Apple’s New Lossless Music Offers Only a Subtle Upgrade

Just don’t try using AirPods

  • I tried listening to music with Apple’s lossless format, which is supposed to offer better sound quality. 
  • The lossless music is available at no extra cost to Apple Music subscribers. 
  • I heard a slight difference in the lossless format, but Apple’s wireless headphones do not fully support it. 
iMac with AirPods Max

Lifewire / Sascha Brodsky

I’ve been listening to Apple’s lossless music format for a few weeks, and it offers better sound quality, but the difference isn’t obvious. 

Apple announced recently that Apple Music subscribers would be able to listen to music with lossless audio. The new feature is available for Apple Music subscribers starting this month at no additional cost. At launch, 20 million songs support lossless quality, and Apple says it will support all songs on ‌Apple Music‌ by the end of the year.

Some audio geeks lament the current state of audio formats in which files are compressed to make them smaller. However, with its move to lossless, Apple uses the ALAC (Apple Lossless Audio Codec) that lets it make compact file sizes, supposedly without impacting the quality of the original audio recording.

The lowest end Lossless tier starts at CD quality, 16-bit at 44.1 kHz, and shoots up to 24-bit at 48 kHz. Serious audio enthusiasts also can listen to music in Hi-Res Lossless, which is available at 24-bit 192 kHz. However, Hi-Res Lossless needs a USB digital-to-analog converter, or DAC.

Wait, No Airpods?

My first problem listening to the new lossless Apple Music was finding a device to play it on. According to Apple, lossless audio on ‌Apple Music‌ can be heard on iPhone, iPad, Mac, and Apple TV. Support for lossless audio will be added to the HomePod and HomePod mini via a future software update.

AirPods Max with iPhone and Radio 1

Apple

Keep in mind that lossless music won’t work on any of Apple’s wireless headphones. This omission is a stunning blow considering the vast amount of money I have poured into Apple’s Bluetooth ecosystem over the years. I own both the AirPods Pro and the AirPods Max, and I bought them under the assumption that they would support future upgrades.

AirPods, AirPods Pro, and AirPods Max are limited to the Bluetooth AAC codec and don’t support the ALAC format. There is one caveat, however. Apple says that ‌AirPods Max‌ can be connected via cable to devices playing Lossless and Hi-Res Lossless recordings with better-than-usual audio quality. However, because of the analog to digital conversion in the Lightning to 3.5mm audio dongle, playback isn’t wholly lossless.

Making the Connection

Feeling bitter about my recent AirPods Max purchase, I decided to give the cable a try first. I connected the Max to my iPhone with an adaptor and began listening to Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. It might have been my imagination, but I felt the notes were a tiny bit crisper. A switch to Pink Floyd’s Comfortably Numb yielded similar results. The vocals seemed slightly more alive, and I felt as if the soundstage was just a little broader. 

I then turned to a pair of wired earphones, the Tin HiFi T2, using the 3.5 mm jack on my iMac, and again the differences in music quality were slight. I felt like the music was just a little more alive and the notes more rounded when I compared songs to the non-lossless version.

“Apparently, I’m not the only one having a hard time telling the difference with the new lossless format.”

Finally, I took the most straightforward approach and tried listening through my new M1 iMac speakers. The desktop already has excellent sound quality, far better than most smart speakers. Without a cable, I was almost sure that the music sounded better in lossless. 

But doubt began to creep into my mind. Was I just hearing better audio because I expected to? Apparently, I’m not the only one having a hard time telling the difference with the new lossless format. Apple's Eddy Cue, senior vice president of Internet Software and Services, who heads up the service, apparently isn’t convinced that it’s a big deal. He recently said that most people wouldn’t be able to tell the difference. 

After spending several hours comparing lossless audio with the regular version, I’m pretty sure I can tell that lossless is better. But the difference is so tiny that I wouldn’t rush to the new format. I’m looking forward to testing lossless on my HomePod if and when Apple gets around to releasing an update. For now, though, it’s a nice feature, but not that big of a deal.

Was this page helpful?