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Apple Music Review. Apple music hi res dac

Apple Music Review

apple, music, review

In today’s article, we have an Apple Music review, in which we check out the new Hi-Res streaming service from the brand, available for €/9.99.

Disclaimer: Apple didn’t pay or endorse us for this review, I subscribe to Apple Music on my own and didn’t benefit from the 3 months trial offer, as an old customer.

EDIT: Last week we launched an AudioQuest survey and /€2400 USD/Euro prize draw. Don’t forget to check it out here.

About Apple

Do I have to present Apple? The Multi-Billion company that overturned the phone world into the one we live on? If yes, this means that you’re either too young to be here, or you’ve been locked up in jail for the last… 30 years? Either way, the truth is that there’s a 99% chance you have already used an iPhone/iPad/iMac/MacBook in recent years.

Yet, from my audiophile standpoint, Apple is more than just a smartphone maker. They are one of the main reasons why many people are now able to enjoy their music, on the go. Thanks to the iPod, not the first, but the most popular DAP of his time, and iTunes which prepared the field for the upcoming post-CD era, Apple laid the foundations for many audio brands to come.

And if the iPod is now gone, replaced by the all-mighty iPhone, that doesn’t mean Apple completely ditched the audio business, quite the opposite, actually. When the first Airpods came out, with their infamously weird design, everyone was laughing (and so did I). Now, every year, Apple sells more than 100 MILLIONS of them, which means that since you begin to read this article, more than 900 pcs people ordered one… Obvious to say that no one is laughing now!

So when the brand decided to launch their first full-sized headphone, the Airpods Max, even if some complained about the (not so) high price, reviewers and audiophiles were much keener to lend an ear to Apple. As we did previously this year!

apple, music, review

But, the biggest surprise came last month, when the brand announced they will now offer Lossless audio streaming, or even Hi-Res and Dolby files, through their own Apple Music service… with no additional cost. A blow to Tidal and Qobuz? That’s what we’ll see today.

How to use Apple Music

Compatibility

Apple Music is now available on iOS/Windows/OSX, and more recently Android devices… but that doesn’t mean it will work on it. Many DAP users had the displeasing surprise to see that if Apple’s software was rightfully installed on their player, they couldn’t link their account and therefore could not play music either.

Thankfully, nowadays, many players offer full Play Store certification, and with that Apple Music compliance, like the FiiO M11 Plus LTD or the iBasso DX300. Unfortunately, great DAP like the FiiO M15 or the iBasso DX160 didn’t get the same chance, but other apps like Qobuz, Tidal, or Amazon Music remain available.

apple, music, review

For smartphone users, it’s much simpler. As long as your phone supports Android 5.0 or later, you can install Apple Music and enjoy the app. Same if you’re an iPhone/iPad user, you can get all the options that are available, if you own at least an iPhone 6S (or 7 if you want Dolby Atmos).

Last but not least, like every streaming service, Apple Music only provides the files, so it’s up to you to match a DAC to your source. In my case, I mainly used the app on my iPhone and connected the EarMen Sparrow, TR-AMP, and the Maktar X2 through the Lightning port. All of them are fully compatible with files up to 24bits/192kHz (even higher for the EarMen) allowing me to fully enjoy Hi-Res playback, when available.

The Airpods gate

Let’s talk about the elephant in the room: none of Apple’s actual headphones, or speakers, support Apple Lossless streaming. Quite a shame as I’m pretty fond of my Airpods Max – my daily drive each time I have to take the train – and my Airpods Pro, the best TWS IEM if you’re an Apple user.

apple, music, review

Of course, it all comes down to one simple reason: every Airpods only connects through AAC Bluetooth connection, which means the available bandwidth cannot exceed 264kbps, shy above the 1400kbps needed for lossless, or more for Hi-Res. For now, Apple will only deploy a patch for HomePods users, but they will surely find a way to do so with the Airpods… in the future.

On a positive note, both the Airpods Pro and Max supports Dolby Atmos playback, through the iPhone/iPad. It’s not much, but it’s honest work.

Specifications

Apple Music: Lossy or lossless

As the other do, Apple Music offers various quality level for your stream. On iOS devices, you can switch between three modes by going into the device settings, then Music, and finally, Sound Quality. Four modes are available:

  • High-Efficiency or HE-AAC : the app will use the least bandwidth, and thus the worst quality. In this mode, a 3-minute track takes up to 1.5Mo;
  • High Quality or AAC : the regular one, known for decades thanks to iTunes now. It’s the same quality you get from Spotify and Deezer on a premium tier. This mode uses 256kbps files and takes up to 6Mo for a 3-minute track;
  • Lossless or ALAC : now things are becoming serious. In this more, the app streams files in CD-Quality, at minimum, and up to 24bit/48kHz when available. This mode takes up to 36Mo for a 3-minute track and reaches the apex of AirPlay 2 compatibility;
  • High-Quality Lossless : this is the final tier, where all horses get loose. Stream quality is completely uncapped in this mode and the app allows full hi-res streaming, up to 24bits/192kHz, which translates to 145mo files, for a 3-minute track.

Again, to enjoy the full experience, you’ll need a USB-DAC or a DAP supporting Apple Music. For the latter option, remember to check if you use the latest version of the app to unlock the lossless options.

And if you use an Airpods Max or Pro, you can still enable Lossless streaming, but as Apple says :

“While the difference between AAC and lossless audio is virtually indistinguishable, we’re offering Apple Music subscribers the option to access music in lossless audio compression.”

Pricing

Last but not least, we can’t review Apple’s new service, without talking about the price.

apple, music, review

Usually, streaming providers offer different service-tier, depending on the sound quality you want to access. For example, with Tidal, you can pay 9.99 a month for 320kbps streaming or upgrade your subscription up to the Hi-Fi level and access FLAC/MQA streaming, for 19.99 a month or 24.99 if you want the family account and share with 5 people.

It’s the same deal with Qobuz, who’s offering a 24bit/192kHz streaming (when available) for €19.99 per month, or €14.99 if you commit annually with “Studio Premier”. Above that, you can get the “Studio Sublime” subscription and gets an additional discount on your purchases on the platform, but you’re now at €20.83 per month, billed annually. Want to share the love? Qobuz also offers family rates, but that’ll cost you €34.99 a month, or €41.66 if you want the Sublime tier.

And, this is where the brand jabs at the others: to date, it’s one of the most affordable Hi-Res services on the market, coming up at just /€9.99. In fact, Apple just kept the same price for their subscription, even with Hi-Res. If you’re a student, you can even get a €4.99 price, and the family only costs €14.99 a month, up to 5 people.

This is the power of a Trillon-dollar company, hit the others with money. And so far, the only provider that could match those have been… another Trillon-dollar company: Amazon. As soon as Apple announced their Hi-Res move, Jeff Bezos company answered by lowering their 24bit/192kHz streaming subscription price from 14.99, to 9.99.

Everyday Use

Once installed, Apple Music behaves like every other music apps, or so. You can browse through millions of tracks, and if I’m not fond of their album highlights, there’s no denying that visually it’s very eye-catchy.

You have five main sections:

  • Listen. where the app displays albums and tracks recently played tailored mixes based on your recent listening, as Spotify does.
  • Explore. this is where Apple put all the new albums and try to “enlarge” your vision with TOP 25 or new music selections (mostly garbage, but that must be me getting old)
  • Radio. if you’re a fan of the old world, where someone chats while picking songs, this one is for you. Apple offers three live stations: Music 1, Music hits, and Music Country
  • Library. this is where you can find your own tracks
  • Search. the name says it all

Good news, the search engine uses the same “spotlight” core found in iOS and OSX, meaning that each search will give you an accurate result in the blink of an eye. Something that’s always been an issue with Qobuz for me.

Like Spotify, you get automatic lyrics during playback (without the annoying Genius explanation…), animated covers if that’s your thing, and the option to create a radio, based on the track/album you’re listening to.

Lastly, every album gets a cool description or commentary from the artist, sometimes both, and Apple’s prediction algorithm, if not as accurate as Spotify, managed to spot my favorite genre and Band in just a few weeks.

All in all, my personal rating – strictly UI speaking – would go like this: Spotify Apple Music Tidal Qobuz Amazon Music

The review continues on Page Two, after the click HERE or by using the jump below.

Hear True Apple Music HiFi Lossless Audio with These Wired Headphones and External DACs

apple, music, review

In case you missed it, Apple is rolling out HiFi Lossless Audio for all Apple Music titles in 2021. A significant portion of the library will be immediately converted when the new modes launch in June, with the rest on the way afterward.

Lossless Audio is designed to allow users to listen to music at precisely the quality they desire, all the way to studio-grade sound (in theory, at least). People can choose different quality options based on their connection to keep from eating up all their data, starting with 16-bit audio at 44.1kHz, or CD quality. This goes all the up to Hi-Resolution Lossless audio, 24-bit at 192kHz, for the ultimate experience – at no extra cost to Apple Music subscribers.

But, to take advantage of the higher tiers of Lossless Audio, you need compatible devices and accessories that can keep up, or else you might not even notice a difference.

Let’s take a look at exactly what you need (and what won’t work), so you can get the audiophile quality you want as Lossless Audio prepares for launch.

You’ll Need a Compatible Apple Device for Playback

First, you need an Apple device that can process Lossless Audio and deliver the proper quality. That means you need to use either an iPhone (iPhone 7 and later), iPad, Mac computer, or Apple TV.

apple, music, review

No other Apple devices will be supporting Lossless Audio – at least not yet – and that includes the HomePod and HomePod mini. However, they do support Spatial Audio for configuring sound to your room.

Vox Media Player

Apple’s music player and iTunes are… fine. But they struggle to deliver Lossless Audio with all the detail that other apps can provide. That’s why, if you want the highest quality possible, you will want to download audio files and listen to them with a more adept music player. Obviously, this isn’t for everyone – at the high end, Lossless Audio files take up a ton of room, and this isn’t a great approach for small devices like iPhones but is more feasible for Macs.

apple, music, review

If you want to go the download route, we suggest using the Vox Media Player. It’s so popular there’s a good chance you may have already downloaded it, and it can handle audio files with more care than native options, leading to a better sound experience.

Sennheiser Momentum 2.0 Wired Headphones – 490

apple, music, review

When it comes to headphones, you’ll run into a problem early on: none of Apple’s headphones can handle true Lossless Audio. True Lossless Audio at higher tiers requires a wired connection, so most Airpods and Beats models are automatically disqualified. While you can plug in the Airpods Max, Apple has admitted that even then, the headphones are incompatible with Lossless Audio (although it still sounds great). The key is finding a great third-party wired headset for your tunes.

We suggest starting with the Sennheiser Momentum 2.0. These durable headphones are designed for audiophiles that want to experience the best sound, and this model is made to work with Apple devices and has an integrated Smart remote. The 18-ohm transducers are engineered to produce top-tier sound.

Sony MDR7506 Headphones – 99.95

apple, music, review

If you’re thinking, “Whoa, I like the idea of Lossless Audio, but I’m not spending several hundred dollars on a headset,” then we suggest this far more affordable Sony model. The headset uses 4mm neodymium drivers for excellent sound quality, with a minimalistic and lightweight design that won’t weigh down your head like some models do. The coiled cord is also a nice addition, offering a 9.8-foot length and gold-plated plug that’s ideal for studio situations or just enjoying the maximum range of motion at your computer.

beyerdynamic DT 1770 Pro Studio Reference Headphones – 599

apple, music, review

On the other hand, if cost is no factor and you really want the best audio you can get out of your Apple Music tracks, you can choose this beyerdynamic headset. It’s pricey, but has 45mm drivers with a 250-ohm rating and a frequency response range of 5 to 40,000Hz to push sound quality up and enjoy every single detail. The headset is also designed for long sessions with comfortable ear pads and two different material options so you can use what you like best.

Chord Mojo DAC/Headphone Amplifier – 699

apple, music, review

If you’re planning on pushing Lossless Audio to the highest tiers, you’ll need more than just your Apple device – you’ll need a good external DAC to process the audio data correctly and deliver a true studio experience.

This popular Chord Mojo model is the ideal solution. It’s very portable, highly effective, and includes a chargeable battery so you don’t always need to find an outlet to use it. It also includes two analog outputs so multiple people can listen to the same audio at once – and the controls are simple enough that even those who haven’t used DACs before won’t have any trouble here.

iFi HIP-DAC – 149.99

apple, music, review

Again, if you are not at all interested in paying several hundred dollars for a DAC, here’s a far more affordable model that will still deliver great results with Lossless Audio. It has a portable design with a battery rated for six hours, offers both 4.4mm and 3.5mm headphone plugs depending on what you have, and includes adjustable analog buttons for controlling the balance on your own terms… without getting too complicated.

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High-Res and Lossless Audio: Are You Getting Your Money’s Worth?

A lossless audio stream might not actually be lossless by the time it reaches your ears. Don’t pay extra for high-res music streaming until you read this.

I’ve been a contributing editor for PCMag since 2011. Before that, I was PCMag’s lead audio analyst from 2006 to 2011. Even though I’m a freelancer now, PCMag has been my home for well over a decade, and audio gear reviews are still my primary FOCUS. Prior to my career in reviewing tech, I worked as an audio engineer—my love of recording audio eventually led me to writing about audio gear.

(Image: Shutterstock / SergeyBitos)

Lossless audio is great, if you can listen to it. High-res tracks might start with high bitrates and sampling rates at the source, but there are many links in the chain between your music streaming service and your headphones or speakers where those numbers can abruptly drop. Listening to lossless music isn’t quite as simple as just paying a few extra dollars a month, and if you don’t take care, you might be wasting your money on that premium subscription. Here’s what you need to know about high-res audio streaming.

Analog to Digital to Analog

Sound is analog. That’s a fact that applies even when artists record their work on a computer. Turning that analog sound into digital data is how music can be saved on hard drives and streamed to phones in the first place. After that, the digital information has to be converted back to analog so you can actually listen to it.

The most common process of converting a continuous analog signal to a digital one is called pulse code modulation (PCM), and it’s how most audio track quality is described. PCM involves capturing the sound wave in samples, which are like snapshots of the audio signal at a precise moment in time. Thousands of samples are needed to reproduce just a second of audio, and the more you can capture and store, the better it sounds because the more accurately the sound wave can be reproduced. This is measured as a track’s sampling rate, in kHz (kilohertz, or thousands of cycles per second). The most common sampling rates include 8kHz for phone calls, 44.1kHz for CD audio, and 192kHz for high-end DVD audio. These rates can theoretically get much higher, but the increase in quality becomes less and less perceptible to the human ear once you reach certain thresholds.

The sampling rate determines how many samples are taken each second, but it’s only one of three important numbers in determining an audio signal’s quality. Bit depth is the range of values that can be captured in each individual sample. Imagine an orchestra slowly building a crescendo from near-silence to a thunderous racket. To capture the subtlety of the gradual increase in the orchestra’s volume, you need to precisely pinpoint each step of loudness for each frequency, from the tiniest scrape of a bow to the boom of a timpani.

Bit depth describes how much space in bits (the ones and zeroes that digital computers run on) each sample gets. bits translate into higher numbers, expanding geometrically since each additional bit doubles the number of amplitude steps to choose from. A 4-bit sample only has 16 possible amplitude values, while a 16-bit sample has over 65,000. Move up to 24 bits and you get over 16,000,000.

You need a high-end pair of wired headphones, such as the Blue Ella, to hear the full frequency range of high-res audio files

Bitrate is the sample rate multiplied by the bit rate, then multiplied by the number of channels (two for stereo tracks, which most music is available in) and measured in Kbps (thousands of bits per second). A CD’s bitrate is 1,411Kbps (44,100 Hz multiplied by 16 bits multiplied by 2 channels), while a decent-to-high-quality MP3 might have a bitrate of 320Kbps. Below this line, audio quality tends to suffer. Generally, audio files with specs greater than CD quality are considered high-res.

Pulse depth modulation (PDM) is another conversion process that takes a completely different approach, and some audiophiles swear by it as the most faithful method for digitally reproducing analog audio. The resulting audio from this process, Direct Stream Digital (DSD), is the standard for Super Audio Compact Discs (SACDs). Technically speaking, the sample rate of an SACD is 2,822kHz, but that doesn’t mean it’s 64 times better than a 44.1kHz CD; the process is different (samples are considered 1-bit, for example), so the measurements involved are also different. This gets a bit into the weeds, though, and mostly just applies to SACDs; for lossless music services, you can assume that PCM-derived numbers are being used.

The Lossy and the Lossless

High-quality audio files take up a lot of bandwidth and storage space, especially when they’re lossless. Lossy audio, like MP3s and most streaming services, compress the source material so it can be more easily streamed and stored. WAV files, the standard for CDs, are lossless. WAV files are much, much bigger than MP3s: A CD audio WAV file takes up about 10MB per minute, while a high-quality 320Kbps MP3 takes up only 2.4MB per minute, and a common 128Kbps MP3 only 1MB per minute.

MP3s and other non-WAV digital audio formats accomplish these feats of storage through compression, which selectively removes data from the uncompressed file to make it smaller but still functional. Each compression scheme is defined by its own audio codec, and how much they affect both file size and sound quality vary depending on the codec being used.

FLAC decreases a WAV file’s size by only about half, but it also leaves the audio quality more or less untouched and is considered lossless. However, most codecs, like MP3 and AAC, are considered lossy because they compress the data so much that the sound quality starts to drop off. Even lossy codecs can accommodate a wide range of sample rates and bit depths, though, so you can still end up with high-quality compressed music as easily as terribly crunched tracks.

As a general rule, a lossless file is an uncompressed file (or one that you encode using a lossless compression process), and a high-res file has specs higher than 16-bit/44.1kHz, even with compression. And as another general rule, neither of them will sound as good as they can if you’re listening to them on Bluetooth headphones.

The Wireless Problem

We have a separate article that explains how common Bluetooth codecs work, so we won’t repeat that information here. The most important takeaway is: There is no such thing as a truly lossless Bluetooth codec as of 2022, only lossy and less lossy. The best codecs for audio quality are AptX Lossless, LDAC, and LHDC, but even they aren’t truly lossless. That’s a problem when it comes to streaming lossless audio to a pair of true wireless earbuds via Bluetooth.

Apple Music lets you select the quality of your audio streams in the Music section of the Settings menu on iOS devices or in the Preferences section of the Music app on your computer: AAC (16-bit, 44.1kHz, and 256 kbps), ALAC (up to 24-bit, 48kHz), or ALAC High Resolution (up to 192kHz). ALAC is Apple Lossless Audio Codec, Apple’s proprietary media format and what you want to select to listen to lossless audio on the service. But even with ALAC High Resolution selected, the ALAC files are only getting sent over your internet connection to your phone or computer; they aren’t what gets streamed over Bluetooth to your headphones. When your playback device transmits those lossless tracks over Bluetooth to headphones that only support AAC or SBC (like all Airpods currently), the quality ratchets down because it has to use either of those lossy codecs.

This means no Airpods (not even the 549 Airpods Max) are capable of playing ALAC files back at ALAC specs, because they use Bluetooth and only support up to AAC specs. Your phone might display the Apple Lossless logo as it streams ALAC files (which is technically true if you select one of the higher-end streaming options), but those files will get encoded to AAC for the wireless ride to your headphones.

RouteNote Blog

apple, music, review

While Dolby Atmos spatial audio is compatible on most of Apple and Beats speakers and headphones, lossless audio is a different story.

Apple have officially launched Dolby Atmos spatial audio and lossless audio on Apple Music. For more information on spatial and lossless audio, as well as how to upgrade on iPhone, iPad, Mac and Apple TV, click here. In simple terms, lossless audio provides a higher quality audio experience, giving you a closer representation of what the artist heard in the studio. The upgrades are available to all Apple Music subscribers on the latest iOS, iPadOS, macOS and tvOS at no additional cost, however your experience may vary based on the equipment you use.

Apple Music is available for streaming in the following formats:

  • High Efficiency: HE-AAC (around 65 kbps)
  • High Quality: AAC 256 kbps
  • Lossless: between
  • 16-bit/44.1 kHz
  • 24-bit/48 kHz

Over 20 million lossless songs are available to stream today on Apple Music. The entire catalogue of over 75 million songs will be available in lossless by the end of the year. You’ll find the Lossless or Hi-Res Lossless badge on the Now Playing screen of any song already available. If every track of a release is available in lossless, you’ll also see the badge on the album details page.

What equipment do I need to listen to lossless and hi-res lossless audio?

The built-in speakers on iPhone, iPad and Mac support lossless audio playback, however the speakers (particularly on the iPhone) are so small, the difference in audio quality will be negligible. To make the most out of lossless audio, you’ll want to hook up an external set of headphones or speakers. All of Apple’s Airpods and Beats wireless headphones use Apple’s AAC Bluetooth Codec, which is unfortunately not lossless. The HomePod and HomePod mini also currently uses AAC, however Apple says support for lossless audio will be coming in a future firmware update.

Lossless Audio – 24-bit/48 kHz

You’ll need a wire to make the most out of lossless audio. The most affordable way to listen to lossless audio on your iPhone is using Apple’s Lightning to 3.5 mm Headphone Jack Adapter. This little adapter used to be included in the box of the iPhone after they dropped the 3.5 mm headphone jack from their phones. Sadly they stopped including the adapter a few years later, but it can still be purchased, currently for just 7.99. The adapter contains a digital-to-analogue converter (DAC) that supports up to 24-bit/48 kHz lossless audio.

High-Resolution Lossless Audio

For audio quality any higher than this, you’ll need an external digital-to-analogue converter (DAC). However before you go rushing out to drop a few thousand dollars on your new audiophile-grade hardware to listen to all of your favourite music in super high resolution quality, you should know while Apple Music’s entirely catalogue will be upgraded to lossless by the end of the year, most of these do not and will not exceed 24-bit/48 kHz. I recommend browsing through your own Apple Music catalogue, looking for that Hi-Res Lossless badge to see how many of the songs you listen to support the higher audio quality.

Also note that if a track is listed as Hi-Res Lossless, this means the track is higher than 24-bit/48 kHz, but not necessarily 24-bit/192 kHz. You’ll find the resolution by tapping the badge. Many Hi-Res Lossless tracks are actually around the 88 to 96 kHz range.

All of the below DACs use USB, so if you’re connecting one of the options to an iPhone or Lightning iPad, you’ll want to start by purchasing a Lightning to USB adapter, such as the official Apple one, currently available for 24.32.

24-bit/96 kHz

All AudioQuest DragonFly DACs support audio up to 24-bit/96kHz, with varying levels of audio quality among three colour options below.

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