I was rather chuffed when Apple finally introduced lossless audio for virtually every track on Apple Music last year. With so many music streaming services already vying for the attention of audiophiles, it was about time.
But there’s one big problem: you can’t hear the benefits of this new high-resolution audio on any of Apple’s wireless headphones.
This is rather frustrating when you spend north of £500 on a pair of AirPods Max, only to find that they’re incapable of playing back anything beyond the realms of what Bluetooth allows.
But there might be a light on the horizon; Apple may well be working on something very special indeed.
I’m going to save you some time.
Unless you’re really into audio codecs and have a genuine interest in terms like ‘A2DP’, ‘bitrate’, ’SBC’, and ‘adaptive pulse code modulation’, there’s only one thing you need to know about Bluetooth when it comes to audio. It can’t transmit lossless tracks. At least, the version Apple relies on can’t (it doesn’t even work via the horrible cable they sell you for AirPods Max).
I started researching the intricacies of Bluetooth audio to give this part of the blog some weight. Alas, I gave up, because it is a monumentally boring topic and I’d rather have you read this article than decide to spoon your eyeballs out instead.
Trust me – Bluetooth and lossless audio just isn’t a thing if you’ve got a pair of wireless Apple headphones or earbuds.
There are alternatives. Sony has ‘LDAC’ (no one knows what this stands for – classic Sony), which supports 32-bit/96kHz audio streaming at up to 990kbps. That’s around three times the data allowed by regular Bluetooth, but you’ll need an Android phone and a pair of Sony headphones to hear it.
So, what might Apple have up its sleeve?
“We would like more bandwidth…”
The rumours about Apple’s own proprietary high-fidelity audio streaming format began last year. Back then, it was suggested that existing AirPods would gain lossless streaming capabilities via a software update.
That never materialised, suggesting that there’s far more to this than meets the eye. Clearly, in order for Apple to enable full wireless transmission of high-fidelity audio, they need to get fruity with the hardware.
In an interview with What HiFi, Apple’s VP of Acoustics, Gary Geaves was quizzed on whether or not Bluetooth was holding his team back.
“We have to concentrate very hard on squeezing the most that we can out of the Bluetooth technology,” he explained. “There’s a number of tricks we can play to maximise or get around some of the limits of Bluetooth. But it’s fair to say that we would like more bandwidth and… I’ll stop right there.”
They’re up to something, aren’t they?
Some have suggested that we’ll see Bluetooth LE Audio in the next AirPods update. This includes a new audio codec called ‘LC3’, which, although still lossy, is said to be better than Apple’s AAC audio codec (the one you hear currently via Bluetooth on AirPods). It’s far more power-efficient, to boot.
But I don’t buy that. Apple is throwing everything at audio, and the amount of work they’re putting into technologies like Dolby Atmos and Spatial Audio suggests they’ve got far bigger ambitions. Silly jumping on a slightly better version of Bluetooth just seems too easy.
Apple likes to control the full stack. That’s why we saw the introduction of the M1 chip for Macs in 2020. Anything outside of their control is a frustration not only for product teams like those beneath Gary Geaves but for Tim Cook’s cherished profit margins, too.
I think Apple is working on its own, entirely new form of wireless audio streaming, and it could mean an awful lot more than just the ability to stream lossless audio.
Does it really matter?
For a great many people, lossless audio means nothing. They don’t care, and can’t hear the difference, no matter what pair of headphones you place on their head.
Apple’s own Eddy Cue pointed out that “99 or 98 [percent of users] can’t tell the difference”.
He’s right. And the fact is amplified – if you’ll excuse the pun – by headphones like AirPods Max which colour the sound with their own EQ profile, just like any pair of consumer headphones.
Therefore, even if Apple does enable lossless audio streaming via AirPods Max and AirPods Pro, it’s unlikely to satisfy many audiophiles.
But I’d personally love to see if there’s any perceivable difference between streamed lossless and regular Bluetooth audio on Apple’s gear. More importantly, I’d love to see Apple license such technology and proactively push it into the hands of as many manufacturers as possible. That’s where Sony has, in my opinion, screwed up with LDAC; no one knows what it is, how to use it, or why it matters.
Wires are annoying. We shouldn’t be saddled with them simply because of a reliance on outdated wireless protocols like Bluetooth. Apple knows this.
Audiophiles will scoff at the thought of a truly wireless future, but imagine if Apple landed on something which offers the exact same quality of audio reproduction that can be enjoyed via a physical connection. It’s not an unreasonable expectation, and it could result in a brand new category of fully wireless audiophile headphones.
That’s exciting, right?