain text playlist container file that is either a local audio playlist or a simple URL (link) to the actual audio content, usually meant to be played as an audio stream.
Playing the audio from an m3u is made easy with iTunes, but perhaps even more convenient is to extract the actual audio files from an m3u container by downloading the source audio to a local hard drive. We cover how to do both.
Playing an M3U file directly with iTunes
iTunes usually knows what to do with an M3U file, so just open the m3u directly in iTunes to start audio playback via streaming. Loading may take a while depending on the speed of the internet connection.
Once an m3u is opened in iTunes, they will be categorized under the “Internet Songs” section of the library, even if the m3u is a podcast or no music.
The downside to keeping the m3u file directly through iTunes is that it streams every time the audio is opened, which means it is not available if the internet connection is down or the server is out of reach. Therefore it can be useful to download the audio content from the m3u container.
Convert / download an MP3 / M4A from an M3U file
You can often download the audio files from the m3u playlist directly to a computer, this avoids having to stream the audio through the M3U container. Accordingly, this means that you can “convert” m3u files to local mp3 / m4a files only if the container is a URL to audio. If the file is a playlist of local documents, no action can be taken on it this way.
1: Extract the URL from the m3u
You can view the content of each m3u with any common text editor. OS X makes this particularly easy with TextEdit, the bundled text app, or with Quick Look if you have text selection enabled. Just drag the m3u file to TextEdit or open it with Quick Look, and you’ll see what’s in the m3u container, either a link to a file or a playlist.
Once you have the m3u playlist URL, you can download it locally. Most users will want to use the web browser for this, but you can also go to the command line to download the content from the m3u as well.
2A: Save m3u container audio from a web browser
Downloading the content via web browser will be the easiest for most users, it should work with any modern browser in any modern operating system, be it Safari, Chrome or Firefox.
- Open the m3u file in a text editor or Quick Look, and copy the URL to the clipboard
- Paste the audio URL in the address bar of your web browser of choice, let it load, then go to the “File” menu and choose “Save As” to save the recorded audio to the local hard drive
You probably want to store the resulting mp3 or m4a somewhere easily accessible, such as the desktop. When it’s done downloading, you can open it directly in iTunes where it will reside with the rest of your audio playlist.
2B: Download m3u Container Audio with curl
Users who prefer to go to the command line can use curl to grab the audio and save it locally:
- Copy the audio URL of the m3u container with cat:
- Launch Terminal and then use the following command syntax:
Make sure to provide the full URL and protocol, for example:
curl -O http://not-a-real-url.com/example/path/name.mp3
curl starts downloading the file and shows the download speed and progress. When done, this is where you ran the command, usually in the user ~ / home directory.
Whether you downloaded the file from the command line via a web browser doesn’t really matter, but you now have the audio file stored locally, preventing the m3u container from streaming the document every time it is opened or retrieved. This can be useful if you prefer to charge up your iPhone, iPad, iPod or computer with audio files such as podcasts instead of relying on the streaming functionality, so just load it directly into iTunes and enjoy.
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