Apple Music Classical's best feature is lost on Apple's headphones

Posted:
in General Discussion edited March 2023
Apple Music Classical is here, but if you want to listen to it at the maximum quality that the recording allows, you can't use Apple's headphones wirelessly. Here's why.




Apple Classical, a new branch of Apple Music launched in a separate iPhone app late on Monday. The service was created to give classical music aficionados a separate, richer experience from that of listening to classical and similar styles of music on the regular Apple Music app.

The service features a new search engine specifically for looking up specific classical performances, with additional search criteria -- such as "by conductor" -- not found in regular Apple Music. It comes at no extra charge for existing Apple Music subscribers.

In addition to the music itself, Apple Classical offers album walkthroughs via a feature called "Track to Track." Another bonus feature is commentary between tracks if desired by experts, called "The Story of Classical," to help new listeners learn more about classical music generally.

Apple Classical will also support spatial audio and Dolby Atmos, as well as Apple Music's existing options for high-bitrate and Apple's own lossless technology, known as ALAC -- Apple Lossless Audio Codec. High-bitrate, sometimes called "high-resolution" or "hi-rez" streaming audio, ranges from 16-bit/44.1kHz -- the quality of a CD disc -- up to 24-bit/192kHz.

The problem with Bluetooth

All that said, listeners using any of Apple's Bluetooth headphones can currently only hear the music in the high-quality but compressed, lossy Advanced Audio Codec -- also known as AAC, which drops below CD quality when transmitted to wireless headphones. Barring some surprise future announcement from Apple of support for a codec that delivers lossless sound over Bluetooth, or actually doing something with Bluetooth 5.3 on newer devices, Apple Classical will be best listened to on wired headphones.

The issue here lies squarely with the Bluetooth audio codecs. Only recently did Qualcomm release what it called a "lossless over Bluetooth" audio codec called AptX Adaptive. While it is possible to enable it on Macs, you can't use it on any of Apple's mobile devices.

AptX Adaptive is part of a confusing array of similar codecs promising support for lossless audio up to a point, and a handful of headphone makers now support it. However, reviews of AptX adaptive have been inconclusive -- with most reviewers reporting marginal improvements at best over AAC.

All generations of AirPods, AirPods Pro, and even AirPods Max when listening wirelessly, along with Beats wireless headphones, use Bluetooth. This means they can't give you truly lossless audio.

AirPods Pro are awesome, but not for lossless listening.
AirPods Pro are awesome, but not for lossless listening.


According to Apple, AirPods Max can reproduce lossless audio if you are using them in wired mode, but only with the $9 Lightning to 3.5mm Headphone Jack Adapter, but not with the $35 Lightning to 3.5mm Audio Cable. This is due to the quality of the analog-to-digital converter in the latter cable.

We should note, before going on, that testing has shown that only a small percentage of people -- mostly young people -- can actually tell the difference between high-bitrate AAC encoding, and the same audio in lossless. Nearly all adults have a modest level of hearing loss before they reach 30 years old, and it just goes downhill from there.

How to listen to lossless music on Apple Music or Apple Classical

While AAC is optimized to the point that you are unlikely to notice much if any difference, it is still not quite the same as truly lossless and high-bitrate audio. Those with exceptionally sharp hearing and expensive, top-quality "audiophile" speakers -- or high-quality wired headphones -- can more reliably tell the difference.

Since Apple Music's entire catalog is available in lossless, it can be listened to without compression using nearly any wired headphones, including Apple's wired Earbuds. You should note that Apple uses two different terms for lossless music: "Lossless," meaning up to 24-bit/48kHz, and "Hi-Res Lossless" for up to 24-bit/192kHz.

Lossless lovers should also be aware that streaming lossless or high-bitrate music over a data connection uses a lot more cellular data or Wi-Fi bandwidth than compressed audio like MP3 and M4A files, which is why AAC is used by default for Apple Music. If that's not a concern, you can turn on lossless delivery of Apple Music in the Music app.

To do this on an iPhone or iPad, go to Settings -> Music, tap Audio Quality, and turn on Lossless Audio. You can use the built-in speakers, powered speakers or receivers, or the built-in speakers -- up to 48kHz.

If you want to listen to music in Hi-Res Lossless on an iPhone or iPad, you will need an external analog-to-digital converter. You can also stream lossless music to your HomePod or HomePod mini from Apple Music using AirPlay by tapping the Home button -> your name -> Apple Music, and then turn Lossless Audio on.

For Macs, you need a wired connection to headphones, receivers, the built-in speakers or wired powered speakers. The 14-inch and 16-inch MacBook Pro support native playback at sample rates up to 96kHz, but other Macs will need a digital-to-analog converter for anything over 48kHz.

Likewise, the Apple TV 4K only supports lossless audio up to 24-bit/48kHz. You can ensure this is on by going to Settings -> Apps, select Music, select Audio Quality, and turn on Lossless.

If you are listening to Apple Music on an Android device, you can turn on lossless in the app by tapping the three-dots More button -> Settings -> Audio Quality. Again, you may need an analog-to-digital converter for higher than 24-bit/48kHz.

Read on AppleInsider

Comments

  • Reply 1 of 20
    thedbathedba Posts: 758member
    Most Audiophiles who care about these things will not be listening through your common run of the mill, Airpods or Sonys or Bose headphones.

    They’re more likely to go with
    Focal Bathys: $799
    B&W PX8: $699
    Mark Levinson 5909: $999

    And the above three are just the wireless “but can also do wired”, options.
    When you start getting into the wired options, then all of the above prices look like bargain basement.
    dewmesdw2001StrangeDays
  • Reply 2 of 20
    For some reason connecting my AudioTechnica M50x (DJ headphones of choice) sounds absolutely epic on my 16" MacBook Pro - way better than using them on the iPhone. Even though they're not classified high impendance ... not sure why. I guess it's analog and the MBP M1 has more power on that port. 

    Wireless headphones are slick but the sound is just very bad. I get a headache from my airpods, so while in theory they are a perfect product, in practice, they are damaging my health and that's not worth the convenience.
  • Reply 3 of 20
    jamnapjamnap Posts: 82member
    Very interesting and informative review! Thanks AI.
    dewmeradarthekatneoncatwilliamlondon
  • Reply 4 of 20
    So you made a story, of something that already was, because Apple gave us Classical?
    Literally the only new thing here is Apple's new Classical option.
    williamlondon
  • Reply 5 of 20
    thedba said:
    Most Audiophiles who care about these things will not be listening through your common run of the mill, Airpods or Sonys or Bose headphones.

    They’re more likely to go with
    Focal Bathys: $799
    B&W PX8: $699
    Mark Levinson 5909: $999

    And the above three are just the wireless “but can also do wired”, options.
    When you start getting into the wired options, then all of the above prices look like bargain basement.
    So the 'Best Feature" is one where very few people can discern the difference and it doesn't work on headphones that aren't up to discerning the differences on anyway. I think AI need to think again on what the best feature might be. Like being able to find what you want, see the information clearly etc. Basically everything else.
    StrangeDays
  • Reply 6 of 20
    dewmedewme Posts: 5,274member
    Perhaps this will inspire Apple to up its specs on the next gen AirPods Max and possibly AirPods Pros. 

    Apple definitely has some price headroom in this market because its highest priced headphones are still more than a hundred dollars less than the lower end of the audiophile range, like the well reviewed Focal Bathys. 
    Alex1Nchasm
  • Reply 7 of 20
    I am assuming anyone into this feature is already going to have a really nice set of open back headphones and a quiet room to listen to them in.  I personally can't tell the difference past a certain bitrate, I have listened to lossless on a mid-high end set of open back headphones and could not tell a difference, but audiophiles swear by it.
  • Reply 8 of 20
    maltzmaltz Posts: 448member
    Bluetooth audio for speakers/headphones has never been great, but it's often good enough.  Bluetooth audio with headsets/speakerphones/etc, with two-way audio, is HORRIBLE, even just for voice.  This is why many wireless headsets come with proprietary dongles that improve the situation, even if they're capable of straight Bluetooth.  I have no idea why the Bluetooth powers that be have allowed that situation to persist as long as it has.
    Alex1N
  • Reply 9 of 20
    The real story is why Apple is only releasing Apple Music Classical as an iPhone only app! Are you kidding me? On an iPad, it runs as a narrow iPhone app. So I guess the world's richest company doesn't have enough resources to even make an iPad app, much less one that can also run on a Mac. I mean, they had 2 years. What's going on?

    Of all the Apple platforms for listening to high res classical music, the Mac and the iPad and even the TV should be a priority. The iPhone would be the last place.
    williamlondonAlex1N
  • Reply 10 of 20
    sphericspheric Posts: 2,529member
    maltz said:
    Bluetooth audio for speakers/headphones has never been great, but it's often good enough.  Bluetooth audio with headsets/speakerphones/etc, with two-way audio, is HORRIBLE, even just for voice.  This is why many wireless headsets come with proprietary dongles that improve the situation, even if they're capable of straight Bluetooth.  I have no idea why the Bluetooth powers that be have allowed that situation to persist as long as it has.
    Get a better headset. The quality is directly dependent upon which codec the manufacturer has implemented, and it varies tremendously between codecs. 
    Alex1N
  • Reply 11 of 20
    sdw2001sdw2001 Posts: 18,012member
    spheric said:
    maltz said:
    Bluetooth audio for speakers/headphones has never been great, but it's often good enough.  Bluetooth audio with headsets/speakerphones/etc, with two-way audio, is HORRIBLE, even just for voice.  This is why many wireless headsets come with proprietary dongles that improve the situation, even if they're capable of straight Bluetooth.  I have no idea why the Bluetooth powers that be have allowed that situation to persist as long as it has.
    Get a better headset. The quality is directly dependent upon which codec the manufacturer has implemented, and it varies tremendously between codecs. 

    It varies widely, but it's typically price-dependent. At a certain point, Bluetooth isn't going to get better, no matter what codec.  You're still transmitting digital information over wireless.  


    Alex1N
  • Reply 12 of 20
    sdw2001sdw2001 Posts: 18,012member
    This article is somewhat off-base in my view.  I'm a classically-trained musician, FYI.  

    The reason I say "off base" is that while it's true you can't listen to "lossless" format audio over AirPods, there is almost no one who can hear the difference.  The same applies to this claim:  

    ....which drops below CD quality when transmitted to wireless headphones

    I'd be interested in the technical support for that comment.  And even if technically true, I find it hard to believe that almost any listener can tell the difference between a high quality AAC recording and a CD recording on the same equipment (AirPods).  Now, you will find people who can hear the difference on Hi-Fi equipment (e.g. loudspeakers or reference-quality wired headphones).  

    I know for a fact that I have a sensitive ear when it comes to quality.  I can typically hear the difference between compression rates, formats, digital v. analog recordings, etc.  For example, I cannot stand satellite radio with its advertised "near CD quality" audio because the compression drives me nuts.  Having said that, I doubt I could distinguish between lossless vs. high quality lossy formats (all other factors being equal) on AirPods.   

    Moreover, the features of AirPods and Apple Music enhance the audio to such a degree that it will be excellent for probably 99% of users, regardless of codec.  So what about the 1%, you ask?  That's the entire point.  Anyone who claims to be that sensitive and discerning is not going to be listening on AirPods at all.  In fact, I'd argue that anyone with that level of discernment will not be listening to classical music on digital formats at all.  We are talking about people who turn their noses up at uncompressed CD audio because of the sample rate.  These are folks who, if anything, listen to DVD-A format on $25,000+ systems...and that's if they have to.  Hi-Fi folks I've encountered prefer laser-guided turntables.  They won't even use integrated receivers.  They spend a lot of time arguing about analog vs. digital, distortion, and double-blind studies. :smile: 




    williamlondonAlex1Navon b7
  • Reply 13 of 20
    charlesncharlesn Posts: 772member
    <<< According to Apple, AirPods Max can reproduce lossless audio if you are using them in wired mode, but only with the $9 Lightning to 3.5mm Headphone Jack Adapter, but not with the $35 Lightning to 3.5mm Audio Cable. This is due to the quality of the analog-to-digital converter in the latter cable. >>>

    I own the AirPods Max and this is incorrect--it is certainly not what Apple says via the link that's provided. The $9 Lightning to 3.5mm Headphone Jack Adapter provides unidirectional conversion of the iPhone's digital signal at its Lightning port to an analog signal at the 3.5mm female plug. And yes, if you have enabled lossless music on your iPhone, the $9 adapter will convert a lossless digital signal into a lossless analog signal, which will give you lossless listening on wired analog headphones OR wireless bluetooth headphones that are analog-capable when used in a wired mode. This is the essence of what Apple says. 

    Unfortunately, AirPods Max are NOT analog capable in any mode. It is only digital capable at its Lightning input. If you plug into a lossless analog source with the $35 Lightning to 3.5mm cable, the D/A converter within the cable will convert that lossless analog signal into a lossy digital signal that the AirPods Max is capable of playing. But what about using the $9 adapter? Well, if you use that out of your iPhone, then plug the $35 cable into it, there's no difference: you still end up with a lossy digital signal at the APM Lightning input. BUT... what about if you plug the Lightning end of the $9 adapter into the APM, then use a male/male 3.5mm cable to connect the $9 adapter into a lossless analog source? Since we know the adapter can convert a lossless digital signal into lossless analog, shouldn't this work in reverse? No. The adapter is unidirectional. Digital to analog and not the other way around. So no signal is sent to the APM.

    And THAT is the biggest disappointment of Apple's $550 AirPods Max--even in wired mode, it is incapable of playing back lossless audio. 
    dewmesphericAlex1N
  • Reply 14 of 20
    AppleishAppleish Posts: 681member
    For some reason connecting my AudioTechnica M50x (DJ headphones of choice) sounds absolutely epic on my 16" MacBook Pro - way better than using them on the iPhone. Even though they're not classified high impendance ... not sure why. I guess it's analog and the MBP M1 has more power on that port. 

    Wireless headphones are slick but the sound is just very bad. I get a headache from my airpods, so while in theory they are a perfect product, in practice, they are damaging my health and that's not worth the convenience.
    Starting with the 2021 Apple Silicon MacBook Pros, Apple really upped the game with the DAC capabilities of the headphone port. Before I got my 16-inch M1 Max, I used an external USB DAC. That became unnecessary, at least for me.
    Alex1N
  • Reply 15 of 20
    maltzmaltz Posts: 448member
    spheric said:
    maltz said:
    Bluetooth audio for speakers/headphones has never been great, but it's often good enough.  Bluetooth audio with headsets/speakerphones/etc, with two-way audio, is HORRIBLE, even just for voice.  This is why many wireless headsets come with proprietary dongles that improve the situation, even if they're capable of straight Bluetooth.  I have no idea why the Bluetooth powers that be have allowed that situation to persist as long as it has.
    Get a better headset. The quality is directly dependent upon which codec the manufacturer has implemented, and it varies tremendously between codecs. 

    Using stock Bluetooth, it's not possible to select a decent codec for two-way audio.  When you're using AirPods with an Apple device, they use some slightly proprietary secret sauce to make the audio sound decent - just like my Plantronics headset does with its dongle - which sounds great when using the dongle or when using them as headphones, but the second two-way audio is turned on without the dongle, they sound like shit.  Try using your AirPods with an Android phone or a Windows machine and see how great they sound then.

    Here's a reddit thread from a few months ago discussing it.

    There's even an Apple support article.

    dewmechasmAlex1N
  • Reply 16 of 20
    StrangeDaysStrangeDays Posts: 12,788member
    sdw2001 said:
    spheric said:
    maltz said:
    Bluetooth audio for speakers/headphones has never been great, but it's often good enough.  Bluetooth audio with headsets/speakerphones/etc, with two-way audio, is HORRIBLE, even just for voice.  This is why many wireless headsets come with proprietary dongles that improve the situation, even if they're capable of straight Bluetooth.  I have no idea why the Bluetooth powers that be have allowed that situation to persist as long as it has.
    Get a better headset. The quality is directly dependent upon which codec the manufacturer has implemented, and it varies tremendously between codecs. 
    It varies widely, but it's typically price-dependent. At a certain point, Bluetooth isn't going to get better, no matter what codec.  You're still transmitting digital information over wireless.  
    I believe the issue isn’t that it’s wireless, it’s that it’s Bluetooth, which has less bandwidth than, say. wi-fi. 
    chasmAlex1Nsdw2001
  • Reply 17 of 20
    charlesncharlesn Posts: 772member
    It varies widely, but it's typically price-dependent. At a certain point, Bluetooth isn't going to get better, no matter what codec.  You're still transmitting digital information over wireless.  
    I believe the issue isn’t that it’s wireless, it’s that it’s Bluetooth, which has less bandwidth than, say. wi-fi. 
    Exactly right. Lossless over wifi is no problem, except that wifi is too power hungry for use by battery-powered headphone and earpods. That said, it's possible we'll see more energy-efficient wifi solutions before we figure out how to transmit lossless over Bluetooth bandwidth. 
    chasmAlex1N
  • Reply 18 of 20
    sdw2001sdw2001 Posts: 18,012member
    sdw2001 said:
    spheric said:
    maltz said:
    Bluetooth audio for speakers/headphones has never been great, but it's often good enough.  Bluetooth audio with headsets/speakerphones/etc, with two-way audio, is HORRIBLE, even just for voice.  This is why many wireless headsets come with proprietary dongles that improve the situation, even if they're capable of straight Bluetooth.  I have no idea why the Bluetooth powers that be have allowed that situation to persist as long as it has.
    Get a better headset. The quality is directly dependent upon which codec the manufacturer has implemented, and it varies tremendously between codecs. 
    It varies widely, but it's typically price-dependent. At a certain point, Bluetooth isn't going to get better, no matter what codec.  You're still transmitting digital information over wireless.  
    I believe the issue isn’t that it’s wireless, it’s that it’s Bluetooth, which has less bandwidth than, say. wi-fi. 
    That's good point....thanks for clarifying.  
  • Reply 19 of 20
    trydtryd Posts: 143member
    I would love to use Apple Classical, but why release it for iPhone only? That makes it useless for me. Searching and scrolling on that tiny screen is beyond annoying! I have a stereo in the 50 000$+ bracket (including a streamer), and listen almost exclusively to classical music, but using an iPhone for looking up and playing music is so frustrating. Why could they not at least make an iPad-version. For streaming classical music they are steering me to streaming.prestomusic.com

    Or I must keep on buying CDs (I have given up on vinyl long ago - too much hassle).
  • Reply 20 of 20
    chasmchasm Posts: 3,229member
    To answer those who don't know why the app only came out for iPhone on initial release -- take a look at the sales figures for iPhones compared to iPads and Macs, and see if you can figure it out. :smile: 

    I have great confidence that Apple Music Classical will become available for Mac and Apple TV (what a treat for us HomePod owners!) and yes, even the iPad in due course. I don't know this for a fact, but Apple is well aware that many people listen to classical music at home, where they can control the ambient noise level.

    As for why it's taken two years ... you'll understand once you see the size of the catalog, and try the search system (which will continue to evolve). I think Apple went down a rabbit hole when it decided to attempt to amass every classical recording possible, including thousands (at least) that have never been issued on CD, plus some of the "other" music in Apple Classical, like the movie soundtracks, big band, et al. And can you imagine the rights issues with the various entities? That must have been a nightmare!

    Not to mention vastly rewriting the Apple Music search system to accommodate the special needs of classical enthusiasts ... to me two years seems fast, given all that.

    Best of all, now that they've done this, they know how to do the same for my hoped-for Apple Music Jazz app! :smile: 
Sign In or Register to comment.