Why iOS 16 makes me think lossless isn't coming to AirPods Pro 2… yet

AirPods Pro in woman's ear, as she pinches the controls
(Image credit: Shutterstock)

One of the big on-going rumors about Apple AirPods Pro 2 is that they'll support lossless audio, making them the first AirPods to do so. Despite Apple adding lossless audio to its Apple Music streaming service in 2021, it currently doesn't make any wireless headphones that can take advantage of the higher-res tracks… even the mighty AirPods Max.

The predictions of AirPods Pro 2 having lossless support have come from analysts who say they have knowledge of the development, rather than from any kind of product feature leak, but it definitely seems to make sense given the effort Apple's gone to to make every song in Apple Music available in higher quality than its own headphones can play (unless, ironically, you get the cheap, old-fashioned wireless ones).

However, in the aftermath of Apple's launches at WWDC 2022, and the beta release of iOS 16 in particular, I'm now less convinced that we should expect lossless support in AirPods Pro 2. The reason is that, if it's going to happen, I think the technological groundwork will be laid in iOS 16's software, and so far, no one has stumbled across any evidence of it yet.

Analysis: if there's a lossless fire, where's the smoke?

It's all about how Apple could support lossless audio. Wireless headphones that support Hi-Res Audio still use Bluetooth to achieve it, but they use different implementations for how sound is streamed over it.  Generally, that means either using Qualcomm's aptX or Sony's LDAC tech… but Apple isn't likely to use either of those. It could've been using aptX for years if it wanted to, for a start, but also Apple won't want to be beholden to someone else's version of the technology. It'll want its own tech, optimized for efficiency and reliability on iPhones.

sony wf-1000xm4 wireless earbuds

Sony's WF-1000XM4 earbuds feature a higher-quality Bluetooth tech called LDAC – but it's not very widely used. (Image credit: Sony)

That probably means a custom system developed by Apple that piggybacks Bluetooth and is able to stream the native ALAC music files that Apple uses for its lossless tracks without conversion. 

There is no currently known Bluetooth tech that can do this. But that's no problem – Apple is more than capable of developing one. But if it has, you'd expect it to be already in iOS 16, because the full version of iOS 16 is due to be released in September (alongside the iPhone 14 if Apple follows its usual pattern), with the AirPods Pro 2 likely arriving just before Christmas (again, if Apple follows its usual AirPods release path).

But we haven't seen any sign of any new music transmission tech so far. And I don't just mean that Apple didn't announce it – obviously I'd expect the company to play this card close to the vest.

When new versions of iOS are released, they're immediately torn apart by developers and experts to look for hints in the code about unreleased products or features. In the case of iOS 16, this as already borne fruit: evidence has been found of a new HomePod.

But so far, there's no such evidence of a new lossless music transmission tech, even hidden away or disabled. And I'd be surprised if Apple added it wholesale after the launch of iOS 16 – normally, when it adds features to iOS in the first months after the initial launch, we already know about them, and they're already embedded in the software. It's just that Apple still has polishing to do before it turns the features on.

Could there be something we're missing? Of course – perhaps it's in there but hasn't been found; perhaps the way it's been designed means it's not obvious. But I'd still expect there to be hidden settings options and icons to be found, and the usual little footprints of the development of a new feature that are never totally cleared away before release. After all, we keep finding evidence of 'realityOS', and that's apparently even further away from being announced than AirPods Pro 2.

So while I'm still massively excited about AirPods Pro 2, for now I'm going to assume that lossless support isn't on the cards, at least at launch. I'll put my hopes into new driver tech that makes them as good as their new Android-focused competitor, the Honor Earbuds 3 Pro.

But I'll also still harbor hope that they (and, in an ideal world, AirPods Max) could actually be forwards compatible with some lossless transmission tech that might be introduced in a future version of iOS… there's only 11 months to wait for WWDC 2023, after all.

Matt Bolton
Managing Editor, Entertainment

Matt is TechRadar's Managing Editor for Entertainment, meaning he's in charge of persuading our team of writers and reviewers to watch the latest TV shows and movies on gorgeous TVs and listen to fantastic speakers and headphones. It's a tough task, as you can imagine. Matt has over a decade of experience in tech publishing, and previously ran the TV & audio coverage for our colleagues at T3.com, and before that he edited T3 magazine. During his career, he's also contributed to places as varied as Creative Bloq, PC Gamer, PetsRadar, MacLife, and Edge. TV and movie nerdism is his speciality, and he goes to the cinema three times a week. He's always happy to explain the virtues of Dolby Vision over a drink, but he might need to use props, like he's explaining the offside rule.