Forbes - Innovation

Apple Must Do More If It’s Serious About High Resolution Audio

Recently, Apple announced a significant upgrade to its Apple Music platform to provide support for lossless, hi-resolution music streaming. That represents genuine progress as it’s fair to say that Apple has dragged its feet on the whole issue of streaming higher-quality audio, the way it streams music essentially being unchanged since the early days of iTunes.

In truth, it’s debatable whether people listening to music on their smartphones while on the move are going to particularly benefit from exceptionally high-resolution music streaming. That’s particularly the case given that Apple has now dumped the old analog headphone jack, forcing iPhone owners to use Bluetooth wireless headphones instead. The decision to do away with the trusty old headphone jack primarily was made so that iPhones could be more water-resistant, space saved also facilitating slimmer phones which could then more easily adopt new technology. 

That’s undoubtedly all true but the disappearance of the headphone jack from iPhones also coincided with Apple’s purchase of the Beats by Dr Dre headphone brand and the marketing of a new generation of Apple AirPod Pro earbuds with active noise-canceling built-in. Now, I’m not saying that Apple deliberately pushed its customers towards adopting wireless earphones over wired, but it must have been a factor, especially considering how much Apple paid for Beats in what is an incredibly crowded market. 

In a way, Apple has painted itself into a bit of a corner thanks to its ‘walled garden’ approach to its tech ecosystem but also its sheer stubbornness. The company has a tradition of rejecting technology and formats that it doesn’t own or control, one that leaves its customers poorly served at times. 

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AirPods, for instance, still use the resolutely non-hi-res AAC codec which, although better than the basic SBC version, still lacks the resolution of better codecs such as Qualcomm’s aptX HD or Sony’s LDAC. Use an AirPod Max wired with an iPhone that’s streaming lossless audio (via the Lightning-to-3.5mm cable) and you’ll once again lose out on ultimate fidelity, because of the necessary multiple digital/analog conversion processes.

This effectively means that Apple’s entire current audio ecosystem is intrinsically hobbled as no matter how high the resolution of the music being streamed, Apple’s AAC over Bluetooth and AirPlay 2.0 streaming technologies will always down-sample lossless hi-res music files to the maximum resolution that they are capable of transmitting.

One further reason why HD music is overkill on mobile platforms like iPhones is bandwidth. The music files are massive and even with the advent of 5G technology they positively gobble up a user’s data allowance. Most people listening to music on an iPhone will probably be on a commute to work or working out at the gym. Ordinarily, there’s far too much extraneous noise to make the benefits of listening to HD music audible. Personally, the only time I’d demand high-resolution music would be when I knew I was going to be sitting down to listen to my high-end audio system at home, via good quality headphones or a great pair of speakers. 

I suspect the reason Apple has announced it’s now supporting high-resolution music streaming is mainly down to the way the market is moving. Serious music lovers and hi-fi enthusiasts probably wouldn’t touch Apple Music as there are already some excellent alternative streaming services for audiophiles, including TIDAL, Qobuz and Deezer. TIDAL is particularly attractive for streaming because many of its tracks are available in the MQA (Master Quality Authenticated) format which is high-resolution but offers the benefit of a smaller file size that only unfolds the higher resolution when used with an appropriately equipped device. 

There is another way that HD music can be accommodated on an iPhone and that’s by using an external DAC (Digital-to-Analog Converter) that plugs into an iPhone’s Lightning port. Recently, I looked at a few models from Helm AudioTHX and Astell&Kern. There are quite a few of these devices on the market and some even support MQA files. They are good solutions but undeniably they are a clunky way of getting around Apple’s restricted audio offering.

That the streaming market is moving towards lossless music is beyond question, especially now that the high-resolution Amazon Music HD is available free to all Amazon Music Unlimited subscribers.  That just leaves Spotify and Apple Music stuck in the – relatively – low-resolution lane.

While Apple’s refusal to adopt better quality audio codecs for streaming over Bluetooth has made any switch to lossless less than worthwhile up until now, it’s clear that Apple can now see itself getting left behind unless it starts upping its game. It needs to positively demonstrate that it is keeping abreast of developing technology. 

To some extent, I suspect the whole shift to high-resolution audio with Apple Music is really a marketing ploy intended to keep its subscribers happy. Many may be experiencing a fear of missing out now that most other streaming services are supporting some form of hi-res audio, albeit in order to up-sell their customers to a higher tier subscription.

However, there is one aspect of Apple’s announcement of the move to support lossless high resolution music that is noteworthy. The company is also adopting Dolby Atmos to bring a spatial quality experience to music. Apple Music isn’t the only streamer to adopt something similar, as a few of the other platforms have adopted Sony’s 360 Reality Audio. Spatial audio matters because for a generation brought up watching movies at home with 5.1 surround sound systems, the plain old vanilla stereo that’s been with us since the 1950s might be perceived as lacking the excitement of surround sound. 

And while Dolby Atmos was originally envisaged as a technology that primarily would improve the cinema and then home theatre listening experience, its extension to enhance music replay was always a likely progression. 

Certainly, the desire to add immersiveness to music is nothing new; in the early 1970s, several manufacturers developed quadrophonic systems to bring four-channel audio and a sense of excitement to the music. However, due to prohibitive costs and competing formats, quadrophonic sound never took off. Now, with Apple’s heft behind it, Dolby Atmos for music finally could be a chance for it to plant a new milepost on the journey towards higher-quality recorded sound. In the meantime, however, I believe Apple urgently needs to look at ways of updating its Bluetooth and Wi-Fi streaming technologies so that it can natively support higher resolution music formats. 

That’s why I think Apple is going to have to start being a little more open-minded when it comes to considering and adopting new technologies, and perhaps – sharp intake of breath – paying a license fee to use them.

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