Lossless Music and Spatial Audio on Apple Music: All you need to know
Lossless quality music streaming has been around for years courtesy dedicated audiophile-focused services like Tidal, Qobuz and Deezer, but they’ve been priced out of reach for most folks and have continued under the radar for the average consumer. With Apple Music rolling out lossless quality audio to Indian consumers earlier this week, Apple’s shone a big ol’ spotlight on lossless audio in a way only Apple can when it enters a segment. Interestingly, unlike other players who had a new tier on their subscription plans for high-resolution lossless audio, Apple’s bringing Spatial Audio with Dolby Atmos and Lossless Audio to Apple Music at existing rates - a democratization if you will, of high quality audio listening experiences - leading to a tremendous amount of interest in mainstream consumers. Almost overnight, I’ve had people polling me for recommendations on entry-level earphones and DACs (across iPhone and Android users), and to make sense of all the new terms we’re adding to our lossless vocabulary. Here’s four key questions that should address all you need to know to get started.
What is lossless music and why should I care?
The music you’ve so far been enjoying on Apple Music (or other consumer streaming services for that matter) has come in compressed form, in formats like AAC or MP3. These ‘lossy’ file formats discard some amount of detail, particularly around the low and high end of the music, in favor of lower file sizes, which make for faster transmission and lesser storage space taken up on your phone. The result is audio that sounds good enough for regular listening but misses out the level of detail that the original artist intended.
Now onto lossless, which to be clear isn’t uncompressed audio. Instead, it means that the digital audio file uses data compression, but in a way that doesn’t lose any detail in the compression process. Of course, file sizes get to be bigger, so where an AAC file is anywhere between 5-7MB for a three-minute song, a lossless file format such as FLAC or ALAC (Apple Lossless Audio Codec) is about 35-40MB. The other way to look at it is by considering bitrate or the amount of data transferred per second, which is widely considered a measure of audio quality – standard streaming music operates in the region of 256-320 kbps (much like an MP3), but the bitrate of a normal lossless audio track is 1411 kbps, or four times as much. For reference, Apple Music offers a couple of lossless tiers, starting at CD quality audio (16-bit/44.1Khz), going up to lossless at 24-bit/48Khz and finally master-grade Hi-Res Lossless at 24-bit/192Khz. Apple will be converting its entire catalog of 75 million songs to lossless formats by the end of this year, with more than 20 million tracks already available in lossless format to its paying subscribers on iOS, iPadOS, Mac (and soon Android), at no additional charge. Coupled with the right wired audio equipment (below), you should be able to discern a significant jump in audio quality.
Wait a minute, what about Bluetooth? No lossless over Bluetooth?
In a nutshell, no. This means that even Apple’s own AirPods Pro or AirPods Max will not support lossless audio, since they use the AAC Bluetooth codec for streaming audio which has a maximum bitrate of 256kbps, ergo not lossless. But it’s not just Apple’s headphones, even other wireless streaming tech like Sony's LDAC codec or Qualcomm’s aptX only go up to 990kbps and 570kbps respectively, which is better than AAC but still well below the 1411 kbps mark required by lossless audio. Interestingly, HomePod and HomePod mini currently use AAC, but support for lossless is coming in a future software update. In the car, you can listen to lossless audio with CarPlay over a USB connection, as long as you’re fine with Apple Music chewing through your cellular data plan!
How do I board the lossless bandwagon?
First, pick up an Apple Music subscription, which starts at Rs. 99/month for individual users, or you could simply opt for the Apple One package (Rs. 195/month) which includes Apple TV+, Arcade and 50GB of free iCloud storage along with your Apple Music plan.
Next, you’ll need a source device, an iPhone on iOS 14.6, a Mac on macOS 11.4 or an Apple TV 4K on tvOS 14.6. Head over to the Apple Music settings and enable Lossless – Macs support both the Lossless and Hi-Res Lossless tier, while Apple TVs only support the Lossless 24-bit/48Khz tier.
Next, you’ll have to decide whether (and how much) you want to go all out on additional hardware. Starting with something as basic as the Lightning to 3.5mm headphone jack adaptor (Rs. 900) with an iPhone can get you on board the base 24-bit/48 kHz lossless tier. Pair it with a reasonably inexpensive (sub-2,000) audiophile grade in-ear monitor earphones (IEM) like the KZ ZSN Pro X, and you’re ready to go.
If you’re a card-carrying audiophile (or want to be one), you’ll clearly want some of that Hi-Res Lossless tier goodness by plonking down some cash for a DAC, or a digital-to-analog converter. Sure, some phones like the ROG Phone 5 have good quality built-in DACs, but for most phones and Macs/iPads, an external DAC does a much better job of converting binary data signals into audio that is played back through a speaker or a pair of headphones, not to mention the ability to not only process 24-bit/192KHz audio for Apple Music’s highest lossless tier but also amplify the sound signal for higher impedance headphones. You could look at the Shanling UA1 (Rs. 3,999) or the iBasso DC03 (Rs. 4,999) as a great starting point, but since these don’t ship with a Lightning port connector for your iPhone, you’re going to have to spend a bit extra and pick up the Apple Lighting to USB Camera Adapter (Rs. 2,900). On a Mac or newer iPad Air/Pro, you can directly connect the DAC to the Type-C port. With the Apple Music lossless update rolling out to Android as well, a DAC and a good pair of IEMs would be all you need.
And what about Spatial Audio? How is it different from Dolby Atmos?
Spatial audio is where the rollout has proved more interesting, at least on the tracks I’ve been listening to in the past few days on the AirPods Pro and AirPods Max. Let’s start with standard Dolby Atmos tracks, which is everyday music remastered with a surround speaker setup that includes separate height channels to create an enveloping effect around the listener. Tracks labelled with the Atmos tag will simulate the wide, opening listening experience with any pair of headphones (just turn the Dolby Atmos setting to "always-on"). Unlike lossless audio, Dolby Atmos for Apple Music will work on both wired and wireless headsets.
Apple’s Spatial Audio for Apple Music works in tandem with AirPods and Beats models with the W1/H1 chip and the built-in speakers of all iPhone, iPad, and Mac models with stereo speakers to amp up the Atmos experience. It’s not quite the Apple TV+ Spatial Audio experience, which allows head-tracking to anchor the sound to the TV – Spatial Audio for Apple Music supports binaural, simulated surround sound listening, and kicking back to The Beatles’ Come Together, The Weeknd’s Blinding Lights or Rahman’s Dil Bechara gave me the distinct sense I was listening to elements of much-heard songs for the first time. Clearly, the Spatial Audio processing works better on some tracks than others, and a lot will come down to how the track was mixed. But in the few days I have spent listening to the specially curated Spatial Audio playlists, I’ve had a blast re-listening to many of the tracks that benefit from that wider soundstage.