Apple Music lossless audio is great news for everyone – except AirPods owners

airPods Pro
(Image credit: Shutterstock)

Apple has announced that high-resolution audio support is coming to Apple Music for no extra cost to subscribers – but puzzlingly, it’s a feature that Apple’s most-dedicated supporters won’t be able to take advantage of.

Going forwards, Apple Music will offer lossless audio at between 24-bit/48kHz and 24-bit/192kHz without a price hike for users, giving the richest and most detailed possible playback from its digital music download and streaming service

The problem is, none of Apple’s current mobile hardware or headphones support the 'Hi-Res Lossless' capabilities of the update. Apple Music’s new Hi-Res lossless feature won’t work on iPhone 12 (which is capable of lossless at 24-bit/48kHz, but not the higher ranges necessary for the hi-res offering), while AirPods Max and AirPods Pro use the AAC codec, but not the Apple Lossless Audio Codec (ALAC) required for hi-res audio. This means you’ll have to use competing products outside of the Apple ecosystem in order to hear Apple Music at its best.

Apple airpods max

(Image credit: Apple)

“Due to the large file sizes and bandwidth needed for Lossless and Hi-Res Lossless Audio, subscribers will need to opt in to the experience. Hi-Res Lossless also requires external equipment, such as a USB digital-to-analog converter (DAC),” reads a statement from Apple in regards to the update.

Think you can get around it with a wired connection to the AirPods Max? Think again. Speaking to The Verge, Apple outlined the problem with that solution.

“When you play a 24-bit/48 kHz Apple Music lossless track from an iPhone into the AirPods Max using both the cable and Lightning dongle, the audio is converted to analog and then re-digitized to 48kHz. That re-digitization step is the reason that Apple can’t say you’re hearing pure lossless audio; it’s not an identical match to the source."

For now then, if you’re using an iPhone you’ll need an external DAC and a pair of wired headphones, introducing another cost on top of already expensive products. 

Why has Apple snubbed AirPods users?

Having its flagship products not work fully with its flagship services is uncharacteristically messy from Apple, which usually takes a unified approach to its product launches – and it seems like the company’s hand was forced. 

The announcement of Apple Music’s lossless support was unceremonious by Apple standards, released via an email – and was followed very soon after by an announcement from Amazon, which said that its high-quality streaming tier, Amazon Music HD, will be available to all eligible Amazon Music Unlimited subscribers without an accompanying price hike.

Did Apple learn of Amazon’s plans and scramble to make its own hi-res music streaming announcement? It’s certainly possible. 

apple music

(Image credit: Apple)

It’s also possible that Apple’s own announcement was originally supposed to coincide with the launch of the AirPods 3, which are rumored to be coming this year. 

Still, we’re expecting the AirPods 3 to be an upgrade to the company’s entry-level wireless earbuds, and we wouldn’t necessarily expect hi-res audio support to come with them. That’s something we might have expected from the AirPods Max, which are billed as Apple headphones for audiophiles. 

Furthermore, even if Apple did release an updated version of the AirPods Max that are capable of playing hi-res audio, iPhones are still incapable of handling audio above 24-bit/48kHz – you’d still need a portable DAC to work its magic. 

For Apple Music subscribers to enjoy the new Lossless Audio feature with Apple products, Apple would need to upgrade its headphones and its iPhones, and potentially release its first portable DAC. 

Launching an Apple-branded DAC isn’t outside the realms of possibility. After all, Apple has a reputation for selling crucial accessories separately from the products that require them – just look at the AirPods Max and the Lightning-to-3.5mm audio cable that you need to fork out an additional $35 for if you want to use the headphones with a wired connection. But a DAC is a niche, almost hobbyist product, – and likely not on Apple's radar when it comes to cash-generating gear.

Democratizing hi-res audio

In spite of the frustrating limitations with Apple’s audio hardware, we’re hesitant to be overly critical of Apple. After all, Apple Music and Amazon Music Unlimited are the only music streaming services we can think of that offer hi-res audio at no extra cost to subscribers. That’s no small thing, and it could force the other major streaming services, such as Spotify, Deezer, and Tidal, to do the same. 

Not all Apple devices are incapable of handling lossless audio, either. Apple has confirmed support for Lossless Audio streaming for both its Apple TV and HomePod devices as well as any MacOS computer – so don’t feel like iOS or iPadOS are your only gateways to the high-end audio formats.

It’s still strange that Apple has overlooked AirPods owners with this latest announcement – here’s hoping that another announcement about new Apple headphones or and iPhone with hi-res audio capabilities will follow soon.

Gerald Lynch

Gerald is Editor-in-Chief of Previously he was the Executive Editor for TechRadar, taking care of the site's home cinema, gaming, smart home, entertainment and audio output. He loves gaming, but don't expect him to play with you unless your console is hooked up to a 4K HDR screen and a 7.1 surround system. Before TechRadar, Gerald was Editor of Gizmodo UK. He is also the author of 'Get Technology: Upgrade Your Future', published by Aurum Press.