This week, Apple officially announced what had been rumored for a few weeks: lossless audio quality is coming to Apple Music. The higher-quality streaming option will bring CD-quality music at 16-bit/44.1 kHz on up to Hi-Resolution Lossless at 24-bit/192kHz. The company is clear that the latter is for “the true audiophile” and requires extra equipment — like an external USB DAC (digital-to-analog converter) for you to stream at such high quality. What Apple wasn’t explicit about in its initial announcement is that, at launch, none of its headphones and speakers will work with the lossless streaming that’s coming to its entire music library of 75 million songs.
This is an especially convoluted issue when you consider the AirPods Max. Apple’s premium $550 headphones should be able to stream CD-quality audio, right? Well, it’s easy to attempt that argument based on price, but the AirPods Max are first and foremost a set of wireless headphones. This means they rely on Bluetooth to connect to your phone, tablet or computer. Bluetooth devices employ codecs (literally short for compression/decompression), algorithms that squash the signal down to a size that’s manageable to send over a wireless connection.
The tech makes the audio “lossy” during this process, named for the data lost for the sake of reducing file size. There are plenty of these, but AAC (Advanced Audio Coding) is what Apple uses to stream from Apple Music versus ALAC (Apple Lossless Audio Codec) for lossless. AAC was co-developed by several companies to be the successor to the MP3, but with higher sound quality at the same bit rate. Some codecs allow for higher data rates, but overall, they’re still compressing the audio to get it across the wireless connection and losing quality in the process.
AAC does offer higher sample rates than MP3, or the number of times the signal is sampled per second. A higher sample rate increases overall quality, but the AAC codec doesn’t have bit depth, which is the other half of the lossless equation. I could go into a ton of even more confusing detail on this, but you can think of bit depth as what determines the dynamic range of an audio signal. A higher bit depth captures and reproduces the original recorded audio more accurately. In other words, CD-quality 16-bit audio is going to have less detail (albeit subtly) than super high-res 24 bit. AAC doesn’t account for this, and since the codec is what Apple relies on for Bluetooth compression on all AirPods models, those devices aren’t capable of lossless audio. The issue is with Bluetooth on the whole, and even Sony’s LDAC codec, which offers a far higher bitrate than AAC, still isn’t lossless.
Apple confirmed to Engadget that neither AirPods, AirPods Pro nor AirPods Max will work with the upcoming lossless streaming in Apple Music. The company also explained that even if you use a Lightning cable for a wired connection on the AirPods Max, the headphones still won’t accurately reproduce the higher-quality tunes. Neither will HomePod, though it would be more feasible to update a WiFi speaker to support ALAC in the future. You can absolutely open up the settings and turn on lossless with AirPods over Bluetooth, but that’s not what the company recommends. Instead, lossless is reserved for Apple Music users who have a DAC or wired headphones capable of handling increased bit depth and sample rates. Both of those can be used with an iPhone, iPad or Mac in order to stream lossless content.
The other part of Apple’s music news this week, and what I’d argue is the more significant item, is that Apple Music will support Dolby Atmos next month as well. This spatial audio option will work on all AirPods models and Beats headphones that are equipped with an H1 or W1 chip. It’s also compatible with HomePod. Where lossless is primarily concerned with quality, spatial audio creates perceived depth and nuance using location data. Instruments, vocals and other sounds are placed around the users to give a sense you’re “inside” of the music. It’s also much easier to tell when you're listening to Dolby Atmos Music versus a regular track. Depending on who you ask, not everyone can tell the difference between 16-bit/44.1 kHz and 24-bit/48 kHz or higher.
The key issue with Dolby Atmos in Apple Music right now is the limited amount of supported content. Apple says there will be around 2,000 songs at launch, and that it’s collaborating with Dolby to give artists, producers and engineers the tools to create new recordings in the immersive format. The company is also working with artists and labels to convert existing material, but the primary focus is on making sure new releases are Dolby Atmos ready. In Apple Music, a Dolby Atmos badge will let you know when an album or song is available in spatial audio. What’s more, the immersive tunes will automatically stream in Dolby Atmos when available to AirPods and Beats headphones. Dolby Atmos will also be supported on HomePod and Apple TV.
While all of the rumors leading up to this week’s official announcement offered a peak at Apple’s lossless plans, the addition of Dolby Atmos to Apple Music is the bigger news for most people. Unless you’re super into high-res audio and have the gear to properly reproduce it, you won’t notice much, if any, difference on the Bluetooth headphones you use every day. Grab a set of headphones capable of Dolby Atmos (Apple’s or another company’s), and the difference between regular songs and spatial audio will be apparent. The only question there is how quickly can Apple expand the content library. When it comes to lossless, there are things Apple could do to offer higher-resolution audio wirelessly, even if Bluetooth isn’t great for true lossless music. Perhaps it could look to companies like Sony for how to improve wireless audio for its range of devices. That would go a long way to appeasing those who invested in a set of $550 headphones.