You Won’t Be Able to Hear Apple Lossless on AirPods Max or Any Other Wireless Headphones — But Does It Really Matter?

Don’t be roped into the idea that you can suddenly hear better audio just because Apple’s offering it.
Are AirPods Max Worth It Credit: Hadrian / Shutterstock
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If you’ve been hoping the debut of full Lossless Audio on Apple Music will revolutionize your listening experience, you may be disappointed, as Apple has confirmed that even its most expensive headphones, the AirPods Max, will not be able to support the new full-resolution audio formats.

While the AirPods Max will be fully compatible with the new Spatial Audio with Support for Dolby Atmos, it turns out the Bluetooth technology that’s used in all AirPods — and the iPhone, iPad, and Mac — simply doesn’t have the bandwidth to handle the higher bitrates required to deliver fully lossless audio.

To be fair, this wasn’t entirely unexpected, as Apple has always used the Advanced Audio Coding (AAC) codec for all of its Bluetooth devices — the same format that it’s been using for iTunes music for almost 20 years. In fact, many people believe that AAC was invented by Apple, but it’s actually part of the MPEG-2 and MPEG-4 specifications, approved way back in 1997.

A (Brief) History of AAC

AAC was actually the next generation of the considerably more popular MP3 format, and hence was originally known as MP4, however it was Apple who brought the format into the mainstream when it launched the iTunes Music Store back in 2003.

The need for tracks to be protected with Digital Rights Management (DRM) copy protection in the early days of iTunes was likely the main reason that people began to think of AAC as a proprietary Apple format, but it was also fully supported by a wide range of other devices — just not for tracks with Apple’s FairPlay DRM wrapper.

This also led to the use of M4A and M4P as the most common file extensions for AAC music files, since the MP4 designation didn’t differentiate between copy-protected and non-copy-protected files, it was shortened so that the third letter could be used for this purpose. Along the same lines, M4V later became the standard naming convention used by Apple for MPEG-4 video files, which is what most people think of when they see an MP4 extension.

AAC, like MP3 before it, is what’s known as a “lossy” compression format. This means that some audio fidelity is computationally discarded to reduce file size. The quality of any digital audio format is frequently measured in terms of its “bit rate” which describes how much data is used to produce each second of audio. Obviously, the higher the bit rate, the more data is available, and the higher the sound quality — at least in theory.

To put this in perspective, physical CD audio is mastered at 1,411 kbps, or kilobits per second. This means that approximately 1.4 million bits of data are contained in each second of audio. By contrast, when iTunes first made its debut almost 20 years ago, 128 kbps, or 128,000 bits per second, was considered an acceptable quality for MP3 files for most users, although many audio enthusiasts still preferred higher rates of 256 kbps or even 384 kbps, which was the maximum bitrate supported by the MP3 codec.

One of the keys to lossy compression, however, is that the quality is also largely dependent on the algorithm used to handle the compression. In other words, how does the encoder choose what data to throw away and what data to keep. This is arguably much more of an art than a science, but since the MPEG-4 AAC format was the successor to MP3 (MPEG-1/2 Layer 3), it naturally did a better job of improving audio quality at a given bitrate. This means that a 128kbps AAC track would generally sound better than a 128kbps MP3.

How much better has been the subject of much-heated debate over the past 18 years. Flame wars have erupted and friendships destroyed over whether a 128kbps AAC is equivalent to or better than a 256kbps MP3, and whose ears can hear what differences and under what conditions. Then, of course, there’s also the group of Lossless fans — those who refuse to accept any of these compressed formats as well — who would always come in and declare that everybody else was crazy.

Bluetooth Audio Codecs

What you may not realize, however, is that the same type of lossy audio compression is also used when transmitting digital audio to your wireless headphones.

When you consider the relatively limited bandwidth that’s been available to cellular and Wi-Fi technologies over the years, you won’t be surprised to find out that Bluetooth suffers from the same limitations. There’s only so much data you can send along a low-power wireless connection, so the idea of using Bluetooth for lossless digital audio was never really on the table in the early phases of its development.

Bluetooth 1.0 offered a theoretical maximum data rate of 1 Mbps, but that was rarely achievable under real-world conditions. Further, most Bluetooth headphones simply weren’t capable of the processing power required to handle more complex audio codecs like MP3 or AAC, and hence the SBC, or subband codec, was born.

SBC is a mandatory codec that must be supported on all Bluetooth devices, and it’s what’s called “computationally fast” as it doesn’t require much horsepower to process SBC audio. Unfortunately, this also means that SBC audio sounds like crap.

As Bluetooth chips became more powerful, two new Bluetooth codecs rose to prominence: aptX and AAC. Contrary to what many people think, neither of these were new encoding methods — they were simply new to the world of Bluetooth. As we already explained, the AAC codec came to life in 1997, but aptX goes even farther back than that — it was developed by Qualcomm in 1988.

Unfortunately, this also resulted in a sharp divide between Android and iPhone users. Apple naturally embraced AAC, as it had been using it for iTunes and Apple Music for well over a decade, while most Android handset makers fell down on the aptX side, often due to existing licensing agreements with Qualcomm.

Bluetooth headset makers were forced into something of a Hobson’s choice. Since it was usually more costly to license and support both aptX and AAC, most Bluetooth speakers and headphones only support one or the other. Apple’s AirPods and Beats naturally handle AAC, while most others have stuck with aptX.

Of course, since SBC remains a core requirement of the Bluetooth standard, everybody still has to support that as well. However, this is why Apple’s AirPods and Beats generally sound far better for iPhone and iPad users than third-party Bluetooth headphones — the iPhone only sends out audio in AAC, so if your headphones only support aptX, you’re going to have to fall back to the least common denominator: SBC.

Conversely, this is also why AirPods and Beats aren’t great choices for most Android users. Even though some Huawei, LG, and Samsung smartphones actually do support AAC as well as aptX, they use a lower-quality Fraunhofer FDK AAC encoder, and the quality of their implementation also varies greatly.

However, Apple’s choice to use AAC for its Bluetooth codec makes a lot of sense when you consider that everything on Apple Music (and the iTunes Store) is already encoded in AAC. This means that your iPhone, iPad, and Mac don’t need to re-encode your music before delivering it to your AirPods or other AAC-compatible headphones.

Further, while re-encoding is necessary for non-AAC compatible Bluetooth headphones, this uses the SBC codec, which is much faster and therefore requires little to no power consumption. In either case, the result is improved battery life and lower latency when streaming Apple Music to your headphones.

AirPods Max and Lossless Audio

The catch, however, is that the standard AAC codec caps out at 320kbps. This makes it entirely unsuitable for lossless audio in its current form.

To be fair, the standard aptX codec suffers from the same limitations, and although a newer aptX HD can reach 576 kbps under certain conditions, this still falls far short of any lossless audio format.

In fact, there’s only one Bluetooth audio codec that’s available today that would have any hope of handling lossless audio, and that’s a newer one known as LDAC — a proprietary technology developed by Sony, and therefore unsurprisingly not found on a lot of other company’s headphones.

The LDAC encoder has been open-sourced and added to the Android Open Source Project, making it free for any handset maker to send audio using LDAC, but the decoder remains proprietary technology, and requires a license from Sony to implement in any headphones.

With that in mind, even though LDAC offers bitrates of up to 960kbps, it’s not surprising that Apple hasn’t incorporated it into any of its headphones — even the AirPods Max. Similarly, even though it would theoretically be free to do so, Apple has no real incentive to add an LDAC encoder to iOS when it would basically only benefit one of the biggest competitors to its AirPods and Beats headphones.

So, when the AirPods Max launched, it was assumed that they likely only supported the same AAC codec that Apple has been using for years, as there’d really be no reason for Apple to offer anything else in a product that’s designed to work exclusively with its AAC-only iPhones, iPads, and Macs.

Even so, when Apple announced Lossless Audio support this week, it got our hopes up that maybe Apple had something special up its sleeve for its premium headphones. While there’s no way we’d expect something like LDAC to be hidden in there, the AAC standard has multiple extensions, one of which is actually designed to support lossless audio transfer.

Known as Scalable to Lossless (SLS), the extension is also sometimes known as HD-AAC, and works in a manner similar to LDAC in allowing various bitrates to be used to scale audio quality from the standard AAC 256-320kbps bitrates all the way up to lossless quality.

Unfortunately, AAC-SLS has yet to be implemented on any consumer-grade devices, and if Apple has it hidden anywhere in iOS 14.6, nobody’s found any evidence of it yet. Further, Apple has confirmed to T3 and others that AirPods Max and AirPods Pro do not support Apple Music Lossless, which uses Apple’s originally proprietary ALAC codec — a compression format that retains original source quality, but also hasn’t been implemented as a Bluetooth codec.

This means that even if you’ve shelled out for the most expensive headphones Apple has ever made, you will not gain any better raw audio quality when Apple Lossless debuts next month.

You will still be able to take advantage of Spatial Audio and Dolby Atmos, however, but these don’t necessarily improve audio quality — they just add a wider and more expansive soundstage. Further, while Apple has promised to have 20 million tracks available in Lossless Audio at launch, and all 75 million by the end of the year, the number of Dolby Atmos tracks is only going to be in the thousands, not the millions.

To be fair, we wouldn’t be at all surprised to find out that Apple is, in fact, working on the SLS extension to AAC, and theoretically, it may even be possible for it to come out as a firmware update for the AirPods Max. It’s not there now, however.

Does It Matter?

Firstly, it’s important to note that AirPods Max are no different from any other set of wireless headphones in this regard. However, that’s kind of the problem: Apple really should have done something special with its own wireless headphones to make them stand out from the pack and justify their premium price. It would have been a brilliant move on Apple’s part.

However, it’s also important to remember that, for the vast majority of music listeners, Apple’s debut of Lossless Audio is far more about marketing than practical reality. Many people fall into the placebo group when it comes to audio quality, and we’re fully anticipating that even though AirPods Max will not offer any better audio quality when Apple Music Lossless makes its debut, there are going to be many people who insist that it sounds so much better than it did before.

So, don’t be roped into the idea that you can suddenly hear better audio just because Apple’s offering it. For most of us, Apple Music Lossless is ultimately about keeping up with its competitors from a marketing standpoint. Spotify announced it would begin offering a premium lossless tier, so there’s no way Apple is going to be left behind. In fact, Apple has done an end-run around Spotify, Amazon, and Tidal by offering its entire library in a Lossless Audio format to every Apple Music subscriber at no extra charge.

It was such a bold move that Amazon Music quickly matched it only hours after Apple’s announcement, revealing its own plan to offer Amazon Music HD to all of its subscribers, eliminating the higher-tier entirely.

We want to be clear, however: We’re not discounting the fact that there are many people who can hear the difference in quality offered by lossless audio, and if you’re one of these people, we also don’t blame you for being a bit disappointed that you won’t be able to get Apple Music Lossless on your AirPods Max. However, many blind test studies have shown that most people can’t actually hear the difference between a properly mastered 256kbps AAC file and a CD-quality track — even on tens of thousands of dollars of premium studio equipment.

It’s not our intention to once again get into the endless debates on whether lossless is better. Objectively speaking, it most definitely is, as the math doesn’t lie. However, the important question to ask yourself is, can you hear the difference? Because if you can’t, it really doesn’t matter what higher level of quality Apple, Spotify, or anybody else is offering, nor whether it’s going to work on your AirPods Max — or any other headphones, for that matter.

If you’re unsure, however, there are lots of ways you can test your own ears — assuming your equipment is good enough. Try a test such as this one for starters. The goal of “blind ABX” tests like these is to present different audio qualities “blind” so that you’re not psychologically swayed by knowing which one actually is the higher-quality audio source. However, make sure you’re using good audio gear and be prepared to spend some time to get accurate results.

In my case, I did a series of these tests back in 2004, after spending months agonizing about the best bitrate for listening to my CD collection on my iPod. In the end, I discovered that there were very few times — less than 2 percent of all the tracks I tested with — where I could hear any difference between a 256 kbps AAC file and the original CD even with a set of $2,000 “audiophile” headphones. Those few differences I did hear were also only when I was trying very hard to hear them. Following that, I shrugged, ripped my entire collection into AAC and never looked back — after all, my ears certainly haven’t gotten better with age.

What You Need to Enjoy Apple Lossless

If you do want to enjoy Apple Music in all of its lossless glory, however, then you’re not going to be able to do it using any wireless headphones. So, what kind of setup do you need?

Firstly, Billboard’s Michael Singleton has confirmed with Apple that you won’t be able to get lossless into your AirPods Max with a Lightning cable either.

This appears to be a limitation of the AirPods Max Lightning audio connector, however, an iPhone, iPad, or Mac can decode and output the lossless audio over the analog headphone jack. However, there’s still a catch here as well.

Apple will be offering two levels of Lossless Audio. The entire library will eventually be encoded in a standard Lossless format, which will offer sampling rates of up to 48kHz. This should work fine through the normal headphone jack.

However, Apple’s ultra-hi-fi “Hi Resolution Lossless” will support sampling rates of up to 24 bit at 192kHz, which can’t be heard through the normal headphone jack. If you want to listen to Hi-Res Lossless through any headphones, you’re going to need to invest in an external DAC. However, these extreme audio formats go beyond CD-quality audio, and there’s a lot of debate whether there’s any point to them at all.

There’s some uncertainty over whether Lossless Audio will be supported on the HomePod. Certainly, getting this on the HomePod mini is pointless — the smaller speakers don’t have the fidelity for it — but the larger-sized HomePod might just make a difference. Singleton says it’s not officially supported, however Matthew Bolton of T3 states that “Apple has also confirmed support on Apple TV and HomePod.”

Ultimately, however, you’ll likely get the best results using an Apple TV 4K connected to an external AV receiver that can handle lossless audio via the HDMI 2.1 connection. This can then send it to any set of quality speakers that are connected to that receiver — and let’s face it, if you really want to enjoy all the benefits of Lossless Audio, you’re going to need a sound system that’s far more capable than anything you’ll likely be plugging into your iPhone or iPad.

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