Apple is rarely first to the post with certain features, products or services.
Apple Music’s recent addition of lossless audio is a prime example of this. Platforms like Tidal, Deezer and Qobuz all beat Apple to it and, for several years, were the only streaming services to offer CD-quality (and higher) music.
When Apple launched their own version of lossless audio earlier this month, it understandably played second fiddle to the simultaneous launch of Spatial Audio and Dolby Atmos on Apple Music.
Computational audio and multi-channel mixing are, we’re told, the future for music. I don’t like it, at all, but I do understand why these two technologies are being so heavily promoted by Apple; they’ve got serious skin in the music industry, and have clearly spotted another opportunity to stamp their mark on the next evolution of listening.
But, today, I want to talk about lossless audio on Apple Music, because several members of my YouTube audience completely missed the point of my recent video on the subject.
The problem with my YouTube video
If you’ve not seen it yet, this is my overview of Apple Music lossless, Spatial Audio and Dolby Atmos on YouTube.
As noted right from the outset, this is not a video for audiophiles. In fact, I even suggest that those folk might be better off moving on if they don’t fancy a top-level overview of what this all means for non-audiophiles.
Clearly, some audiophiles decided to carry on watching, regardless. For that, I’m eternally grateful – until it becomes clear that the same people possibly haven’t listened to a single word I’ve said.
“About the thing that you say loads of time that the lossless version is better because it loader [sic], it kinda sounds like you are describing the loudness war…”
“So much misinformation… ?”
“Saying that lossless “is louder” also makes zero sense. If it is louder then it is a different mix/mastering. The lossy encoding does not change loudness levels.”
This happens a lot on YouTube. No matter how many disclaimers you offer or how big a point you make about the fact you’re appealing to a very specific audience, there will always be subject matter experts who seem incapable of appreciating that audience.
There’s a very simple narrative running through my entire Apple Music lossless overview: to the vast majority of non-audiophile Apple Music users, it’ll sound better because it’s perceivably louder.
This has nothing to do with the loudness wars, gain matching, bit rates, compression or mastering. It simply relates to the fact that, during my testing, lossless audio files on Apple Music are louder than their AAC counterparts. They also appear to be a bit ‘punchier’. To many people, that will be a sign of increased quality.
Yes, they’re overlooking the technical details. But they’re doing so because they really do not give a shit about them. And why should they?
For the people who spent a fortune on AirPods Max and who were dismayed by the initial news that their new headphones wouldn’t be able to play lossless audio, this will come as good news. To them, flicking the switch will present them with slightly louder, punchier audio. I’m happy for them, and that’s the exact point I was trying to make in my video.
Eddy Cue on lossless audio
Apple’s SVP of Internet Software and Services, Eddy Cue, recently explained the lossless audio situation far better than I.
In an interview with Billboard, he confirmed that lossless isn’t the future of Apple Music (it’s all about Spatial Audio, as I suspected). But he also revealed the truth about lossless audio.
“Because the reality of lossless is: if you take a 100 people and you take a stereo song in lossless and you take a song that’s been in Apple Music that’s compressed, I don’t know if it’s 99 or 98 can’t tell the difference,” he said. “Yeah, there are a set of people who have these incredible ears, and that’s one piece of it. There’s the other piece of it, which is do you have the level of equipment that can really tell the difference? It requires very, very high-quality stereo equipment.”
Sure, he doesn’t reference the fact that lossless tracks on Apple Music appear to be louder, but he does neatly sum up how I feel about the whole situation.
Apple makes the majority of its money from consumers. It knows how to tickle every sense those consumers have. Whether it’s design over function, charging more for specific colour options or tuning AirPods Max so they sound as bright, deep and coloured as possible, every move they make is designed to shift high margin, aspirational products. Quite often, they are deeply flawed.
The recent update to Apple Music is a perfect example of this. I doubt that its version of lossless is comparable to something like Qobuz, and I’m convinced the gimmickyness of Spatial Audio will be scoffed at by most audiophiles. But if that’s the case, Apple has done its job. This is mass-market stuff – it’s for people who like shiny things.
If it’s lighter, it’s better. If it’s thinner than last year’s model, it’s better. If music sounds nicer when I flick this switch, it’s better.
That’s cool. Apple has nailed its target market, and that’s an incredibly hard feat to achieve.
Does any of this matter?
It’s each to their own. I have a huge amount of respect for audiophiles (I’m rather jealous of their analytical hearing ability, to be honest), but I have an equal amount of respect for regular consumers.
I personally reside somewhere in between, which gives me a unique appreciation for both audiences. However, my content is nearly always tuned towards the latter. I suspect that’s why I often receive comments from subject matter experts who feel the need to tell me how I should be doing it.
I just wish the people who really do know their stuff would sometimes take a look through the eyes of the regular consumer – who is, let’s be honest, probably far happier and more content given that they don’t spend hours pouring over bits, bytes and hertz. Being a subject-matter expert or extreme hobbyist is rather frustrating at times, after all.
Experiencing technology is a deeply personal thing. We all react differently to this stuff and are all capable of forming our own opinions. None of them are incorrect, less important or ignorant of the facts. If you listen to Apple Music’s lossless setting through your AirPods Max and think it sounds better – all the power to you.
If you deeply understand this stuff, please try and be mindful of the fact that there’s always a bigger group of people out there who couldn’t give two hoots. And, usually, it’s that group who click the ‘subscribe’ button on my channel.