M4A files are a type of audio file developed and popularised by Apple. Since 2007, music purchased through the iTunes store has been in m4a format, therefore accounting for over 15 billions files worldwide. MP4 and M4A files are often confused, and the two are quite similar, being both based on the MPEG-4 codec. However, M4A is a file comprising solely of audio, whereas MP4 may also contain video.
M4A files are superior to MP3 in terms of the scale of compression and audio quality. The M4A file uses Apple's codec and resides within the MPEG-4 container. The main benefit of M4A is that files are compressed but are lossless. This means they can be decoded back to the original quality they were at the point of compression. Another benefit of M4A files are that do not carry any Digital Rights Management (DRM) protection associated with other files meaning they are less restricted.
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MP3 is a digital music format which allows CD tracks to be reduced to around a tenth of their normal size without a significant loss of quality. MP3 gets rid of a lot of the information recorded in a song that our ears are not able to hear and then uses complex algorithms to reduce the file size. This then enables you to get hundreds of songs on to a CD and it also has opened up a new market over the internet - the download market as download times have been significantly reduced.
The MP3 format is a lossy format. That means that an MP3 file does not contain 100% of the original audio information. Instead, MP3 files use perceptual coding. In other words, that means it removes the information that your ear doesn't notice thereby making the file smaller. The reason lossy formats are used over raw is that raw audio files are too large to travel over the internet at any great speed. By using lossy formats it enables even dial up users to download mp3 files at a reasonable speed. Raw file formats generally require 176,000 bytes per second compared to a lossy format which requires 17,600. The difference is massive and so are the download times.