Once upon a time lossless audio was a premium service that helped set music streaming services like Tidal apart from the competition… and helped justify higher prices. And by once upon a time, I mean as recently as yesterday.
But today two major players in the music streaming space have announced that lossless, high-fidelity audio would be available as part of their mainstream offering, with no additional cost.
Apple Music says Lossless Audio is one of several new features coming in June, while Amazon Music HD, which had previously been a higher-cost option for Amazon Music Unlimited customers, is now included in the basic Music Unlimited Plan.
That means Amazon customers can get access to songs mastered at up to 24-bits with sample rates as high as 192 kHz for $10 per month for individual customers ($8 for Amazon Prime members or $15 for a family plan). Previously you would have had to pay an extra $5 for “HD” audio.
Apple Music is similarly priced, at $10 for individuals, $15 for families, or $5 for students.
I suspect these announcements will pressure rivals including Tidal and Deezer who currently charge premium prices for HiFi/lossless streaming to lower their rates.
That said, there’s some debate over whether most people can tell the difference between audio that’s compressed to save space while streaming and lossless audio that’s sometimes called something like HiFi or HD.
NPR put out a quiz a few years ago if you want to see how well you can identify clips encoded using the highest-quality settings. If you can’t tell the difference, or don’t have the audio gear to truly make lossless audio stand out, then you might want to stick with standard-definition audio to conserve bandwidth if that’s even an option moving forward.
Apple isn’t stopping with lossless audio though. The company says Spatial Audio with support for Dolby Atmos sound technology is also coming to devices with hardware that can support the feature including iPhones,, iPads, Macs, AirPods, and Betas headphones. Maybe that’ll be something you can notice.
You know what doesn’t support Apple’s new Lossless Music though? The company’s most expensive headphones – the $549 Apple AirPods Max don’t support support the new features and will continue to use a Bluetooth AAC codec when streaming from Apple Music.
As a very mild audiophile who is trying to avoid slipping deeper into the hobby, I’m avoiding lossless audio for mobile use. I do listen to some high resolution FLAC rips of some of my favourite albums from time to time on my PC at home, using a very simple setup.
But I see no point to listening to lossless audio on my mobile devices. I’m not willing to carry around a USB DAC, and a pair of $300+ headphones for daily use. Doing this is just the beginning of spending thousands on edging out a 1% improvement in my music quality.
Thing is, most rave-reviewed $300+ headphones are overrated. Even the supposed best have these wild deviations from neutral (the raved HD 800 has a strongly veiled upper midrange, -5dB from 1 to 5 KHz! https://www.audiosciencereview.com/forum/index.php?threads/sennheiser-hd800s-review-headphone.18424/) that makes them totally not worth it. Head-Fi is full of deceptive marketing and the other “reformed” headphone user forums aren’t much better. The lengths that obsessive headphone users go to justify the tonal issues in their headphones is hilarious and most of the hype is flowery subjective bunk akin to wine connoisseurs. So, if you really want something worthwhile, Chi-Fi is where the innovation has been really happenin’ these days. Get a $60 pair of KZ ZAX’s and a $50 Tempotec Sonata HD Pro and you will have performance that surpasses the overhyped kilobuck summit-fi stuff.
To clear, the HD 800 has spectacular detail because they have such low distortion, but their frequency response is horrendous for a headphone of its price. So where you read me comparing it to the KZ ZAX, note that I am describing the detail extraction abilities, not tonality, which the ZAX does way better than it in my humble opinion.
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