Apple is bringing Lossless Audio, Spatial Audio, and Dolby Atmos support for all Apple Music subscribers at no extra cost. How does that affect you? The new Apple Music features will be available for subscribers in June, for all Apple Music listeners across devices, platforms, and regions. These upgrades will give Apple Music a strong position in the streaming segment, and offer users a significant reason to choose Apple Music over competitors such as Spotify and Tidal.
All these new features can get a little confusing though, and you're probably wondering if you can even make use of them with the headphones and other audio gear you've got. There are many hardware limitations that need to be considered, and some features will only work on a very limited set of devices. Before you rush into any new purchases or cancelling subscriptions to other streaming services, read on to find out exactly how the new Apple Music features will work, and whether you'll be able to take full advantage of them.
What is Lossless Audio on Apple Music?
The concept of lossless audio or high-resolution music streaming isn't new; a handful of services such as Amazon Music HD, Tidal, and Qobuz already offer subscription-based access to audio tracks which stream in superior quality to the more efficient but considerably compressed formats used by services such as Spotify and YouTube Music. Apple Music has, till now, offered music streaming in lower quality but more efficient audio formats that typically appeal to most users, as they consume less data and are quicker to stream even on slow connections.
With these new upgrades, Apple Music will have the option to stream the entire catalogue of over 75 million tracks in Lossless Audio, allowing for the stream to contain much more data, and as a result, more detail in the sound for your output device to process. Apple Music users will, of course, have the option to continue streaming in more efficient tiers as well, which will be the recommended way to stream for most users.
Apple has stated that it will use the Apple Lossless Audio Codec (ALAC) file format to stream music, which is comparable to other high-resolution audio formats such as FLAC, which competing streaming services use. These files will be streamed at up to 24-bit and 192kHz resolution, which is higher than what Tidal offers. Tidal is Apple Music's closest competitor in the space, and offers 24-bit and 96kHZ resolution streaming on its highest ‘Masters' tier.
No major high-resolution streaming services are officially available in India so Apple Music's Lossless Audio tier is a welcome addition to Indian listeners and particularly audiophiles with access to high-end equipment such as DACs and premium analogue headphones and earphones. Since Apple Music is officially available in India for Rs. 99 per month, access to a huge library of high-resolution audio tracks will come as a big bonus to users.
How do Spatial Audio and Dolby Atmos work?
Spatial Audio is a feature offered by Apple on the AirPods Pro and AirPods Max, and needs one of select iPhone or iPad models to work. The feature is currently supported on the Apple TV app for select content, as well as some other streaming services such as Disney+ and Tidal (for select tracks). The latest upgrades bring Spatial Audio support to Apple Music as well.
The feature allows the use of hardware such as the gyroscope and accelerometer to locationally fix the sound to the source device - that is to say, even if turn your head left and right, the sound positioning will change to give you the impression that you're hearing sound from exactly where the screen - your iPhone or iPad - is.
There is also support for Dolby Atmos coming to Apple Music along with Spatial Audio. This uses sound engineering techniques that give the impression of surround sound despite the use of just the left and right channels of typical headphones. Dolby Atmos Music is available through Tidal for select tracks, and Apple Music has committed to adding new Dolby Atmos tracks regularly apart from the tracks available when the feature rolls out.
What do you need to enjoy Apple Music's Lossless Audio, Spatial Audio, and Dolby Atmos features?
Let's start with a big factor that anyone interested in the Lossless Audio tier of Apple Music should know: Bluetooth headphones and earphones don't support high-resolution audio streaming on an iPhone. This means that the high-resolution audio tracks on Apple Music won't sound much different if you use any wireless headphones or earphones, including AirPods, AirPods Pro, or AirPods Max.
Apple Music's Lossless Audio feature will be supported on all devices where it is currently available, which includes computers and Android smartphones. On an Android smartphone with support for the Qualcomm aptX and LDAC Bluetooth codecs, you could expect to get a bit more detail out of the sound. However, the best way to enjoy any high-resolution music is with a good wired setup.
This can be just about any good wired headphones or earphones, but of course, the better your setup, the better the sound will be. As pointed out in a report by John Darko, streaming Lossless Audio on the iPhone will be limited to 24-bits and 48kHz, but if you use a computer — either Mac or Windows — you can go up to the full 24-bits and 192kHz resolution. You can connect most wired headphones and earphones to a computer with a 3.5mm headphone jack, or to an iPhone using a Lightning-to-3.5mm headphone jack adapter.
Of course, the best way to enjoy Lossless Audio is a proper audiophile setup, and you can buy the things you need for this on a relatively tight budget. You'll need a decent digital-to-analogue converter (DAC) and a good pair of analogue (wired) headphones or earphones. Of course, the setup will have to be connected to a source device with the Apple Music app, which can be a smartphone, tablet, or computer.
The Lossless Audio tier on Apple Music may not necessarily be for everyone; most people will be happy with the sound quality and efficiency of the existing compressed file formats, or may prefer the convenience of Bluetooth for everyday listening. However, audiophiles with access to the right equipment, or even budding audiophiles looking to improve the quality of the listening experience will appreciate the new features on Apple Music.
Will Apple Music's new features work with AirPods?
As confirmed by Apple to 9to5Mac, Apple's Lossless Audio tier will not work over Bluetooth. This is because Bluetooth codecs used to quickly and efficiently transfer data from the source device to the headset simply cannot carry the amount of data provided by the Lossless Audio tier, particularly on iOS devices which are limited to the AAC Bluetooth codec.
Other reports point out that even with the Lightning-to-3.5mm cable in place, the AirPods Max won't be able to play high-resolution audio files, as won't other devices such as the HomePod mini. All of that said, Spatial Audio will work even with the AirPods Pro and AirPods Max, while Dolby Atmos will work on AirPods and various other wireless headsets as well.
If you intend to keep using Bluetooth headphones, or don't really consider yourself an audiophile, or don't plan on investing in equipment such as a DAC and good wired headphones, you're better off sticking to the regular streaming tiers on Apple Music. These will consume much less data to stream and therefore stream stably even on slow connections, and you'll still be very happy with the sound quality.
Is HomePod mini the best smart speaker under Rs. 10,000? We discussed this on Orbital, the Gadgets 360 podcast. Orbital is available on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, and wherever you get your podcasts.