Apple Launches Lossless Streaming

Original Story by Aaron J. Sams with Brad Hood (2021-06-08)

In the early hours of June 8, Apple rolled out their new lossless program on Apple Music. Although Apple Music has been around for a while, the tracks you would hear through the streaming service were the equivalent of a 256kbps compressed file. Until now. Now true lossless files are being offered instead, meaning you can now stream at CD quality or above. Other services such as Tidal, Deezer and Qobuz have offered lossless streaming in the past, and now Apple has joined them.

This is for their Apple Music service only, it does not affect their iTunes store, where files are still maxed out at 256kbps for downloaded tracks. If you want to hear tracks in lossless, you’ll need to be an Apple Music subscriber.

What does that mean for their U2 catalog?

The tracks that were not labeled as Apple Digital Masters such as deluxe versions of Boy and October, and many of U2’s singles are streaming at 16-bit and 44.1kHz. That’s the equivalent CD quality available through Apple Music. Tracks that were part of the Apple Digital Masters program are now streaming at 24-bit and 44.1kHz including the remastered versions of Zooropa and Rattle and Hum. Of special interest is Rattle and Hum as the version available on Apple Music is a remaster, done in 2017, and only made available through iTunes and Apple Music. The remastering of the album was done under the direction of The Edge, with engineering done by Scott Sedillo. Until now, it was only available in a compressed version through Apple. Last night’s launch of Apple Music Lossless means it is the first time that this remaster is available at the higher quality.

Apple also introduced Spatial Audio last night. These tracks allow artists to mix songs differently using Dolby Atmos so users will hear music from all around and above and below and not just from two sides. None of the U2 material on Apple Music is available in this format at this time. Both the Spatial Audio tracks and the Lossless Audio are available to Apple Music Subscribers without an additional subscription fee. Other services offering lossless music often charge an additional fee to access these tracks over their base subscription price.

For those wondering what the difference is you need to understand a bit about the technology that allowed the mp3 and other compressed formats to exist. When these small audio files are made, the sound is analyzed, and it removes the very high and low frequencies of the track, allowing for a much smaller file format. But sound is removed to make these smaller files. But these frequencies are the ones that the human ear has trouble hearing, so for many, the difference is unnoticeable and the smaller file has been “good enough”. Now with file space being less of a concern than it was 25 years ago, companies are moving to retaining that audio information, and are using “lossless” audio as a way to entice audiophiles to check out their services. Be warned, if you do start to use the lossless format for streaming, you will be streaming larger sized files and will see an increase in your data usage.

We also mention higher resolution audio, i.e. greater than CD quality. CD quality is limited to 16-bit and 44.1kHz audio. That’s the standard for audio discs. But files can have higher qualities than that. 44.1kHz is the sampling rate, which means audio is recorded by sampling it 44100 times in one second. But one can record and sample more frequently, and Apple is offering files at 48kHz, and up to 192kHz. More samples of an audio stream, means more information is being recorded each second, and you get a more accurate picture of the original recording. The other number is bit depth. You sample 44100 times, and the 16-bit is how much information is taken in each of those samples. 16-bit is the CD standard. Apple is now offering tracks up to 24-bit. Can you hear the difference? That’s still being debated in most corners of the internet. But it’s nice to know you have the fullest range of music that the artist recorded if your ears can pick it up. But if you are just listening on an low end speaker, chances are you won’t hear those differences.

In response to Apple’s announcement, Amazon has said they will do away with higher charges on lossless audio on their streaming services. Spotify is also said to be readying their launch of a lossless audio version of their service.

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