Pixel Envy

Written by Nick Heer.

Spatial and Lossless Audio Coming to Apple Music Next Month at No Extra Cost

Apple’s newsroom:

Apple today announced Apple Music is bringing industry-leading sound quality to subscribers with the addition of Spatial Audio with support for Dolby Atmos. Spatial Audio gives artists the opportunity to create immersive audio experiences for their fans with true multidimensional sound and clarity. Apple Music subscribers will also be able to listen to more than 75 million songs in Lossless Audio — the way the artists created them in the studio. These new features will be available for Apple Music subscribers starting next month at no additional cost.

If you’ve been paying attention to the rumour mill, you might have expected that Apple would add lossless and spatial audio. The surprise is that it will be included with subscriptions at no extra cost, and that is a bold move. Spotify has not announced pricing yet for its lossless tier, but it costs $5 more per month to add lossless audio to a Deezer subscription, and it is a $10 per month add-on with Tidal, which is oddly now owned by Square. Tidal’s high-end subscription also offers Dolby Atmos tracks and spatial audio through Sony’s 360 Reality Audio format.

According to Apple’s FAQ on these new features, Dolby Atmos tracks will play automatically when you’re connected with compatible hardware, including all models of AirPods. The Apple TV is a little more complicated: if you’re using your AirPods, Dolby Atmos will work fine, but Atmos is only available through speakers with the Apple TV 4K with Atmos-compatible hardware.

Apple:

To start listening to Lossless Audio, subscribers using the latest version of Apple Music can turn it on in Settings > Music > Audio Quality. Here, they can choose different resolutions for different connections such as cellular, Wi-Fi, or for download. Apple Music’s Lossless tier starts at CD quality, which is 16 bit at 44.1 kHz (kilohertz), and goes up to 24 bit at 48 kHz and is playable natively on Apple devices. For the true audiophile, Apple Music also offers Hi-Resolution Lossless all the way up to 24 bit at 192 kHz.

Apple says that listening to tracks at 24/192 requires an external USB DAC, which you would probably expect. I still have not seen any evidence that people can actually hear the difference in these extremely high-resolution tracks, probably because their advantages are entirely out of the human range of hearing. It’s a bit like if there were a new display that outputs the full range of the electromagnetic spectrum, not just visible light. At least you won’t be killed by radiation exposure from high-res audio tracks.

Matthew Bolton, T3:

Apple has confirmed to T3 that this equipment, sadly, does not include AirPods Pro or AirPods Max. Both of Apple’s elite headphone models only use the Bluetooth AAC codec when connected to an iPhone, which means they can’t receive the full quality of the Apple Music ‘Lossless’ files, which will be encoded as ALAC (Apple Lossless Audio Codec) files.

[…]

We had hoped that Apple could enable some kind of Bluetooth secret sauce to allow for higher-quality audio over Bluetooth to its top-tier headphones, since the iPhone 12 and AirPods Max all support Bluetooth 5.0, which is theoretically capable of CD-quality audio transmission. But alas, it proved to be wishful thinking. And we presume the forthcoming AirPods 3 will be the same story.

Billboard’s Micah Singleton on Twitter:

AirPods Max also won’t support lossless over the lightning cable, the company tells me. No Sonos support for lossless streaming just yet either.

It appears this is true for all lossless formats on the iPhone over Bluetooth, not just the 24/192 spec and not just the files from Apple Music. (Update: An Apple spokesperson confirmed to me that this is the case.) As best as I understand the Bluetooth audio spec and the codecs in play here, it makes sense, but it is frustrating and looks incredibly silly that Apple’s highest-end headphones are not compatible with Apple’s lossless audio specifications from the Apple Music service.