Apple TV: Poor Audio Quality

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Apple TV is the device that Apple never took seriously. It was supposedly Steve Jobs’ hobby. It actually costs twice as much as competing units by Roku, Boxee and others. Of course, if you have invested in the Apple ecosystem, you are better off with Apple TV. Unfortunately, Apple TV has inferior audio quality.

I purchased Apple TV 2 mainly because of AirPlay. I already had a high quality audio transmitter made by Amphony. It boasts exceptionally high audio quality — 24bit/96khz. I connected the transmitter to the analog line out on my Mac and the receiver to my stereo. It sounds very good. The only problem is that if I play music in my bedroom and livingroom, there is a noticeable delay. It is so noticeable that I only play it through my stereo’s speakers and turn off my Mac’s studio monitors. Perhaps if you buy their extra receivers, everything will be in sync. This may be a great solution for people who live in large houses. Their receivers are inexpensive compared to Apple TV or Airport Express units and offer superior, audiophile sound quality. They also offer receivers with built-in amps, which can power your favorite speakers in any room of the house.

After purchasing my Apple TV 2 last year, it temporarily replaced my Amphony transmitter. Unlike the Amphony unit, the music was perfectly in sync between my Mac and stereo. I could play music directly from my iPad or iPhone, and my TV would show the album cover and track info. Something was wrong, however. It just did not sound right…

The problem with Apple TV (versions 2 and 3) is that it converts the audio into a different format. If your music is encoded at 44.1khz, which is common, it will be converted to 48khz by Apple TV. This conversion process leaves noticeable audio artifacts, particularly in the high frequencies. I can hear swishy cymbals and generally bad reproduction of high frequencies. I noticed the audio problems first, and then searched for reasons. This is not a case of the specs fooling me into thinking the quality is inferior. The inferior audio quality is quite noticeable, and other people hear it too. This is not good. I have an excellent B&O stereo. I have studio monitors on my Mac. I take audio quality seriously. Once again, Apple’s product quality is the fly in the ointment. (continue…)

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UPDATES:

  • Apple TV 4 offers better AirPlay audio quality. I noticed the improvement immediately after replacing my 2nd generation Apple TV with the new model. Low end frequencies are clear and not muddled. Bass is no longer hyped. The highs are clean and undistorted. This is based on listening to Spotify over AirPlay with Extreme audio quality (320kbps Ogg). I recommend turning off “Reduce Loud Sounds”. You can do this in Settings > Audio & Video or simply tell Siri to “turn off Reduce Loud Sounds”. Make sure to turn down the volume on your stereo before you do this!

    Unfortunately, the new Apple TV offers buggy AirPlay functionality. AirPlay was overhauled in iOS 9 and tvOS to improve stability and performance. After setting up my new Apple TV, my music listening sessions were interrupted by brief audio drop-outs. I looked into every possible cause, and tried every device, but the problem is definitely with the AirPlay implementation on the new Apple TV. It worked fine with my old Apple TV. The only thing that changed in the setup was the new Apple TV 4. It is in the same, exact location as my previous Apple TV and doesn’t have any network issues. The pattern and consistency of the drop outs also indicates a problem with AirPlay on the new Apple TV. It’s not a network issue!

    After researching this problem, it appears a lot of users are having even worse problems with AirPlay on the new Apple TV. I would advise anyone who relies on AirPlay for music streaming to avoid the new Apple TV until this issue is resolved. Stick with your old Apple TV or purchase a third generation model.

    Streaming video with AirPlay has worked well so far, however, I have not tested this extensively. I listen to music every day, and this problem surfaces with every session. Rebooting doesn’t work. Closing apps doesn’t work. AirPlay is simply defective on tvOS.

  • The title “Poor Audio Quality” is a bit harsh. It’s not really poor, just not audiophile-quality. Since writing this article, much has changed. Apple TV now plays iTunes purchases directly from the cloud, even without iTunes Match. These days, I rarely use AirPlay. Now that I can play my iTunes music and use iTunes Radio directly on my Apple TV, AirPlay just isn’t that useful. This is also a better user experience. The rest of the mobile world is just starting to catch up to their own AirPlay-like capabilities. Apple is transcending AirPlay.

    Apple TV seems to be designed to use TV speakers. When I play music on my Apple TV, just through my TV, it sounds good. When I play it through my stereo, it has hyped bass and swishy artifacts in the treble range. After some minor subtractive EQ adjustment (attenuate bass and treble slightly), it sounds much better. Of course, EQ can’t remove the minor treble artifacts, but it makes them much less noticable. With these minor EQ adjustments, I now enjoy playing music on my Apple TV through my stereo. The sound quality is good enough to appreciate music without being distracted by audio quality issues.

    AirPlay will still be around, but its usefulness is diminishing. The user experience of using the small Apple TV remote is so much better than picking up the iPhone or iPad off the coffee table, unlocking it, and using it to control what’s on TV. But for those critics who claim Apple limits the user experience and doesn’t offer choice — they’re wrong. With the Apple ecosystem, there’s so many ways to interact with Apple TV and play music or video. You’re not locked in to iTunes. These are myths created by so-called “tech experts” who haven’t used an Apple product in years. They’re still chewing on the same old talking points, which apply more to their beloved products.

    As for audio quality, playing music directly from Apple TV sounds just fine. Recently, I played music from my iPad, over AirPlay, to hear if it has improved. I’m not hearing the artifacts anymore. It’s academic at this point. It’s so much easier to play music directly on my Apple TV, and it sounds great.

    Apple TV has really impressed me. This $90 box has grown so much since I purchased it two years ago. Every few months, I am surprised by more content channels on the home screen. Some companies have come out with TV set-top boxes, only to discontinue them, leaving their users hanging. Apple TV has improved so much since I have purchased it. I no longer regret cutting the cord. Indeed, Apple TV works better than any cable set-top box I have owned. I’m interested to see what Apple does with this product in the future.





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14 thoughts on “Apple TV: Poor Audio Quality

  1. We noticed the drop in quality too when streaming directly from Mountain Lion to the Apple TV. Streaming to an Apple TV (with or without mirroring) is almost instantly. That is necessary to get a decent mirroring experience and no A/V sync issues. Consequence in our opinion: Apple needed to compress the audio to decrease bandwith to get rid of the necessity of the 2 second buffer of the standard protocol.

    Have you tried Porthole for streaming to AirPlay devices? It uses the ‘standard’ AirPlay protocol for all AirPlay devices. I’ve had good results with my own B&O set. Drop us an email if you want to give it a try (or get the trial on getporthole.com).

  2. Have you had a chance to compare Airplay on other devices such as a Yamaha/Denon receiver?
    One thing I did find is that on my friends setup streaming from phone was much poorer and muddier than streaming same track via laptop (both via airplay on same wifi with good signal). Have you experienced this?

    • I haven’t had a chance to try AirPlay on anything other than an Apple TV.

      It wouldn’t surprise me that AirPlay from the iPhone doesn’t sound as good as a laptop. The iPhone does support lossless. So the actual music file on the iPhone should be the same as the source on iTunes. It may be that the AirPlay implementation for iOS is different than OS X. We do know that AirPlay for iOS is doing a sampling rate change. OS X is probably not doing this. It may be due to different teams working on the products, or technical limitations. iOS devices rely on “system-on-a-chip” technology for a lot of things. OS X is used in professional studios, and the audio engineers working on OS X are top notch. They likely didn’t make these compromises when developing AirPlay for OS X (or iTunes for Windows).

      It’s hard to say — these things are a black box. If you look at Apple’s site, their tech specs for audio on a MacBook Pro don’t say anything about formats. It’s stuff like — 2 speakers, etc. They go into more detail with the iPhone, perhaps because it’s fixed due to the system-on-a-chip. A Mac supports virtually any audio format, as this seems to be implemented in software. iOS devices rely on their system-on-a-chip. An iPhone 4 can’t do AirPlay screen mirroring, but an iPad 2 or iPhone 4S (and above) can. Software can’t fix that, because it’s part of the system-on-a-chip technology.

      That said, I think AirPlay screen mirroring on the Mac is also a system-on-a-chip thing (just the screen mirroring). I have a 2009 quad core Mac Pro, and it cannot do AirPlay screen mirroring! I use AirParrot for that. But virtually any Mac can do AirPlay, which seems to indicate that regular AirPlay audio and video transmission (not screen mirroring) is implemented in software. They could fix the “mistake”, but when it’s baked into hundreds of millions of iOS devices, it can’t be fixed. Subtle audio quality defects are easy to miss. Indeed, if they’re listening to pop music when doing quality assurance, AirPlay for iOS will sound good. It’s the more dynamic music (classical, jazz, progressive rock) that doesn’t sound up to snuff.

      I have an 8 year old iPod Classic (80GB). I use it in my car, which has an amazing audio system (ELS). I plug this in directly through the dock, and it sounds great. I also play music from my iPhone on an iHome clock radio, directly through the dock, and it also sounds great. This would seem to indicate that the AirPlay protocol for iOS is doing something that damages the sound, as the actual audio files on the iPhone are just fine (when played through the dock).

      I think “poor” audio quality is a bit unfair. I was annoyed. It’s pretty good, but not great, audio quality. Yes, the mud and high-end swish remind me of 128 MP3’s from the year 2000. To be honest, if I just wanted to listen to some music fast, while preparing a meal or doing a chore, I would use AirPlay from my iOS device. It was good enough for casual listening. Now that Apple TV directly supports iTunes, I use that. I don’t seem to hear the artifacts, for the most part, depending on bandwidth limitations. But even 256kbps AAC takes up minuscule amounts of bandwidth, so the vast majority of the time, iTunes purchases played directly on Apple TV sound very good.

      iTunes Radio sounds great, but has hyped bass and Sound Check cannot be turned off, which kind of makes sense for radio. The hyped bass is a little troublesome, though…

  3. Your first comments and title are accurate. No need to retrace your steps. I have a audiophile system and i hear a big drop in audio quality. Disappointing. It seems to be even worse when mirroring with huge amounts of jitter added to the audio. Sort it out apple, premium prices? I want a premium product in every way. Pull your finger out.

    • Agreed. The best way to listen to iTunes music is with a computer connected to a stereo or a high end wireless audio transmitter. People tell me that AirPort Express sounds good.

      We can only hope that Apple takes their TV product seriously. The rumors indicate this is going to happen. For $90, the device exceeds my expectations. I use it every day. That said, not everyone will agree. Compared to other set-top boxes, $90 is expensive. For an Apple product, it’s one of the cheapest they make.

      I do think the high-frequency artifacts (swishy sound) aren’t present when playing music directly from iTunes in the cloud. However, the bass seems to be hyped.

      Apple has some great audio engineers, but I don’t know if they’re involved in Apple TV. As with all corporations, they have their own product teams.

  4. Old thread, but I have some testing feedback that should add to it. I have my music on a Synology NAS, and stream it to a Yamaha A1010. I have Carver ALIII speakers and Sunfire 300 amp (600w/ch in my setup), so the sound is very good. I recently got an AppleTV and have tried using the Synology DS Audio iOS app on my iPhone, which uses AirPlay. The degradation is HUGE IMO with my setup. It’s cumbersome to use the Yamaha remote + TV for display, so I’m playing with the Yamaha Controller iOS app, which so far is working pretty good and more convenient.

    • Awesome comment! Just curious — did you use the optical audio output on Apple TV, or output the audio via you TV? I have a hunch that the audio coming out of HDMI has hyped bass in order to make it sound better on a TV. It actually sounds decent when played through my TV speakers, but not so good when played through my stereo. I just do a subtractive EQ to attentuate bass and treble, making it more mid-range. That makes it sound a bit better.

      • From the Apple TV I was using HDMI output into the Yamaha, which feeds my TV in Zone 1 (if on) and Zone 2 speakers (the ALIII’s). At your suggestion, I tested optical output to the Yamaha and listening to it in Zone 2. I found no difference between it and the HDMI. I was testing with Strauss Champagne Polka, and the corks popping at the end sound almost like you’re live in the room when heard straight into the Yamaha, but lack clarity and just sound more muffled when fed through AppleTV/Airplay.

        • Thanks for doing that. Well, now I know the optical outs aren’t any better. It would appear that Apple TV, much like the iPod, is designed for the average consumer. Yes, when you listen to classical, jazz, progressive rock and anything with dynamics, it seems much more obvious. I think it is a bit silly that with all of the technology and bandwidth available, we often have to settle for audio quality that isn’t even as good as a CD. I also think they have designed it to sound good when played from TV speakers.

      • Oh, and I tried reducing the bass and treble and I’m not hearing the difference in my test on this track, but thank you for the tip, I’ll play around with it. I’ll also likely try both streaming options since I want the AppleTV option to work as the interface is better, and I can stream the same format (ALAC – lossless) to all my iDevices and speakers that way. 🙂

        • Good idea! Yes, the Apple TV interface is pretty cool. It’s not bad for a < $100 hockey puck that Apple still treats as a "hobby". Adjusting the EQ should ameliorate the issue with booming bass and lack of midrange. I find subtractive EQ to usually be the best way to go.

          • Until I plugged my iPhone directly into my receiver via lightning usb, I didn’t realize how poor my Apple TV was treating my music that was being sent wirelessly from my iMac!

            Especially the highs!
            Both ways utilize the same dac in my receiver.

            Question-is it the wireless streaming or the apple tv itself diminishing sound quality? thanks

          • It seems that the problem is with an on-the-fly sampling rate conversion. Yes, the highs are warbly. When you hear a cymbal crash, it doesn’t sound right. I also feel that the bass is hyped. I think they do some processing to make it sound good on TV speakers. It does sound good on TV speakers, but not very good on a stereo. I prefer the sound when playing from my Mac to my stereo via a 24-bit/96khz audio transmitter.

            The other wrinkle is that playing music directly from Apple TV can also result in poor fidelity. Recently, with the Christmas surge, I have been unable to play music on my Apple TV directly. It will play for 5 seconds and then stop, because iTunes servers are having problems. I tried accessing iTunes with both my home Internet service and mobile service, and it’s slow on both. When I check the speed on Speedtest, I have ample bandwidth to stream music at 256 kbps. iTunes is extremely slow in the SF Bay Area right now. I was too lazy to boot up my Mac, so I downloaded an album on my iPhone (which took a very long time) and played it via AirPlay. It sounded much better. This is an album I had been listening to a lot, directly on Apple TV. If iTunes or one’s Internet connection is slow, the Music “channel” on Apple TV plays low bit rate tracks. The only way to guarantee 256 kbps is to download the music from iTunes and then stream it with AirPlay. One also has to adjust AirPlay settings on Apple TV, to turn off streaming from iCloud. Otherwise, AirPlay just gets the music from iTunes in the Cloud, and it could be streamed at a low bit rate (or not work at all).

            It just works, if you fiddle with it. At least Apple does give users different options, despite what the talking points claim. There are so many ways to play music or videos in the Apple ecosystem. They seem to be one of the few companies that realizes people don’t always have the bandwidth to stream everything (and they definitely can’t provide that from their back end).

            Seeing as how my Internet connection is worse than it was 5-10 years ago, I don’t see this getting better. There’s no Moore’s law for Internet Speed. It seems to be defined by corporate greed.

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