It Turns Out You Can Get Near-Lossless Apple Music by Plugging in Your AirPods Max

AirPods Max 2 Credit: Jack Skeens / Shutterstock
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As we explained in much more depth yesterday, you won’t be able to take advantage of Apple’s soon-to-be-upgraded lossless music catalog from any wireless headphones — including Apple’s own premium AirPods Max.

This makes sense, since Apple only uses the standard AAC codec over Bluetooth, and just like the AAC file format, that’s an entirely “lossy” codec, meaning that at least some audio fidelity is discarded to lower the data rate so that it can be streamed wirelessly to a set of headphones.

To be clear, this limitation applies to all wireless headphones. While some Bluetooth codecs have higher data rates that get closer to lossless quality, none of them can yet deliver the full bandwidth required for even CD-quality lossless audio, much less the newer hi-res formats.

Bluetooth connections also suffer from the same signal attenuation problems that Wi-Fi and cellular signals do — the farther away you get from the source, the lower the data rate. In other words, for the same reason that you get faster internet speeds when sitting right beside your wireless router than you do on the other side of your house, Bluetooth will also give you lower data rates when you’re not right beside your iPhone.

As a result, even high-bitrate codecs like Sony’s proprietary LDAC can’t guarantee the highest quality — in fact, they’re specifically designed to “scale down” to lower lossy bitrates when they can’t maintain a fast enough Bluetooth connection. The same would also be true if Apple were to implement the MPEG-4 SLS extension to the AAC codec.

What this all comes down to is that there’s simply no way you’re going to hear true lossless audio from any wireless headphones in the near future. Apple could improve the AAC codec to make things much better — under ideal conditions — but true lossless will likely require some significant enhancements to Bluetooth, or the development of Wi-Fi headphones that support something like a future “AirPlay 3” protocol.

What About Wired Connections?

It also turns out that Apple is actually very meticulous when it comes to talking about Lossless Audio, and this is where some confusion around the use of the AirPods Max in wireless mode comes from.

Shortly after the announcement of the new Apple Music Lossless upgrade on Monday, Billboard’s Michael Singleton confirmed with Apple that even a 3.5mm to Lightning Cable will not be able to deliver lossless audio into a set of AirPods Max headphones.

This naturally left us scratching our heads, since a wired audio connection should have no problem delivering lossless audio. The business end of the Lightning cable in question is a standard 3.5mm headphone plug, so if that can’t pull basic lossless audio out of an iPhone, iPad, or Mac, then what possibly can?

Well, it turns out that Apple is being pedantically precise in terms of what it considers “true” lossless audio, and while we commend them for not going with a marketing spin, it’s also a bit misleading in the other direction.

As The Verge’s Chris Welch explains, Apple told him very clearly that “AirPods Max wired listening mode accepts analog output sources only. AirPods Max currently does not support digital audio formats in wired mode.”

However, as Welch explains, you’re still going to get much better audio in wired mode — it just won’t technically be true lossless.

The problem, from Apple’s perspective, is that the AirPods Max use an analog-to-digital converter (ADC) to convert the analog audio from the 3.5mm end of the cable into a digital format before passing it on to the actual audio drivers. This means that the signal is being reprocessed, and is therefore no longer an identical match to the source.

In other words, as Apple explained to The Verge, when playing a 24-bit 48 kHz Apple Music track, you’re not only first converting it from its original lossless digital format to analog — something that you’d be doing with any set of headphones — but the AirPods Max are actually re-digitizing it back. The re-digitized audio isn’t a 100% identical match to the original, and therefore it’s not technically true lossless audio.

However, it’s going to sound very, very close to true lossless — to the point where we’d imagine nobody will be able to hear any difference whatsoever.

Is it still going to sound very good? Almost certainly. The AirPods Max sound exceptional — even with AAC over Bluetooth, and plugging in can make the experience richer. But if you’re a stickler for the technical details, this is why the AirPods Max can’t pull off lossless audio in the truest sense.

Chris Welch, The Verge

Keep in mind here, however, that we’re also only talking about Apple’s standard lossless audio tracks. The ultra-hi-fi “Hi Resolution Lossless” format won’t be available out of the headphone jack at all — users will need to invest in an external DAC that plugs into a Lightning or USB-C port if they want to hear the quality from these extreme formats, although it’s really debatable whether any set of headphones on the planet can actually let you hear this level of acoustic fidelity that goes far beyond “CD quality” audio.

However, what’s a bit more awkward about this fact is that there doesn’t seem to be any reason why Apple couldn’t create a Lightning-to-Lightning connection from the AirPods Max, allowing for a full end-to-end digital audio stream. The Lightning standard is fully capable of supporting direct digital audio streams, but whether the Lightning port on the AirPods Max has been designed with this in mind remains an open question. It would be a rather shortsighted decision on Apple’s part if they don’t at least have the hardware capabilities in place, waiting to be unlocked via a future firmware update or simply providing the right cable.

Again, though, this is mostly a semantic discussion, based on the definition of “true” lossless — a digital audio stream that has to be bit-for-bit identical to the source. The extra analog-to-digital step means that the AirPods Max won’t provide this kind of true lossless audio, but it’s really hard to imagine that this matters to anybody but the most extreme and pedantic audiophiles. Most people will be thrilled with the improved Apple Music Lossless experience available simply by plugging in their AirPods Max.

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