Why Apple Music's Lossless Audio Doesn't Really Matter (Just Yet)

It’s a solid feature held back by the reality of hardware limitations

Key Takeaways

  • Apple Music’s lossless audio likely won’t be noticeable to the average listener.
  • Wireless headphones have yet to catch up to wired headphones in terms of overall audio quality.
  • Current smartphone technology cannot perfectly capture the highest quality audio yet.
Teenage girl and boy listening music from smart phone while showing to friends in city

Maskot / Getty Images

Even though Apple Music has begun offering lossless-quality audio streaming, experts say it may not matter even with high-quality speakers or headphones.

Apple Music compresses its audio files for the sake of download speeds, which according to some users can degrade the overall sound quality. Apple Lossless Audio Codec (ALAC) is designed to offset these compression issues and preserve the original file’s data.

This will allow Apple Music’s entire catalog, encoded at 16-bit/44.1 kHz (CD Quality) up to 24-bit/192 kHz resolutions, to be played at its best. This is provided listeners also have high-quality wired audio output devices connected to their devices, though.

“Sound loses its quality when transferred via Bluetooth and at the moment it doesn’t look like Bluetooth will (ever) deliver the same quality wired systems can,” said professional musician Keno Hellmann in an email interview.

Wired vs Wireless

The first hurdle is the difference in sound quality between wired and wireless connections. There have been immense technical strides made with wireless headphones and earbuds over the years. However, some, like Consumer Reports, insist that wired models always will produce the best sound.

Traveler on a journey with train

martin-dm / Getty Images

Plenty of other factors set wired and wireless apart: The convenience of not having cords versus having a mess to untangle before listening to a podcast; the need to remember to charge yet another wireless device rather than having simple plug-and-play; and the cost differences. But when it comes to overall audio quality, wired hardware always will beat wireless (with similar specifications).

Even with lower audio quality, the demand for wireless is still growing—to the point that, despite Apple Music requiring wired headphones to make use of its lossless feature, it’s not unreasonable to think it will find a way to make the technology work wirelessly. And listeners, like @ssbytor on Twitter, think it's a good start.

"The trend in headsets for the last several years has been a steady pace of more Bluetooth headsets sales versus corded headsets/earbuds," said Global Teck Worldwide founder, Rolando Rosas, in an email interview with Lifewire. "I don't see a new update by Apple reversing that trend.”

Smartphone Audio Limitations

A second and trickier stumbling block is the hardware, itself.

No matter how impressive a pair of headphones, earbuds, or speakers may be, outdated or low-quality hardware drags the audio quality down. Smartphones are still a suboptimal way to listen to the highest quality music and sound—not a terrible option, but not the best, either.

"Even Apple's website says so," Rosas said, pointing out that, by Apple’s own admission, the differences in audio quality may be indistinguishable. "If you're only listening to the audio on your Apple device, this benefit may not be enough of a differentiator to matter."

Hellmann echoes a similar sentiment. "Even if the quality of the source audio file is the best it can be, most devices like smartphones aren’t able to deliver the same quality to the headphone due to the smartphone's output quality."

bearded man enjoys listening to his favorite music through an audio player in small headphones. audiophile and music lover. music and hi-fi sound.

photosaint / Getty Images

Lossless streaming falls on its face because current smartphone audio technology still can’t quite reproduce the highest quality source audio. It’s a worthwhile concept, especially for audiophiles, however, those same audiophiles are likely not using their phones to listen to music at its best—and until the technology catches up that probably won’t change.

"The question a music listener should always ask is the following: 'Where’s the bottleneck to be found in my audio equipment?'" said Hellmann. "Apple must deliver some evidence that the sound quality of Apple Music’s new audio codec really reaches the listener’s ears before deciding which equipment from smartphone to headphones will deliver the best listening experience."

Was this page helpful?