Good news! In June, Apple Music subscribers will get access to thousands of tracks in lossless audio at no additional cost.
They’ll also be able to listen to tracks recorded in Dolby Atmos and Spatial Audio. These forms of 3D audio (where sound elements appear to come at you from all angles) remain rather niche recording techniques as far as music is concerned, but they are pretty cool.
However, today, I want to talk about lossless audio. Because, well… this news is very Apple.
On the face of it, the introduction of hi-res Apple Music at no additional cost sounds great, but there’s one massive caveat which points towards a sneaky strategy that may eventually hit your pocket.
What is lossless audio?
If you listen to any track on Apple Music today, you’ll hear a compressed version of the original recording. This is entirely normal for standard streamed audio and has been the case ever since the MP3 was invented.
If you’re interested, Apple Music streams its tracks at 256Kbps in the AAC (Advanced Audio Coding) codec. It’s ok, but it’s still highly compressed and not particularly true to the original recording.
This matters, because compression removes much of the dynamics from that original recording. Tiny details such as a singer’s lingering breath, the gentle fade of a ride cymbal or the initial transient punch of a kick drum are all but removed in order to preserve file sizes.
Lossless audio does the opposite. It retains as much of the original recording as possible. As a result, the file sizes are far bigger, but the music has room to breathe and sound like it would if you played it from a CD.
Apple will be offering two versions of lossless audio from June. The first will be applied to the entire Apple Music library and will stream 16 bit audio at between 44.1 kHz and 48 kHz.
They’re referring to the second version as ‘Hi-Resolution Lossless’, which will go all the way up to 24 bit at 192 kHz (“for the true audiophile”). It’s not clear how many tracks will be available with that level of encoding from launch.
Oh, and there’s also Apple Digital Masters, which have been around for a while, and refers to a recording and mastering process engineers can follow in order to ensure that listeners hear the exact recording as it left the studio.
So, in summary, lossless audio sounds far more like a CD. But Apple aren’t first to the post with this (as usual).
A kick in the teeth for TIDAL
TIDAL, Amazon Music and Deezer are three examples of streaming music services which offer hi-resolution audio, and they’ve been doing so for a number of years.
I’ve hit you with enough numbers and kHz already today, so I won’t get into the weeds with the codecs and bit rates they offer, but they’re all essentially providing the same thing: lossless audio streaming.
I have a subscription to TIDAL, and it is fantastic. Paired with a decent pair of headphones, DAC (digital-to-analogue converter) and amp, music comes alive. It is absolutely noticeable and makes Apple Music’s AAC codec sound incredibly restricted and devoid of detail.
But it isn’t cheap. You have to really want to hear this kind of audio to sign up for a service like TIDAL. Apple knows that, which is why it has decided to offer its own version of lossless audio for free to existing Apple Music subscribers.
This is a smart move. In the streaming music space, there’s very little available to differentiate oneself. The libraries are all but the same, which leaves the user interface, playlist curation (of which I still think Spotify is a clear winner) and audio quality as the only points of differentiation.
As soon as Apple joins the hi-res audio bandwagon, there are far fewer reasons to switch services. Certainly, if it had been available a few months back, I’d have had no reason to head over to TIDAL in order to enjoy lossless music.
But Apple is even smarter than that, because I don’t believe for one moment that the reason they’re introducing lossless audio is to tempt a few TIDAL subscribers back their way.
As always, it’s about hardware sales. And this is where it all gets a bit annoying.
Which devices will lossless Apple Music work on?
Oh, Tim. What are you doing to us?
When Apple’s selection of hi-res music arrives in June, you’ll be able to play it back on your iPhone, iPad, Mac and Apple TV. But you won’t be able to hear it on your AirPods Pro, AirPods Max or HomePod.
No, really. Apple’s new lossless audio format won’t work on its own headphones – even the super-expensive over-the-ear cans with that stupid case.
The words ‘AirPods’ and ‘HomePod’ were conspicuous by their absence in Apple’s press release, but the reason for that is pretty simple: these devices only support the AAC codec via Bluetooth. The £35 auxiliary cable for AirPods Max won’t be compatible with the new lossless format, either.
So, this means you’ll need to invest in some external, non-Apple hardware in order to actually hear Apple’s new lossless codec. Which all sounds a bit daft – until you think about Apple’s potential strategy with this.
How will Apple fix this?
The need to invest in external gear to hear Apple’s lossless audio files won’t come as a surprise to people who already enjoy hi-resolution music. Indeed, that audience will almost certainly already own a decent pair of headphones that are connected to a DAC and amp.
If that’s you and you’re nestled within the Apple ecosystem, this news is pretty great. It means you’ll finally be able to hear CD-quality music on Apple Music. But in all likelihood, you’ll probably do so by connecting your DAC, amp and headphones to your Mac (portable DACs are available for iOS devices, but that’s a very niche audience).
But what about if you’ve just spent £549 on a pair of AirPods Max? You’d have every right to feel a little peeved at the thought that your super-expensive pair of Apple-branded headphones won’t be able to play the best Apple Music has to offer, directly from your iPhone.
Can you smell that? It’s the whiff of Apple’s next generation of headphones. They’re cooking away, deep within the bowels of that spaceship campus, and will almost undoubtedly include some form of in-house developed, proprietary lossless audio wireless streaming that’ll replace Bluetooth.
This is where I think Apple is headed with this. They’ve made a stonking pair of headphones with both the AirPods Max and AirPods Pro, but their shareholders will want to see the next versions of those products pretty soon. And what better way to upgrade them than with the ability to playback Apple Music’s new lossless audio without a wire? That way, they get to shout about an incredible new innovation and an even better sound for owners of AirPods Max and AirPods Pro.
It’s frustrating and confusing for anyone who has invested in Apple’s premium headphones recently, but Apple is an ambitious business with a ruthless approach to product upgrades. They want you to keep spending money, and June’s update to Apple Music is – as is nearly always the case with any form of Apple service – based entirely around driving future hardware sales.
My guess is that we’ll see an update to AirPods Max first, towards the end of this year, and the headline feature will be wireless compatibility with Apple Music lossless audio. That would be seriously cool, but it all feels a bit, well… out of order (literally and figuratively), Tim, to be honest.
If you’re an owner of AirPods Max or AirPods Pro, does this bother you? Let me know in the comments!