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Last week Apple upended the entire music streaming industry with the announcement that it will soon be offering its entire Apple Music catalog in a CD-quality Lossless Audio format at no additional charge. As exciting as that news was, however, it also spawned many questions about exactly how Apple Music users would actually be able to listen to the new Lossless Audio.
After all, just because Apple is streaming the audio in a much higher quality format doesn’t mean every device is capable of receiving that higher quality. For example, wireless Bluetooth headphones all use “lossy” codecs that will downgrade Apple’s Lossless Audio to the level of its traditional 256kbps AAC catalog — including the AirPods Max.
That said, there are still many other areas where the whole issue is far more confusing, such as whether the HomePod and HomePod mini are supported, or even which models of Apple TV can handle the various lossless formats, especially since Apple will be delivering two tiers: Lossless Audio, which basically offers CD-quality 16-bit at 44.1kHz up to 24-bit at 48KHz, and “Hi-Resolution Lossless” which can go all the way up to 24-bit audio at a 192KHz sampling rate. Needless to say, the requirements for hi-res lossless are going to be even more stringent.
Fortunately, Apple has clarified a lot of this confusion in a new support document, outlining exactly where these new formats will be available, and how they’ll work.
Lossless Audio Key Points
In its new article, Apple makes a few main points that are important for everyone to know right off the bat:
- Lossless audio uses a LOT more data. This means that most users will want to avoid streaming it over cellular data connections, unless you’re lucky enough to have a truly unlimited plan. Plus, downloading and storing lossless files on your device will take up a lot more space.
- Bluetooth connections aren’t lossless. There are no Bluetooth headphones available that can deliver true lossless audio. While some better codecs exist, like Sony’s proprietary LDAC, this still isn’t true lossless audio, and it’s not supported on Apple’s devices anyway. Apple uses the AAC codec across the board, although this means that AirPods and Beats headphones already get better quality audio than most third-party Bluetooth headphones when used with an iPhone, iPad, or Mac.
- Users will have to re-download tracks to get the lossless versions. Anybody who already has their music in the Apple Music app (or iTunes) won’t get an automatic upgrade to the lossless versions of their stored tracks. Instead, you’ll have to delete the copies of the downloads of these tracks and re-download them to get the lossless version. That should happen automatically as soon as you re-redownload it, however.
- Lossless Music is only available in Apple Music. Bad news for anybody who has actually purchased music from iTunes — Apple makes it clear that its iTunes catalog is not part of the deal, so if you’re not an Apple Music subscriber, you’re out of luck.
- Live radio and on-demand content and music videos. Apple’s radio stations — Apple Music 1, Apple Music Hits, and Apple Music Country — will not be broadcast in Lossless Audio, nor are music videos in the Apple Music catalog.
With those points out of the way, Apple goes on to outline exactly what users will need to enjoy lossless audio from the Apple Music catalog.
Lossless Audio Supported Devices
Apple also notes that lossless music will play through the built-in speakers on these devices, but we seriously doubt anybody will hear the difference between an Apple Lossless track and the compressed 256kbps AAC version when using the internal speakers on any Apple device. Throughout this article, Apple is overly precise in its definitions — the music delivered through the internal speakers is by definition lossless audio, but nobody is going to care in this case.
Apple’s Lightning to 3.5 mm Headphone Jack Adapter also fully supports Lossless Audio by definition — it can handle up to 24.-bit/48kHz audio — however, most audio enthusiasts agree that the DAC built into Apple’s own adapter is less than stellar, so this arguably won’t provide the best listening experience.
Further, Apple notes that Hi-Resolution Lossless tracks will not be passed through any of the direct wired connections. Instead, users who want to enjoy these higher-quality formats will need to add a DAC.
To listen to songs at sample rates higher than 48 kHz, you need an external digital-to-analog converter.
In a slightly bigger surprise, however, this also applies to the Apple TV 4K, which will not be able to play sample rates about 48kHz — even though HDMI has supported 24-bit/192kHz audio since its inception.
Apple also confirms what we reported last week about the AirPods Max; you will be able to get pretty darn near-lossless audio quality by plugging in the 3.5mm to Lightning headphone adapter, but in an effort to be meticulously accurate, Apple doesn’t want to call that truly lossless audio because of the extra analog-to-digital conversion in the headphones.
The Lightning to 3.5 mm Audio Cable was designed to allow AirPods Max to connect to analog sources for listening to movies and music. AirPods Max can be connected to devices playing Lossless and Hi-Res Lossless recordings with exceptional audio quality. However, given the analog-to-digital conversion in the cable, the playback will not be completely lossless.
What About the HomePod?
Apple has also addressed some of the confusion about the HomePod and HomePod mini, adding that they do not support lossless audio at all right now, as they use the AAC codec, but that Apple does, in fact, plan to add it in a future update.
HomePod and HomePod mini currently use AAC to ensure excellent audio quality. Support for lossless is coming in a future software update.
Since Apple’s AirPlay 2 protocol is fully capable of standard 24-bit/48kHz lossless audio, it’s a bit of a mystery why the HomePod and HomePod mini aren’t included already, but it does seem that for whatever reason Apple chose to go with the AAC codec across AirPlay for the sake of efficiency. However, this also means that it’s something that’s easy enough for Apple to change in a future software update.
We doubt very much that HomePod mini users are going to care, however, since again it takes some pretty good speakers or headphones to hear any difference between high-bitrate compressed audio (such as Apple’s 256kbps AAC) and true lossless audio. There’s no way the HomePod mini is going to be capable of that level of audio fidelity. It’s uncertain whether even the full-sized HomePod can handle it, but we’ll leave that debate to the audiophiles among us.