of the best lossless tracks to stream on Apple Music
We’ll get straight to it: this is our pick of the best lossless tracks we’ve been enjoying on Apple Music since support for CD (and above)-quality arrived on the service in the summer. Some we stumbled upon during product testing, others were eagerly suggested by our hi-fi-devoted readership (thank you for that, by the way).
If all of these words make sense to you in the order in which they are written, scroll on down and get to streaming, friend.
If, however, you’re wondering what on earth Apple Music lossless actually is and how to get it, all is revealed in our Apple Music Lossless explainer.
In short, though, lossless audio is generally defined as CD (and above) quality music that’s compressed in a way that it doesn’t lose quality (is ‘lossy’). And to enjoy such tracks on Apple Music, you will need an Apple Music subscription, an Android or iOS device, and any wired headphones – or, thanks to the most recent HomePod 15.1 update, an Apple HomePod. (For those with wired headphones and an iPhone, know that the Apple 3.5mm headphone jack adapter supports Apple’s lossless streaming too.) Of course (and it has to be said), the better your equipment, the more you’ll benefit from this jump in audio quality.
In the Apple Music app in your phone’s settings, you can choose the audio quality for streaming and downloading audio – ‘Lossless’ for a maximum resolution of 24-bit/48kHz, or ‘Hi-Res Lossless’ for a maximum resolution of 24-bit/192kHz. The latter requires extra hardware in the shape of an external DAC, such as the AudioQuest DragonFly Cobalt.
Partly because of this, we are concentrating on Apple Music’s ‘Lossless’ files for our recommendations here. That said, if you find yourself listening to a ‘Hi-Res Lossless’ file with simply a wired-headphones-and-device setup (look for the little icons under the track in the app), rest assured that you will hear it in lossless quality.
Les Gordon – Flirting with June
As the kind reader who suggested this track ventures, perhaps we should curate a playlist specifically intended for the Airpods Max. Get this eye-opening vocal electronica going through Apple’s What Hi-Fi? Award-winning, ground-breaking wireless over-ears and wait for the ‘ah’s to come at your ears from all directions in a remarkably immersive mix.
In lossless quality, this Les Gordon track is a rare treat. Percussion instruments snap, crackle and jingle around you as the leading edges of notes burst in like sharp, angular sonic towers in the otherwise juicy, undulating soundscape.
Nick Cave Warren Ellis – The Road
If you’ve never read Cormac McCarthy’s terrifying 2006 post-apocalyptic novel The Road, made into a movie in 2009 (for which this Nick Cave Warren Ellis track was created), put this on, close your eyes, and imagine walking down a long, grey, desolate road, clouds of ash swirling behind you, ready to run if you must. McCarthy is not afraid to glimpse into the abyss and record his predictions. It takes a special musical composition – and special treatment of it – to recreate that feeling sonically. And that is what we have here.
Lady Gaga – Million Reasons
Such is Gaga’s attention to detail concerning every aspect of her art that, occasionally, those production-heavy music videos, outfits and interviews have obscured the fact that first and foremost, this is an incredibly talented stand-and-deliver singer. Here, Mark Ronson lets Gaga’s vocal cords do the heavy lifting, accompanied by a pared-back piano and guitar – sometimes strummed, sometimes used as percussion. Later, a crescendo builds, but never at the expense of the detail and texture within her inimitable power-house vocal. The extra space and insight you get from the lossless delivery are truly laid bare here.
Trashlagoon – Feel
Listening to slow-tempo music helps release the neurotransmitter largely responsible for mood (Serotonin, aka the ‘happy hormone’) while increasing the one (Dopamine) that helps us feel pleasure and simultaneously reducing the stress hormone (Cortisol). All of which is a roundabout way of saying “it’s important to have a lossless go-to chill track for the end of a hard day”.
This one, from German duo Sebastian Welicki and Niklas Freund (aka Trashlagoon) actually has a mid-tempo time signature, but it is layered with juicy chords, calm key progressions, reverb, sonic articles reminiscent of late-night crickets that meander slowly between your ears, a breathy treble vocal and a celebrated lo-fi background hiss. Sit back and let it wash over you.
Yeah Yeah Yeahs – Maps
This New York trio (sometimes quartet) typically delivers an indie rock masterclass whether gracing a stage or a recording studio, and this emphatic declaration is no exception. Some love-song lyrics are implored, the stanzas pored over then belted to the heavens after countless bedroom rehearsals and refinements. But when Karen O’s vocal finally rises from the raucous guitar and drums with “Wait! They don’t love you like I love you. “, it feels as if she’s only just understood the depths of her emotion – and why she needs to say these words, even though they should have come earlier. A superlative track that sounds extra special in lossless quality.
John Frusciante – Omission
Probably best known as the on-off guitarist for Red Hot Chili Peppers, Frusciante’s solo work is both plentiful and covers a huge variety of genres, including experimental and acid house. This track, for example, is taken from Shadows Collide with People, just one of six (six!) albums Frusciante released in 2004 alone, each exploring different genres and recording techniques.
Frusciante has said that this was his most expensive album to date, costing about 150,000 to produce (his earlier albums had been recorded at home, on multitrack recording devices). On being asked why he chose to lay this one down in a proper Hollywood studio, Frusciante said, “I was sick and tired of people dismissing my records as being fucked-up and unprofessional.” Fair enough – and this track is neither of those things.
Omission was written by Josh Klinghoffer, who would go on to become a guitarist for Red Hot Chili Peppers – and then leave in 2019, when Frusciante would rejoin the Band. Again.
Roberto Cacciapaglia – Universal Dance
Cacciapaglia is celebrated by symphony orchestras and listeners worldwide for his innovative, bold compositions exploring the power of sound – and here we see him work out where classical piano meets experimental electronica. For this 2009 track, the former is the star, but the soupçon of the latter (alongside an occasional wave of strings) is beautifully executed and makes for a rousing piece that leaves you feeling much better after it than you did when it began.
Backroad Gee – Live in the Flesh
Backroad Gee (real name still unknown) is an East London-born rap/grime/alternative sensation. While still only 23 years old, he’s already recorded with Jay-Z and Kid Cudi – for Netflix’s upcoming Western The Harder They Fall – and this opening track from his debut mixtape, Reporting Live (From the Back of the Roads) is about as strong a first impression as any rising star could ever hope to make.
BRG recently told Apple Music: “This is a statement piece. It’s a song I made from my slogans and ad-libs, and it gives me the feeling of [the 2007 film] 300. You know, when they’re about to go to war with spears out? That’s why I had to go with this first – it’s straight to the point.” And true to that inspiration, the timbre and depth of BRG’s off-the-cuff battle cries here are emphatic.
Alfa Mist – Keep On
Another first track from an inspired debut album, this time from British keyboardist and producer Alfa Mist. Think seductive, jazz-meets-soul horns, drums, guitar, bass and keys, chock-full of improvisations. These musicians have plenty to say and they clearly felt compelled to do so here.
If you have the time and inclination, the entire 2017 album, Antiphon, is a compelling, multi-layered and often brooding listen that emphatically deserves to be heard in lossless quality.
Vessels – Elliptic
Vessels were considered a post-rock Band until 2015, when the Leeds five-piece’s third studio album, Dilate, was released. It’s a hulking great beast of a techno record and this track hones in on dance-floor euphoria in no small way, with electronica segments, driving dance beats and even an African drum section.
Again, we recommend listening to the whole album – it’s all available in lossless quality on Apple Music – but if you need eight minutes and 48 seconds of escapism, get this on your phone, move away from your desk, and dance.
And now, here’s the playlist. This is our pick of the best lossless tracks to stream on Apple Music right now, all in one place. As long as you have an Apple Music subscription, you’re all set. Enjoy!
Want to suggest a few Apple Music Lossless audio tracks we really ought to add? Please do. A love of music is a prerequisite for a job at What Hi-Fi? and we are always receptive to new artists, as well as established acts whose music has, on streaming services such as Apple Music, Tidal and Qobuz, been opened up and should be celebrated anew in lossless quality.
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Becky has been a full-time staff writer at What Hi-Fi? since March 2019. Prior to gaining her MA in Journalism in 2018, she freelanced as an arts critic alongside a 20-year career as a professional dancer and aerialist – any love of dance is of course tethered to a love of music. Becky has previously contributed to Stuff, FourFourTwo, This is Cabaret and The Stage. When not writing, she dances, spins in the air, drinks coffee, watches football or surfs in Cornwall with her other half – a football writer whose talent knows no bounds.
Lossless Audio vs. High-Res Audio: What’s the Difference?
When listening to music these days, the quality is often high. But do you really know what kind of audio you’re listening to?
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If streaming music is your jam, you might have heard that Apple is introducing its lossless ALAC format to Apple Music for all users. Apple, like other major music streaming services, is touting the benefits of lossless and high-resolution audio over conventional audio playback.
The industry-wide shift towards offering high-resolution and lossless audio options poses each of the following questions:
What is lossless audio? Is it the same as high-resolution? If not, then what’s the difference and why should we care?
Let’s examine these terms and see if there is anything to back the hype.
In the early days of music streaming, transferring music files over the internet was a hassle. The internet was still in its infancy, so the speed was low and the reliability questionable.
Back in the day, storage space was also quite expensive. So, music distributors had to figure out a way to distribute music using as few resources as possible. This is where lossy audio came into the picture.
When it comes to music, studio recordings are quite big in size. They can occupy tens of megabytes of storage space. In an era where most people didn’t have gigabytes of storage, delivering uncompressed studio recordings was not practical.
As a result, music productions created highly compressed audio files to dramatically reduce file sizes. These compressed files are the lossy audio files we know today.
While lossy files do save storage space, they sacrifice audio quality because they are highly compressed. Nevertheless, the industry adopted lossy audio files as the de-facto standard to deliver music to the listeners.
Lossy audio files are everywhere nowadays. From YouTube to Spotify, all streaming sites play compressed music. Fortunately, through the use of modern encoders and audio formats, these files sound good. So, most people don’t complain.
That said, the music we stream is not the same as the studio version. It is of lower quality. And a part of the reason because of the compression techniques that music productions apply on top of the original recordings.
Lossless audio files either do away with the compression completely or use compression techniques that don’t result in any data loss. So, if you are streaming lossless audio, you are streaming music that doesn’t have compression artifacts. This can potentially increase the audio quality.
However, lossless files do not always result in better-quality sound. If the compressed files are themselves of poor quality, removing compression won’t help much. So, take a test and see if lossless audio makes any noticeable difference.
What are Sampling Rate and Bit Depth?
Computers are digital machines that process 1s and 0s. So, any information that a computer needs to store—including audio—must be stored in the form of a string of 1s and 0s.
Sound, on the other hand, is not digital. It is analog and continuous in its nature. So, if we want to store sound on a storage drive in a computer, we have to convert it into 1s and 0s.
There are many ways to go about this conversion. One of the simplest is Pulse Code Modulation (PCM).
The following is the representation of Pulse Code Modulation.
In PCM, we take analog audio, play it, and sample it at a pre-determined rate in the form of 1s and 0s. This data is then stored in an audio format.
To understand the process better, imagine yourself taking pictures of kids playing baseball. If you were to take 30 pictures per second for an entire hour, you would have enough data to produce an hour’s worth of 30 frames per second video footage.
The same thing happens when you sample an audio signal. You are taking figurative snapshots of the audio signal, at a set rate. Encode all of these snapshots and you would have an audio file.
To play the audio file, your computer would just need to play the snapshots back at the same rate at which they were captured. This rate is called the Sampling Rate.
We measure the sampling rate in kHz. The standard sampling rate in audio CDs is 44.1kHz.
Now, because any audio is composed of more than one sound with varying frequencies, we need to store more than 1s or 0s to store all the necessary information. So, we need to aim for the biggest sample size possible, as the bigger the sample, the better the sound quality.
The sample size aka the number of bits in every sample is called the Bit Depth. The standard bit depth in audio CDs is 16-bit.
For all the hype music streaming services create about high-resolution audio, it is surprising that there is no standard definition. There is no agreement about what high-resolution audio really is.
That said, the consensus is that an audio sample having a high sampling rate and a high bit-depth is termed as high-resolution.
As you can see, the above definition is ever-changing. For instance, when 8-bit audio was the standard, 16-bit/44.1 kHz was high-resolution. And today when 16-bit/44.1 kHz is the standard, 24-bit/96 kHz lies in the high-resolution territory.
High-resolution audio, in theory, sounds crisper and better. It has more dynamic range, better instrument separation, and low noise.
The Difference Between Lossless and High-Resolution Audio
As we’ve explained above, lossless audio is the audio sample that doesn’t have any degradational compression on top of it. Such samples are in their original form.
So, lossless audio doesn’t mean higher quality audio. Any audio, whether high-resolution or not, can be lossless.
On the other hand, high-resolution audio is better quality audio that has a higher bit depth and a high sampling rate. High-resolution audio can be lossless or lossy.
High-Resolution Audio Formats
With the rise of high-resolution audio, streaming services have started introducing some proprietary audio formats. Some of the most well-known formats include FLAC, AIFF, WAV, and ALAC. All of these formats support high-res audio with a lossy or lossless compression.
For instance, Apple uses ALAC for high-res streaming on Apple Music. ALAC is a lossless format meaning its compression doesn’t degrade the sound quality. It is also incredibly space-efficient. If we compare it to WAV, which applies no compression, ALAC takes half as much storage space.
Similar to Apple, Tidal uses its own audio format called MQA. MQA has lossless compression and provides almost the same sound quality and storage space benefits as ALAC.
Lossless Is Not High-Resolution
Lossless audio is not the same as high-resolution audio. Where the former defines the effect of compression on the audio sample, the latter is the measure of fidelity of the audio. So, lossless audio can be low-res or high-res.
With Apple joining the pack, high-res audio has been catching on in recent times. As more and more streaming services start offering high-res music, it pays to invest in decent audio equipment.
So, invest in a decent pair of headphones, subscribe to a streaming service that offers high-res music, and enjoy.
Apple Music review
Apple Music isn’t perfect, but it does basically everything you’d need. Plus, it has a large music library so you’ll rarely find anything missing and it does a good job at helping you discover new music.
Apple Music isn’t perfect, but it does basically everything you’d need. Plus, it has a large music library so you’ll rarely find anything missing and it does a good job at helping you discover new music.
Live internet radio can be used for free
Music discovery is a plus
High-quality streaming at no extra cost
Has a number of different subscription options
Can upload your own personal music library to listen anywhere
No internet radio offline playback
High-quality files in your personal library will get converted to AAC
The way music is consumed has changed drastically from record players and cassettes to MP3 files and the iPod. Now we’re at the point where streaming services are how the majority of people get their music. While Apple wasn’t the first in the game, Apple Music has become one of the more popular services available for music lovers, but why? Is Apple Music actually good? Let’s find out.
Editor’s note: this Apple Music review was updated on August 18, 2022, to add a frequently asked question.
How to listen to high resolution Lossless Audio on your iPhone with the HELM BOLT
What is Apple Music?
Unless you’re already deep into another streaming service, Apple Music is a great option for most people.
Apple Music is a streaming service using elements of the Beats streaming service Apple purchased in 2014, and brought on some of the world’s most popular DJs to give it a boost in popularity. The Beats brand basically became a live internet radio station within the app. Some high-profile music acts like Drake signed limited-time, exclusive deals with Apple Music which gave it a leg up against competitors like Spotify. The exclusive deals have since died out (thankfully), but the internet radio is still one of Apple Music’s main features.
How to use Apple Music
On an iOS device, the layout for Apple Music features a search tab down on the bottom
On an Android device, the search bar is moved to the upper right corner leaving only four tabs on the bottom.
If you own an iOS device, Apple Music is the default app for listening to music. Surprisingly, it’s one of a few Apple apps that is also available on Android via the Play Store first. No matter your operating system, the experience is fairly similar, with the biggest difference being how you search for music. On iOS, there’s a separate tab in the bottom menu, while on Android there’s an ever-present search icon in the top right instead. Besides that, how you navigate Apple Music is identical on both platforms. There are icons along the bottom to help you navigate the different menus. From left to right they are the library, the “For You” section, browse, radio, and (if you’re on iOS) the aforementioned search. All of your music listening and navigating is done on one of these screens.
The library consists of all of your music, whether that’s your own personal library or songs that you searched for and saved in the app. Every time you come across a new song or album that you like you can hit the “Add” button to save it to your library. Library navigation is pretty intuitive as it’s essentially the same way that iTunes was organized. That main screen is also where you’ll find the recently added section, so you don’t have to go digging through screens to get to the song you just added this morning.
You can’t make collaborative playlists on Apple Music as you can with Spotify. A collaborative playlist allows you and a friend to both add music to a particular playlist that you both have complete control over. The only thing you can do in Apple Music is to share a playlist with a friend, but that friend won’t have any control over what songs are in the playlist.
How to find new music with the “For you” feature
As the name implies, the “For You” section is where you’ll find songs that are recommended based on your past listening habits.
The next section is “For You”, and this is where things get interesting because this is the screen where you’ll probably be doing most of your music discovery. By using algorithms Apple Music recommends similar artists, songs, or curated playlists based on a mix of your past listening habits and new artists that it thinks you might like. It even adds a few playlists right up top so you can quickly listen to new music or some of your past favorites.
Next is the browse tab, which is essentially the landing page of the Apple Music app. Instead of music and playlists made for you, this is where you’ll find everything that’s new and some playlists that are more topical and broad (like a daily Top 100 playlist separated by country). There’s everything from Top 100 songs globally to the Top 100 songs in Uganda. The browse page is also where you can look through new releases, different genres, or even watch some Beats 1 interviews. That actually brings us nicely into the next tab.
Search for songs by lyrics
Don’t remember the name of a song? No problem! With Apple Music, you can search for songs just by typing in the lyrics. You’ll then be presented with the song you’ve long been looking for, in addition to a short excerpt of the lyric you used in your search. This sure beats having to Google a song title, then returning to the app.
One of the standout features of Apple Music at launch was internet radio stations, and it’s still going strong. There is always a live DJ somewhere in the world who is live, all you have to do is click in to start listening. If you miss one, you can always just go back and listen to the DJ’s set as it’s all recorded and organized nicely in this tab. This is also where you can pick a station by genre; this is really just a few more constantly updated playlists. Still, it’s just another way to discover new music if you want it.
No one actually needs hi-res Apple Music audio
We’ve heard rumors of a new Airpods design for some time now. (Many keep calling them Airpods 3, though there was never really an Airpods 2.) Depending on who you believe, those are due to be announced at any time—at WWDC, or this fall, or now the latest rumor says early next week. They were supposed to accompany a new Apple Music subscription tier that launched Monday after a raft of rumors but didn’t.
While a new Airpods design is welcome, this high-end Apple Music tier is not. High-fidelity music has always been snake oil; a way to part music-loving audiophiles convinced of their golden ears and from their hard-earned money. It has never caught on, mostly because it’s simply not needed. With Amazon and Spotify adding hi-fidelity tiers to their services, I’m not surprised Apple added the new lossless option to Apple Music, but I wish it hadn’t, even though it doesn’t cost any more.
The high-fidelity audio graveyard
Apple wouldn’t be the first company to try to sell music-lovers on the need for higher-fidelity audio. Or the second. Or the fifth. Digital hi-resolution, high-fidelity audio has been a thing since before the iPod, when there was a format war between DVD-Audio and Super Audio CD over which one could get you to replace your CD player and most of your music for no damn reason whatsoever.
Music lovers have been ripping CDs in lossless formats like FLAC for ages. Apple even has its own, ALAC (Apple Lossless Audio Codec), which is now open-source and royalty-free. Despite these formats being available for a very long time, they never really became mainstream.
Remember Neil Young’s Pono Player? Or Tidal, the “artist-owned” vanity service whose claim to fame is letting you pay more for high-fidelity streams? Spotify is apparently ready to roll out a Hi-Fi tier, which may be the reason Apple is doing this Apple Music Lossless thing. Sigh.
There are lots of reasons for music products and services to fail, but it seems like every one that stakes it claim on “superior audio” meets an untimely end.
Almost nobody can hear the difference
There’s a good reason for that. Modern “lossy” music compression is really good at getting rid of only the audio data you can’t really hear anyway. The fact is, when put to the test most people can’t tell the difference between “lossless” audio and well-encoded lossy” audio (say, 256kbits per second AAC, which is what Apple Music currently streams).
Maybe one in a thousand people have hearing that is good enough and trained well enough to pick out the differences. Even if you do, you need a listening pipeline capable of faithfully reproducing such subtle differences—decoders, amplifiers, and speakers or headphones. Oh, and you need to be in a good listening environment, too.
The biological, environmental, and technological stars have to align just right in order for lossless, high fidelity music to sound even the tiniest bit better than modern high-quality lossy music. People like to convince themselves that they’re one of the special few, as though there is some value judgement in being able to appreciate lossless hi-fi music. You aren’t special, and that’s fine, because again, modern lossy audio compression is amazing.
Want to try it yourself? Give this Digital Feed ABX test a whirl. It’s the best statistically-sound measure of doing a blind audio quality test I’ve seen yet. Don’t feel bad if it says you probably can’t hear the difference between lossless and lossy audio—almost nobody can!
A solution in search of a problem
HiFi, or lossless, or high-resolution, or whatever-the-latest-marketing-is music keeps failing because it just not a problem that needs to be solved. Every so often a new product will launch in this space and you’ll read reviews from audiophiles that use flowery language about how it “preserves the warmth” or sounds “spacious and detailed” or “crunchy” or some other strange combination of adjectives. What you won’t see is reviewers that subject themselves to a valid blind listening test.
When we know we’re listening to fancy audio, we can convince ourselves that it sounds better. Tell a listener they’re about to hear a 10,000 amplifier and they’ll gush about its quality, too. When we try a blind test, we see that the emperor has no clothes. Modern compressed audio is capable of reaching the limits of human perception and the sound reproduction capabilities of even very expensive consumer gear (such as the Airpods Max).
The other part of Apple’s announcement, on the other hand, is fantastic. Enabling spatial 3D audio for music and bringing it to all Airpods and Beat headphones with the H1 or W1 chip is a great benefit to subscribers. While the Hi-Res Lossless catalog will be somewhat limited at launch, Apple can use it to recreate a spacious sound stage (especially useful for live recordings) that is only possible with Apple Music and Apple headphones. That’s a real benefit that users will actually be able to hear.
But following Spotify and other back down the well-worn path of “high fidelity music” is the same old marketing nonsense. That path leads off a cliff and always has.
Understanding lossless, high-resolution, and spatial audio
Apple recently announced its lossless audio option for the Apple Music streaming service. Additionally, the company will also be offering lossless high-resolution audio as well as surround sound audio using Dolby Atmos encoding.
Apple is now the latest member of the lossless club, joining services such as Tidal, Amazon, Deezer, and Quobuz, who have been offering this option for a while. Even Spotify, which is actually yet to start rolling out lossless audio to its subscribers, beat Apple to the punch by announcing its own Spotify HiFi service a few months earlier.
Apple is now deploying lossless audio on its platform, and it should automatically become the largest music streaming service to offer this feature. Millions of people will suddenly have access to lossless audio without putting in any additional amount of effort or even paying anything extra.
So now the question is, what even is lossless audio and why should anyone care? And what in the malarkey is high-resolution audio or Dolby Atmos? It’s time we clear some of the air surrounding these technologies and dispel some of the myths that are associated with them. But, before we do that…
The audio we hear is analog, as that is the domain in which we operate. In the past, the media used to distribute this audio to us was also analog. Audio cassettes and vinyl records are two such examples of analog media, with cassettes being used until somewhat recently and vinyl records still in use among enthusiasts.
However, recording audio in analog on the media put severe limitations on the quality of the recorded information. over, it started to become incompatible in the increasingly digital world. This is where digital audio comes in.
A 4-bit PCM encoding
An analog audio signal can be represented as a simple continuous sine wave. To represent this analog signal into the discrete digital domain, a technique called pulse-code modulation or PCM is used. Today, an overwhelming majority of the digital audio that we consume uses this method.
Pulse-code modulation, or the newer linear-pulse code modulation (LPCM), works by taking discrete samples in time and amplitude on the aforementioned analog sine wave. The quality of this analog to digital conversion depends on how often the samples are taken (sampling rate) and the number of possible digital values that can be used to represent each sample (bit depth). Theoretically, the higher these values, the closer the digital signal would be in representing the original analog audio.
Because the samples are taken at discrete points on a continuous signal a process called quantization is necessary to fill in the gaps, which uses techniques such as rounding off and truncation. However, this process adds noise and the amount of noise in the converted signal is inversely proportional to its bit-depth. As such, increasing the bit-depth of the digital signal serves the function of reducing the noise floor and thereby increasing the dynamic range.
Of course, most of the digital audio we hear today isn’t full of background noise. That’s because of a clever technique called dithering. Dithering replaces the natural noise pattern that is the result of the quantization process with a noise pattern of our choosing. This allows us to have the noise that we want and also where we want it in the frequency spectrum. With dithering, we can replace the quantization noise with a more subtle, consistent noise that’s less audible and also shifts it into the parts of the frequency response that our ears are less sensitive to.
Speaking of frequency response, our ears are sensitive to audio waves that fall within the 20Hz to 20,000Hz range. This is a fairly generous amount, meaning most people have a lower range than this, especially in the higher regions of the spectrum. over, as you age, this range naturally reduces and you start hearing less of the higher frequency range. But for our discussion, let’s just go with the general 20-20,000Hz range.
To ensure the audio in the recording covers frequencies up to at least 20,000Hz, the sampling rate has to be at least twice that, which is dictated by something called the Nyquist-Shannon sampling theorem. This is done to avoid aliasing when the digital signal is converted back to analog for playback. This means to achieve up to 20,000Hz or 20kHz, you need a sampling rate of at least 40kHz.
The standard for digital audio today is the Audio CD, which uses 16-bits of information at a 44.1kHz sampling rate in uncompressed LPCM audio. Despite being over 40 years old, it is still considered the gold standard in digital audio and what we use to compare other standards, such as lossy compressed audio and high-resolution music.
However, as good as CD audio still is to this day it’s not particularly convenient to stream or download due to its large file sizes. This issue was particularly severe in the early days of the internet and online music, as internet speeds were much slower back then. This led to the invention of compressed audio, which eventually ended up taking over the audio world.
Compression is a common technique in computing to reduce file sizes. When you create a ZIP file, you’re effectively compressing it to occupy less space on the disk. However, a ZIP is an example of a lossless compression, which can achieve smaller sizes but not by much. To see the real gains, you need to go lossy.
Now, if your archiving application started discarding random data while creating your ZIP file, you probably aren’t going to be too pleased with it. However, audio works differently. Even standard CD audio has a lot of information that human ears often cannot perceive, depending on the person hearing and the equipment they may be using. This makes it easy to compress it down by discarding only those bits that aren’t that important, to begin with.
Early compression techniques weren’t that great. We all remember old MP3 files that had very audible compression artifacts even when listening on less than perfect equipment. You didn’t even need to know what a compression artifact was, you could just hear it because of how obvious it was.
Over time, things improved. We had better and more efficient codecs, which could store more data in less space. importantly, we got better encoders so the data could be packaged more effectively. Today, lossy compressed audio is everywhere. Every music streaming service has it, every video streaming service has it, and even other formats like audiobooks and podcasts use it. Every smartphone video you recorded has had compressed audio. It’s good enough to the point that most people don’t even realize their music is compressed, even if they have happened to have heard the original in the past. It just works.
This then brings us to our next topic…
What is lossless audio and why should I care?
I’m going to make this clear right off the bat: lossless doesn’t mean uncompressed. People often use these terms interchangeably and they most definitely do not mean the same thing.
As mentioned before, you can compress things in a way that discards some data to achieve significantly smaller file sizes or you can compress things in a way that preserves all the data for a relatively small reduction in file sizes. The latter is lossless compression.
Lossless audio is audio that has been compressed using techniques that preserve all the data in the original file. The result is a file that is easier to stream or download over the internet compared to the original uncompressed file, although it can still be quite large compared to lossy compressions.
Tidal is one of the earliest services to offer lossless streaming
The advantages of this should be clear. While lossy compression techniques have improved over the years to the point where even with modern equipment most people cannot differentiate between lossless and lossy audio it’s still not the original file. This means for those with really good hearing, good equipment, and the ability to discern the difference between lossy and lossless audio, or just someone who wants the original file unchanged for archival purposes, you now have the option to listen to the lossless version.
The primary reason why lossy codecs had to be invented was to make them easier to distribute over the Internet. But with increasing bandwidth in most places worldwide, faster computing devices, and generally more storage, it is easier than ever to consume the original audio without losing any data in the process. Streaming has also made the storage issue somewhat irrelevant, as music no longer has to be stored locally and can be streamed on-demand.
Even if you are someone who doesn’t necessarily have great hearing, the knowledge on what to look for in good audio, or have good equipment to aid you in that search but just happens to have really fast internet with no data caps, why would you listen to compressed audio? If you can consume the lossless audio the same way you would the lossy one, why would you pick the lossy one?
Amazon recently got into the lossless audio game with Music HD
That’s pretty much the rationale behind lossless audio. It’s not necessarily better audio practically speaking but simply the original audio, as it would have arrived on an Audio CD all those years ago. Yes, in a way, we have come full circle back to the Audio CD and it’s strange to see lossless audio being hyped this way when, technically speaking, it’s usually just CD audio, except without the CD. It’s funny how things work out sometimes.
Still, lossless audio doesn’t necessarily have to be CD audio. When it is similar in spec to CD audio, you will see companies calling it “CD-quality” audio. Sure, more often than not it just means audio that’s in 16-bit, 44.1kHz but when used in context with lossless means it’s just audio that you’d find on an actual Audio CD.
But CD quality isn’t good enough for some people anymore. This is where we come to the final boss of digital audio.
Like with the previous section, I’m going to start this one with a clarification. High-resolution does not mean lossless and lossless does not mean high-resolution. High-resolution can be in lossy or lossless formats. Lossless audio can be low or high-resolution. The two are distinct.
Apple will be offering its high-resolution tracks in the same lossless ALAC codec as the CD-quality lossless files. Amazon doesn’t specify its codec but also offers lossless audio for its high-res and CD-quality files. Tidal, on the other hand, offers its CD-quality tracks in lossless FLAC but the high-resolution tracks in the lossy MQA codec within a FLAC container.
So what is high-resolution audio then? For this, we have to go back to our old friends — bit depth, and sampling rate. High-resolution just has more of these; more bits, and also more samples.
Amazon Music HD specifications
High-resolution usually has at least 24-bits of dynamic range and 88.2kHz sampling rate but can go as high as 192kHz or even 384kHz in some cases.
High-resolution audio is sometimes also referred to as high-definition audio. Then there’s also Hi-Res Audio, which is a Sony brand that others can license to indicate their devices support high-resolution audio but it’s not necessary, and you can have high-resolution audio hardware without this branding.
High-resolution audio has been around for a while now, starting in the Super Audio CD days. The thing is, most people — including audiophiles and engineers — can’t seem to agree on whether high-resolution is a useful thing to have or just snake oil. The standard Red Book specification of 16-bits, 44.1kHz used by the Audio CD can not just encompass the entirety of the average human hearing but it does this in a way that is practically very difficult to improve upon.
Let’s look at the first advantage that high-resolution audio brings, which is higher bit depth. When you reduce the bit depth of the analog to digital conversion, you add more noise during the quantization process when it has to be converted back to analog. By increasing the bit depth, you naturally reduce the noise and thereby increase the dynamic range.
However, even with undithered 16-bits, you can get a dynamic range of 96dB, which is very close to maxing out the limits of human hearing (120dB), and the additional headroom offered by 24-bits (144dB) goes so far beyond it that it even exceeds the limitations of most equipment. In other words, you can’t hear it.
Secondly, clever techniques like dithering can help reduce and shape the noise even in a 16-bit signal such that it would be inaudible to anything except precise equipment. The dynamic range of a dithered 16-bit signal can easily be made to go beyond 120dB by reducing and reshaping the noise in the audible range. This means for all practical purposes, 16-bit is perfectly adequate for human ears.
The other advantage high-resolution has is higher sampling rates. A 192kHz sampling rate means the audio can have a frequency response ceiling as high as 96kHz. As I already mentioned, humans can only hear as high as 20kHz, that too only those with perfect hearing at the prime of their life. Most people have even lower frequency responses than that.
For audio to have frequencies beyond the humanly audible range is like having a TV that shows light outside of the visible range. You can hear 96kHz sound almost as much as you can see X-ray. Which is to say, not at all.
Some people have suggested that the frequencies that exist beyond human hearing have an impact on the frequencies we can hear, thereby having those extra frequencies can improve how the audible bits sound. However, there’s no real consensus on this.
Tidal uses MQA, a lossy codec with a unique folding algorithm for packing in more data
The thing is, both higher bit-depths and higher sampling rates have an advantage, but it’s primarily when it comes to producing music. Like working with a RAW image, working on an audio track that has a higher bit depth makes it easier to work with and adjust levels. The primary advantage is the lower noise floor, which can add up when layering multiple tracks so if all of them are 24-bit or higher then the average noise floor can still be quite low. The same is true for the sampling rate and the higher frequency response it affords. But once you are done composing the track, you can just export it out to 16-bit, 44.1kHz, and still get a perfect output.
It’s difficult to say definitively if high-resolution has tangible benefits to humans for simply listening to music. Most people who claim to hear a difference may also simply be listening to a different version of the track; a lot of the music released in high-resolution audio got remastered, which can make something sound dramatically different. The thing making the difference here is the mastering, which was often lackluster back in the day, and why a lot of music is re-released after being remastered these days. This can sound better even in standard CD audio so make sure if you are doing any comparisons that you use the same masters across both formats.
High-resolution audio also got a bad rep early on as companies who jumped on the bandwagon — whether it was music distribution services or those selling hardware — tacked on a hefty fee for the high-res support. Earlier, most digital to analog converters (DAC) would only support up to 16-bits, 48kHz. Even today, this is what you’d find on a majority of smartphones and computers out in the world. This is why Apple also recommends using an external DAC when playing back the high-resolution files on Apple Music.
Having said that, things have improved considerably in the past couple of years. These days, you can get even budget smartphones that have the ability to decode a 24-bit, 192kHz signal. High quality DACs for desktop use are now cheaper than ever and you can get something like a Schiit Fulla (yes, that’s what it’s called) for about 109 along with a great built-in amplifier. The only limitation now is being able to find sufficient high-resolution audio content, as it’s still fairly limited.
Apple’s announcement of lossless audio on Apple Music also came with the addition of Spatial Audio. To be specific, Apple claims to now support Spatial Audio with Dolby Atmos on Apple Music. So what does this mean?
First, let’s discuss Dolby Atmos. Dolby is known to have multiple surround sound codecs and is one of the biggest names in cinema audio. However, traditional surround sound formats have had discrete channel support, such as 5.1, or 7.1. This meant that while mastering audio in these formats, the audio had to be placed within the channels based on where the director wanted the sound to appear from.
Dolby Atmos introduced an object-based sound rather than a channel-based sound. This meant that while mastering, the audio engineer would just need to place the sound in a 3D space around the listener and then the system would figure out which speakers to use to reproduce that sound. This also meant that Atmos had a theoretically infinite number of channels as one can always add more speakers to increase the immersiveness of the sound, something you cannot do with fixed channel-based formats.
Atmos then goes a step further and adds a height element to the sound, which means you can now have speakers above you and the sound can be encoded to appear from above you. This makes the sound significantly more immersive as it can now come from all directions, similar to real life.
Dolby Atmos for music works similarly. It lets the composer arrange the music such that when listening to it on a surround sound speaker setup with height channels, it can be made to sound as if it’s coming from around you, thus enveloping you in the sound sphere and making you feel like you’re there. You can imagine how this can be used for something like a live recording of a performance.
Apple then uses this Dolby Atmos track and feeds it through its tech called Spatial Audio. Spatial Audio has been available for video content through the Airpods Pro and Airpods Max when paired with Apple devices. When playing back Dolby Atmos content on your iPhone or iPad, the Airpods Pro/Max will use the data in the audio track to simulate a 3D sphere of sound around you. over, it will also use the accelerometer and gyroscope on these Airpods models and also track your head movement, so that the audio moves with your head, as it would in the real world.
For Apple Music, Spatial Audio does the part where it makes the sound appear all around you but without the head tracking bit. Since it’s not doing the head tracking, it can now also work on the base Airpods model. In fact, it works on all Airpods and Beats models with the W1/H1 chip and the built-in speakers of all iPhone, iPad, and Mac models with stereo speakers.
Now the question is, whether this sounds any good. I’m yet to experience Apple’s Spatial Audio with Apple Music but as a long-time subscriber of Tidal, surround sound music kinda sucks.
This isn’t an issue with the format itself but rather the recordings. You will occasionally come across tracks that are specially designed to show off the surround sound audio and it might sound pretty cool. However, the music you want to listen to, that is, the surround sound masters of popular tracks released by studios, just don’t sound very good. This is especially true of studio albums, which were originally designed to be played back on regular stereo speakers and just sound odd and discombobulated when listening to the surround sound master. Personally, I’d much rather listen to the standard stereo version.
I can see how this may work well for live recordings of concerts but I haven’t come across many of those. In the end, I’m still somewhat optimistic about this tech but if you’re someone who doesn’t have the hardware to hear it then don’t worry, you aren’t missing out on much.
What about Bluetooth audio?
So far I’ve largely been talking of audio in the wired realm but a lot of people these days listen to music on Bluetooth devices, whether it’s Bluetooth earbuds like the Airpods, Bluetooth headphones like the Sony WH-1000XM4, Bluetooth speakers, or in-car audio over Bluetooth.
Improve Apple Music Sound Quality With High Intensity Audio Setting
Bluetooth, however, adds an extra layer of complexity as well as an extra layer of compromise. All audio — and I mean ALL audio — sent over Bluetooth is compressed. Every single Bluetooth codec available today, whether it’s the baseline SBC to AAC, aptX, aptX HD, LDAC, LHDC, and Samsung Scalable Codec are all lossy codecs. Also to dispel another popular myth, if your music is in AAC and your Bluetooth headphones and device are using AAC for transmission, the music will still get compressed and re-encoded, and not just sent through as-is.
The Airpods Pro use lossy AAC codec for audio transmission
This is just how audio over Bluetooth works currently. It simply does not have the bandwidth for lossless transmission with the existing codecs, let alone uncompressed transmission. It’s possible that a codec could come about that is so efficient it can pack all the original data in without discarding anything and still manage to send it over Bluetooth’s minuscule bandwidth but that hasn’t happened yet.
Depending upon the codec being used for Bluetooth transmission, you can get pretty good results, especially if your bit rate of the Bluetooth codec far exceeds that of your audio file. However, if you are listening to lossless audio, then you will only retain as much information as what the Bluetooth codec is capable of. Still, in the case of the lossless audio, since the Bluetooth codec is working with the complete file, the results may be a bit better than recompressing the same file twice in a lossy manner. Whether you can notice the difference is another matter, altogether.
There are a lot of words on this page and they may come in handy if you have a curious mind. But at the end of the day, music is more than the sum of bits and waves that make it. The purpose of listening to music or any piece of audio is to enjoy it.
For some people such as myself, taking apart the technical side of the music and studying the minutiae of it is part of the listening experience. I don’t remember the last time I listened to a piece of music and didn’t take subconscious notes on the quality of the recording, the arrangement, and how the speakers or headphones I’m using are reproducing all of it. I make sure all the equipment is working correctly, all the bit depths and sampling rates are correct and match the source audio, and that the audio has a clean path from the source without any elements that could affect the final delivery.
If you’re like me — or an even bigger nerd as many are — then things like lossless audio and high-resolution audio are for you. Sometimes it doesn’t matter to us if we can tell a difference but that everything is correct and working as we like it. It’s people who are still buying and being enthusiastic about wired headphones, using external DACs and amps even though we keep getting told the ones that come built into our computers these days are “good enough”, and disabling all EQ and DSP effects.
If you are not like that, first of all, congratulations because you are normal. Secondly, you can just ignore everything here and continue listening and enjoying music as you always have. Things like lossless and high-res will always be there if you ever feel like taking it to the next level. If not, that’s perfectly fine too. What matters is if you’re having a good time.