Just Who Is Apple Music’s Hi-Fi for Exactly?

Nerds and normals, that’s who

Key Takeaways

  • Apple's new lossless and Spatial Audio tiers come to Apple Music starting in June.
  • They are automatically included in the $9.99 monthly subscription plan.
  • Lossless audio doesn’t work with AirPods; Spatial Audio requires them.
Selective focus on a set of black headphones from Grado Labs with bokeh lights in the background.

Alphacolor / Unsplash

In June, Apple Music goes hi-fi and adds Dolby Atmos surround sound. The catch? The high-quality audio doesn’t work on AirPods, and music has to be specially engineered for Atmos. So who is this all for?

Apple’s new music offering is a little complicated. There are two parts. One is lossless audio, which comes in two tiers. The other is Spatial Audio, which already exists for videos on iOS, and brings surround sound to music listened to on AirPods. Spatial Audio is a neat gimmick, but has some compelling uses. Lossless audio is also a nice addition, but the technical details put it beyond most users.

"Spatial audio may be a novelty for music listening in the typical sense, but it may serve as a gateway for more compelling experiences," Andrew Bellavia of audio market leader and solutions provider, Knowles Corporation, told Lifewire via email.

"Imagine attending a virtual concert or theater performance in which one can choose from several vantage points. With virtual audio, the soundstage at each point can be made to match the live experience."

Losing Out on Lossless

When MP3 and AAC files are compressed, some of the audio information is thrown away or lost. Lossless audio keeps all that data, so you hear it as it sounded at the artist’s mixing desk. Apple Music now provides two tiers of lossless audio. I’ll clip the press release because it’s very clear:

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.

None of these options will work over AirPods, not even the $550 AirPods Max. Bluetooth just cannot support lossless audio. That’s because Bluetooth, itself, compresses the audio to transmit it. To listen, you’ll need to use wired headphones, like it was the 2010s all over again. Then it gets even crazier.

To listen to the Hi-Resolution Lossless tier, you not only need wired headphones, but also a specialist Digital Analog Converter (DAC). The iPhone’s built-in DAC doesn’t stretch to these quality levels. To be fair, though, the kind of audiophile who would appreciate 192 kHz audio will almost certainly already own an expensive DAC. And even professional musicians can’t always tell the difference.

I think the game-changer will be once more music creators adopt Dolby Atmos natively and make music with the intent of pushing the immersive experience further.

"I’ve done extensive testing, and I can't tell the difference between high-bitrate AAC (such as Spotify Premium) and lossless," musician Richard Yot told Lifewire in a forum post.

"I also can't tell the difference between high bitrate AAC and HD Audio such as you get on Tidal or Amazon Music. Some people can, but you really have to know exactly what to listen for."

Quadraphonic All Over Again?

Spatial Audio works with any Apple or Beats headphones that have the H1 or W1 chip, as well as the speakers on the latest iPhones, Macs, and brings Dolby Atmos surround sound to Apple Music.

At first, this seems like the 1970s-era quadraphonics all over again. But Spatial Audio may actually be the sleeper hit of Apple Music, especially when Apple builds out the catalog.

Imagine listening to live recordings where you feel like you’re in the middle of the audience or sitting in a jazz club.

Silver and white headphones connect to a DAC, connected to an Apple iPod.

Brett Jordan / Unsplash.

"I can see the appeal of doing spatial audio for music that was recorded specifically for that format—especially live performances," professional techsplainer Jeanette DePatie told Lifewire via email.

"I think the most likely user will be somebody like me. I already subscribe to Apple Music and listen to it regularly on my home theater system, which is already configured for Dolby Atmos."

And if there’s one thing musicians like, it’s playing with fancy sound in their work. Adding Dolby Atmos to their songs could be very tempting and make Spatial Audio more than just a gimmick.

"I think the game-changer will be once more music creators adopt Dolby Atmos natively and make music with the intent of pushing the immersive experience further," researcher, music producer, and mix engineer Ahmed Gelby told Lifewire via email.

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