In recent days, there has been talk of Apple launching a new level of lossless hi-fi audio for its Apple Music streaming service. The main evidence of such a move is a few lines of code in iOS 14.6 beta spotted by 9to5Mac. Those lines, which have since been deleted, referred to “lossless” audio with the Apple Music app.
Apple certainly has competitive reasons to finally venture into the lossless audio category: Spotify, Tidal, Amazon Music, and Qobuz all offer CD-quality or better music than CD, which leaves Apple Music as one of the last entrenchments. . But I can’t help but think that Apple has locked itself in a corner when it comes to lossless audio, and I don’t see an easy fix.
Bring back the catch?
You may recall that when Apple introduced the iPhone 7 in 2016, its senior vice president of global marketing, Phil Schiller, called the decision to remove the headphone jack brave. Many experts disagreed, but Apple stayed the course, and no iPhone since the iPhone 6 has a 3.5mm jack.
And while some iPhone owners may not be thrilled with this reality, the move has helped propel AirPods and AirPods Pro into their dominant positions in the true wireless earphone market.
But that’s part of Apple’s lossless audio challenge.
Wireless audio over Bluetooth requires compression. Even the latest Bluetooth version, Bluetooth 5.2, doesn’t have enough bandwidth to stream uncompressed 16-bit CD-quality audio. The way around this data bottleneck has been a series of evolving Bluetooth audio codecs that take your phone’s music and shrink it down until it’s small enough to fit into that wireless pipe. narrow.
All bluetooth codecs need to remove some of the detail from high quality digital music, but not all codecs are created equal. SBC and AAC (the only codecs currently supported by Apple) remove much of this detail when compressing music before sending it to your earphones or wireless headphones.
Other Bluetooth codecs like aptX HD, aptX Adaptive, LHDC, and LDAC were designed to preserve much more of this content – enough to qualify as “high resolution” – but Apple never supported them on the iPhone. This is probably because, until recently, there was no need (from Apple’s point of view) to license these technologies.
Would Apple make the decision to start supporting higher quality codecs? It seems unlikely. This would likely require different hardware onboard Apple phones and tablets, and we’re pretty sure none of Apple’s AirPod models are capable of supporting them.
Ditching the headphone jack and refusing to add high-quality Bluetooth codecs effectively means that if you want to hear lossless or high-resolution sound on an iPhone today, you’ll need an app that supports those formats and – at least – oneadapter plus a decent set of wired headphones.
You might need a dongle
Apple’s popular AirPods and AirPods Pro are wireless only, but its AirPods Max in-ear headphones can also be used with a wired connection.
If Apple stays the course of refusing to support high-quality Bluetooth codecs, it may need to offer a high-resolution Lightning to 3.5mm digital-to-analog converter (DAC).
Right now, if you want to enjoy lossless, high-resolution music on an iPhone, you need an external DAC that plugs into the Lightning port. Some of these devices are relatively large – often as big or bigger than the iPhone itself – and need their own power source. But there are more and more tiny ones – like the THX Onyx and Zorloo Ztella – and can take enough power from the iPhone to deliver decent volume levels.
As efficient as these devices are (they’re a real upgrade for those with high-quality wired headphones or earphones), they hardly seem like the sort of thing Apple would want to pursue. After eliminating the headphone jack, it wouldn’t make sense for Apple to start selling a small but expensive, easily lost adapter just so you can enjoy high quality music.
However, here is something that I can see Apple do: Selling an upgraded version of its 1.2 meter Lightning-to-3.5mm cable that includes a very high-quality inline DAC. V-Moda is already making one: the $ 100 SpeakEasy Lightning Cable. $ 100 for a cable? It certainly sounds like something Apple would do.
It would likely be marketed to AirPods Max owners as the ultimate sound upgrade, but if it works with Apple’s cans, it will also work with any third-party headphones with a 3.5mm analog input. .
What about Bluetooth LE Audio?
In 2020, the Bluetooth Special Interest Group (SIG) announced the next generation of Bluetooth audio, called Bluetooth LE Audio. LE Audio has a number of improvements over the previous version, including a new codec called LC3.
LC3 was designed to offer the same or better audio quality than the existing SBC codec, but the Bluetooth SIG made no statement regarding how LC3 compares to high quality codecs like aptX HD and LDAC or even codecs from good quality like AAC and aptX. So even though Apple has secretly added support for LE Audio in its latest iPhones, it’s unlikely that LC3 can offer a high-quality alternative.
Who has a HomePod?
Ok, so maybe if Apple is aiming for lossless audio for Apple Music, it’s not for iPhone. After all, when Amazon Music HD debuted with its collection of Dolby Atmos Music and Sony 360 Reality Audio tracks, its flagship device was the $ 200 Amazon Echo Studio.
The Studio, as a 3D audio smart speaker, was well suited to these high-quality sound formats as it could stream them directly over Wi-Fi, without the Bluetooth of a phone getting in the way.
Apple once had a competitor from Echo Studio – the $ 399 Apple HomePod – which would have been the perfect lossless audio companion for Apple Music. But alas, Apple ditched the HomePod earlier in 2021 to focus its speaker energies entirely on the $ 99 HomePod mini, a much more affordable smart speaker that sounds great for its size but doesn’t come close to the size. what the HomePod could offer in terms of sound. quality.
Is there a HomePod 2 on the horizon? Perhaps. Apple now lets you add Deezer (including its premium hi-fi level) to HomePod and HomePod mini as a native music service, with full Siri integration. This could be a sign that Apple hasn’t completely given up on its home hi-fi aspirations.
What about Apple TV?
If you have a decent soundbar or a complete home theater system, an Apple TV HD – or better yet, an Apple TV 4K – is a great way to listen to music.
Apple Music is integrated, and there are dozens of additional apps for other music services. If your audio system supports Dolby Atmos, the Tidal and Amazon Music HD apps for tvOS are a great way to listen to Dolby Atmos Music without headphones.
But even the Apple TV 4K is a bit short on lossless music. It can handle formats like FLAC, WAV, and Apple Lossless (ALAC), but these are limited to 16-bit / 48kHz. This is considered lossless CD quality, but it does not reach the level of high resolution audio, which is generally considered 24bit / 96kHz or better.
If Apple chooses a lossless tier for Apple Music, the Apple TV seems like the best playback device until Apple’s lossless ambitions veer into high-resolution territory.
The Android alternative
Say what you want about a fractured Android ecosystem or security concerns – when it comes to supporting high-quality sound, Android phone makers have always been more advanced.
Google’s Pixel phones, released by chance in the same year as Apple’s brave iPhone 7, have always supported aptX, aptX HD, and LDAC.
Samsung’s Galaxy smartphones aren’t as prolific in their codec support – the S21 doesn’t offer aptX HD or aptX Adaptive – but LDAC is an option, as is aptX.
This means that, if Apple adds a lossless level to Apple Music, an Android phone is likely to provide a higher quality way to listen to this content wirelessly.
Never say never
Where does that leave us? I’m going to take some precautions and say that while Apple’s idea of launching a Premium Tier for Apple Music seems likely (due to competitive pressures if nothing else) at the moment, it doesn’t sound like Apple. is ready to operate such a wireless service via Bluetooth.
But here’s something to do: Apple recently made big bets on Ultra Wideband (UWB) technology. Its U1 chips, which transmit and receive UWB, have been used in all of the most recent iPhones and in its newly launched AirTags.
Apple seems to view UWB as primarily useful for high-precision location tracking, but UWB has an incredibly high data rate potential of 1 Gbps – more than enough for high-resolution, audiophile-grade sound – as long as your two devices keep you. UWB are close to each other. other.
There is no indication that Apple intends to use UWB for audio, and it hasn’t included the U1 chip in its AirPods Max, but the potential is definitely there.