Apple Music Goes Lossless, Amazon Responds

image credit: AKC

published by Rachel Gold
May 23, 2021 at 5:37 p.m.
  • Apple will transition its music catalog to lossless audio, which offers superior quality compared to data-compressed music.
  • Tidal, Amazon Music, and others have offered high-definition music streaming for several years.
  • Apple already upgraded 20 million songs to lossless audio, with all 75 million set to be converted by the end of the year.
  • Amazon responded to Apple’s enhancement by offering its HD service upgrade for free to all Amazon Music subscribers.

What is Lossless Audio?

To save space on devices, facilitate streaming, and speed up downloads, the music most of us listen to is compressed. Data compression algorithms employ different techniques to make efficient audio sound almost as good as the real thing. On basic headphones or smartphone speakers, most people can’t tell the difference.

It’s important to delineate audio compression and data compression. Both technologies are essential to music production and distribution. Audio compression reins in unruly dynamic ranges, with producers using it on individual tracks, such as vocals and bass lines, and the entire song in mastering. Data compression takes a massive audio file and converts it into something much smaller and easier to stream and download, typically at the expense of audio quality.

It’s incredible that, as video quality continues to improve, with remarkable 8K displays already on the market, audio quality remains elusive. The reality is, most consumers listen to music on smartphone speakers and earbuds. The difference between high-fidelity music and highly data compressed music is negligible for most.

Studies have shown that few listeners can perceive the difference between compressed audio and high definition music. It depends on the audio encoder, its settings, and the output devices (decoder, amp, speakers, headphones). It’s possible to reduce audio files down to 25% of their original data size and still offer listenable music.

For a long time, Apple offered all of its music in 256 kbps AAC format, which is about a quarter the size of a 16-bit, 44.1 kHz CD imported without compression. Apple’s lossless compression encodes audio without losing sound quality. A typical Apple lossless file may be two to three times larger than a standard Apple Music track compressed into a 256 kbps AAC file.

Lossless Sounds Better Than Lossy

The problem with compressed audio files is that the algorithms aren’t perfect. They rely on shaving off the high end and replacing it with generated high frequencies, as humans can only detect, yet not accurately perceive, these frequencies.

The overall detail of the track degrades as digital resolution decreases. Pyshcoacoustic “shuffling” takes advantage of how “quickly” our ears can hear, eliminating unnecessary temporal audio data. Much like reducing the frame rate of videos, these encoders simplify sampled audio.

Encoders often handle the low end just like high frequencies by stripping them out and replacing them with false, rendered bass frequencies. On high-end systems, listeners can often hear artifacts such as swishy cymbals, dull bass, and garbled sounds with data compressed music. Music with wide dynamic ranges, such as classical, jazz, and classic rock, often sound worse with compression than modern music with a limited dynamic range.

Most data compression algorithms damage sound; however, the vast majority of consumers listening on smartphone speakers or earbuds can’t tell the difference. If you really love music and listen to it on high-fidelity equipment, data compression undermines audio quality.

For a long time, Apple didn’t sell high-end audio equipment. With the acquisition of Beats, the company started creating better quality headphones and new audio accessories, such as the HomePod. Apple is offering lossless music now, only because most of its devices support it, as long as you use wired headphones or a specialized transmitter. 

AirPods, PowerBeats Pro, and other wireless headphones cannot stream 24-bit music at 48 kHz. Thus, the experience won’t be perceptible for many Apple Music listeners, other than user interface changes promoting the new audio features.

Lossless music should sound better than standard Apple Music songs, even on AirPods, because the 16 or 24-bit audio file should dither down to something smaller yet still better than a standard audio file. Unfortunately, there’s no evidence this happens, and Apple’s specs don’t mention anything about supported bitrates. Apple admits that lossless Apple Music does not work on AirPods, AirPods Pro, and AirPods Max. This seems to indicate that most listeners will suffice with 256 kbps AAC streams — Apple Music’s status quo.

High-fidelity streaming services, such as Tidal and Amazon Music HD have provided high-quality sound to audiophiles for years. These services suffer from the same Bluetooth limitations; however, they’re available on multiple systems, just like Apple Music.

If you want to stream high-quality music, wireless headphones cannot provide this experience. You’ll either need to use Lightning-connected wired headphones, a computer, or a specialized audio adapter. Apple TV and the HomePod won’t support lossless Apple Music when it goes live.

Apple Adds Dolby Atmos to the Listening Experience

In addition to lossless encoding, Apple Music adds Dolby Atmos to the mix. The new technology allows recording engineers to mix an album beyond stereo space.

Typical stereo recordings allow panning a sound from left to right. For example, the hi-hat on a drum kit is often panned to the right, as this is where it would exist on a stage, from the audience’s perspective. Dolby Atmos allows for 360° spatial positioning of sound, allowing for more complicated mixes. Engineers can position every instrument in a band to fill a room appropriately.

The strategy attempts to differentiate Apple Music from the competition; however, both Tidal and Amazon Music HD offer Dolby Atmos recordings. Apple Music’s main competitor is Spotify, and they neither offer Dolby Atmos nor high-fidelity recordings. This will likely change, as leaks show that the Swedish streaming music company will launch HD music within days.

Hi-Res Lossless Unique to Apple Music

Although late to the high-fidelity music game, Apple has a novel approach. It upped the ante by providing high-resolution lossless music.

Both Amazon Music HD and Tidal offer incredible music at 24-bit, 48 kHz quality. This sounds better than a CD, and, to my ears, better than vinyl. It’s about as close to the master as a listener can get, until now.

Apple’s hi-res lossless music is entirely new, and it requires special hardware or Lightning-wired headphones capable of handling a high bit rate and fast sampling frequency. Apple will likely launch a new high-fidelity audio system capable of supporting 24-bit audio at 196 kHz sampling frequencies. It’s impressive how Apple Music has rapidly evolved from one of the worst-sounding streaming services to the best.

How to Get Lossless Apple Music

Apple Music’s transition into lossless music is just that — a process that will take time. Currently, only a fraction of the Apple Music library is lossless. Upgrading its entire library to HD won’t be completed until 2021. Users cannot listen to lossless and Dolby Atmos music until the features officially launch in June 2020.

When the new service launches, it will be part of the next iOS release. After updating iOS on your device, tap on Settings > Music > Audio Quality to toggle lossless music for WiFi and cellular. Keep in mind that lossless music will consume more cellular data. If you’re listening on wireless headphones, you won’t notice the difference until you get your cellular bill. You can also enable Dolby Atmos for non-Apple or Beats headphones by tapping on Settings > Music > Audio.

Keep in mind, although Dolby Atmos will work on a variety of devices, this format isn’t widely adopted yet. Also, wireless headphones won’t support lossless audio. Apple TV and both HomePod models also won’t support lossless audio until they receive a software update later in the year. Apple hasn’t announced a date, but it will happen weeks or months after lossless music is available through its popular music app.

Amazon Now Offers HD Music Upgrade for Free

Amazon responded to Apple’s new music announcement by offering its HD upgrade for free to paying subscribers. Amazon offered HD music almost two years before Apple; however, the enhanced feature cost an additional $5 per month. With 55 million subscribers, Amazon Music will retain customers and perhaps even attract new ones by surfing Apple’s reality distortion field.

Apple only recently surpassed Amazon Music, with 72 million subscribers in 2020. With billions of devices, over a billion Apple customers, and Android compatibility, Apple Music may be reaching a saturation point, which is why they’re going lossless.

The move may attract users away from Spotify; however, the streaming giant, with 155 million subscribers, will soon be rolling out high-definition music. Since people invest time in creating playlists and building libraries, defecting to Apple Music will likely require more incentives than better audio quality.

Audiophiles and consumers are the real winners here. For far too long, music aficionados had to sacrifice quality for convenience. A resurgence in vinyl shows the extent to which music lovers would go for better audio quality. Unfortunately, vinyl isn’t compatible with driving, running, and hiking. Consumers can now enjoy music that sounds almost as good as the master on their smartphone. Apple is a late-comer to the hi-fi scene, but for those deeply vested in its ecosystem, Apple Music is the best option.

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