In June 2021, Apple revealed two exciting developments for music lovers: Apple Lossless and Apple Spatial Audio, each on offer for Apple Music, and each available now—provided you have the right hardware and the right OS.
What does this mean for you, the consumer? Let’s take a look.
We need to begin by defining “lossless” and “lossy.” I’ll use a mnemonic device to make it simple:
A lossless file exhibits no loss of audio quality when compared to the original master. A lossy file—such as an MP3 or an AAC—does exhibit a loss in quality compared to the original.
Lossy files transformed the music business into its current state/shambles. In fact, the lossy codec can be considered the bridge between the physical days of CDs and the streaming models of Spotify.
It all comes down to file size: A lossless file is much larger than a lossy one. So, a lossy file is easier to stream through the cloud without incurring data bottlenecks and price surges.
Now, how does a lossless file become a lossy one? The answer is simple: sacrifice.
The processes behind lossy codecs (MP3s, AACs, and the like) apply psychoacoustic filters—hyper-small decision-makers that choose which bits of information are essential, and which should be thrown in the garbage.
The obvious analog is a movie with low-res quality, stacked against one viewed at full resolution. If you’ve ever tried to watch Netflix through a terrible Internet connection, you’ll know what I mean: You see the pixels in each frame. Blacks are blocky and weirdly textured. Nothing is clear.
It’s a little subtler in the audio world, but you can still hear the difference with some aural training.
How to Hear What Lossy Files Are Missing
Casual listeners might not be able to hear the difference between an MP3 and a lossless file. But you can train yourself to hear the difference.
This is an Apple drum loop ripped from a lossless wav file:
This is the same file, converted to MP3:
It’s possible to hear exactly what the MP3 is stripping away from the process through a null test. I’ll line up both files in my digital audio workstation, flip the polarity on one of them, and hit play; if they create silence, we know they are direct copies.
An MP3 “nulled” against a WAV won’t create silence. It will create a bizarre series of whooshy artifacts. You’ll be able to hear aspects of the original music—its rhythm and some of its tonality—like so:
What you’re hearing is everything the codec strips away. This is what the algorithm deems as unimportant.
Except, it is important to people who love music: If you cycle among these three examples, you will begin to hear what’s missing in the MP3. In this case, it’s prevalent in the cymbals and snare. We’re creating harsh bleary artifacts around the cymbals, all while losing a sense of space and depth.
It should be noted that these files are hosted on SoundCloud—in and of itself a lossy streaming service. You’re hearing a lossy copy of a lossy copy, which actually makes the differences even more glaring. To hear them in their original state, feel free to download the files.
The Fight for Lossless
From the days of Napster until around 2015, lossy was the name of the game—at least it was in mainstream audio consumption. You’d download a song from someplace like iTunes (lossy) or stream it over something like Spotify (very lossy).
Lossless files were harder to find. Either you’d have to download them from special (and often illegal) places, or you’d have to purchase the CD.
This started changing around 2014. Neil Young released his Pono player, which let users take lossless and even hi-res files with them around town. TIDAL also allowed premium users to stream lossless audio in 2014. The fight for lossless continued with services like Qobuz. In 2020, when the economic realities of being a musician suddenly became glaringly apparent, people started getting their files from places like Bandcamp, which famously waived their cut on certain Fridays.
And that about brings us to now, with Apple Music going the lossless route without charging extra for it.
So What Does Apple Lossless Mean for You?
In a word, caveats. Let’s start with what’s good: If you meet a certain number of hardware, software, and fiscal requirements, you can now stream lossless audio from Apple Music over your device.
But in those requirements lie the caveats.
First, you need iOS 14.6 or later to stream Apple Lossless on your iPhone or iPad. You’ll need to make the leap onto Big Sur for your computer, which could be quite a headache for professional users in 2021, and you’ll need tvOS 14.6 for your Apple TV.
Now here come the hardware considerations. If you prefer Bluetooth headphones, you’re in for a shock: You’ll still be getting lossy audio, because Bluetooth itself requires lossy encoding to work without wires. You’ll have to make a wired connection to your chosen device if you want to experience lossless playback.
Apple isn’t charging extra for lossless, but there’s still a financial angle to consider. Remember that a lossless file is inherently larger than a lossy one, which means streaming lossless music over a cellular network is going to cost you more money in data.
Still, given all these caveats, Apple Lossless is a win for music lovers: A top-tier streaming giant is embracing full-res audio without charging extra for it, and that means people who care about music quality have won the battle, if not the war.
Apple Spatial Audio
This one is going to be a bit more controversial—and a bit trickier to explain. Again, we’re going to need some context.
Apple’s Spatial Audio has its origins in Dolby Atmos, originally released in 2012. Dolby Atmos itself is an extension of surround-sound formats popularized in the last thirty years.
You might have seen 5.1 surround-sound systems—heck, you might even have one in your home. In 5.1, five monitors are positioned around a listening area to “surround” you with sound. You get left, center, and right speakers, supplemented with two speakers behind you. The “.1” is the subwoofer, which carries the low frequencies so you can feel the material in your chest.
While surround-sound can give you more immersion over stereo, it’s lacking the critical dimension of height. Any illusion of height is exactly that—a psychoacoustic illusion that only the most skilled engineers can pull off.
Height is the dimension Dolby Atmos brought to the table in 2012. The system made use of extra speakers placed at loftier altitudes (or beamed to reflect from the ceiling). For blockbuster movies, this was a boon to effects. A listener could now experience raindrops falling from the sky in a more realistic fashion. If the rain could sound so natural, imagine the explosions!
Whether or not Atmos really mattered to music is debatable. The most high-profile Atmos releases are arguably remixes of the latter-day Beatles records—the ones Giles Martin shepherded over the last few years.
While Dolby and others pioneered more complicated surround-sound systems, consumers began to gravitate more and more toward headphones; they’re great for tuning out commutes and coworkers, among other things. The people at Dolby took note and attempted to simulate the effect of Atmos between your twin eardrums.
Dolby Atmos for Headphones, launching around 2018, helped turn the binaural headphones experience into something more akin to Atmos. This product was marketed to gamers—specifically XBox and PC gamers. Unsurprisingly, a similar tech for Play Station users hit the market, as well.
Apple then partnered with Dolby to offer spatial audio for its viewable titles, and that brings us to where we are now.
And Where Exactly Is That?
If you want to watch a compatible piece of media on Apple TV—and if you have the right operating system and the right headphones—you can now experience Spatial Audio without buying a big and expensive speaker rig.
This is great news for visual media and immersive-audio storytelling. In theory, the Atmos experience is fantastic, but it has practicable limitations in movie theaters: all the audio is skewed to the center of the listening space, so if you’re sitting anywhere else, everything will sound off-balance.
With Spatial Audio in your headphones, you’re always in the center. Furthermore, with head-tracking technology, you can hear the mix change as you move your actual, physical head. That makes the experience more “realistic.”
But Is This Great News for Music?
Let’s start with the cold hard facts: As of right now, not much music is mixed for Atmos formats. Yet more and more of Apple’s music catalog is seeing Spatial Audio releases all the time. What gives?
In a word, up-mixing.
Up-mixing is a tricky and mysterious black box of a process. I’ll give you the most simplistic definition to avoid confusion.
Up-mixing is a process that automatically takes a stereo mix and converts it to multichannel formats, such as surround and Atmos.
When a stereo file is all that’s on hand, it is often up-mixed with software to the desired multichannel format. The same is true in reverse: If an engineer turns in a surround file, it is often downmixed to a stereo format for those who don’t have multichannel setups.
With Apple’s Spatial Audio, you have some mixes that are engineered in Atmos natively, and some that are up-mixed into the format.
According to Apple’s Support Page, you’ll be able to “listen on any headphones, the built-in speakers on your iPhone, iPad, or Mac, and with Apple TV 4K.” Head-tracking will available in a few months on select Apple or Beats headphones.
This opens up a bit of a Wild West scenario. Some music will be up-mixed from stereo files. Some will be “spatialized” from multichannel files—and piped into any old pair of headphones!
How does it sound? Well, the reviews from professional engineers so far are mixed. Some claim that the songs are presented as louder, boomier, and brighter, which means you’ll innately think they’re better than they are upon first listen. Others claim that the process is hit or miss, depending on the song—certain songs sound great, others sound washy and weird.
So Should You Care about Spatial Audio?
This depends on who you are. If new sonic formats thrill you—if you’re an audiophile who likes to push the boundaries of audio playback—Spatial Audio is certainly worth an investigation. You may like it, you may not. I don’t know. I’m not you.
But I’ll give you my take, since you made it this far.
In 1972, Quadraphonic sound came out, and people really thought this format would obliterate stereo. It didn’t.
Surround-sound formats of one sort or another have been threatening to supplant stereo ever since. But in the music world, they’ve always been niche—and I’ll put money on them continuing to be niche.
Stereo is fantastic; I personally don’t need anything else out of a headphone, and anything else I’ve heard so far hasn’t compared.
Of course, your mileage may vary on that. In fact, please let us know if it does—in the Comments section, below!