If you are a paying Apple Music subscriber, you can now listen to lossless-quality audio tracks. As of early June 2021, Apple has started updating its entire Apple Music catalog in its new lossless audio codec, called Apple Lossless Audio Codec (ALAC), so that each track is lossless CD-quality audio (16-bit/44.1 kHz), which is four times (or more) the audio quality of the previous AAC audio tracks that you had been streaming. You can listen to even higher-resolution audio tracks (up to 24-bit/192 kHz), which Apple calls Hi-Res Lossless, too.
Apple is slowly rolling out this lossless update to Apple Music. Right now, there are 20 million tracks that are coded in its lossless audio format, but Apple plans to have its entire catalog (roughly 75 million audio tracks) available for lossless listening by the end of 2021. And "eventually" all these tracks will be available in the Hi-Res Lossless format, but Apple hasn't given us a more definite timeline on those.
In order to listen to these new lossless audio tracks, there are a couple things you need to know. First, the Apple device that you are streaming from has to be updated with the latest software (that means iOS 14.6, iPadOS 14.6, macOS 11.4 or tvOS 14.6). You also have to make to bump up the audio quality in Settings so that these lossless and high-resolution audio tracks are enabled.
To enable lossless streaming on your iPhone, iPad, Mac or Apple TV:
- Open the Settings app.
- Select Music.
- Select Audio Quality.
- Select between Lossless and Hi-Res Lossless.
Of course, it's not just about having updated software, subscribing to Apple Music and toggling a few settings on your Apple device — you need the right hardware that can actually play these lossless audio tracks. Unfortunately, Bluetooth speakers or headphones can not do it because lossless audio files are too big. So if you listen to any of Apple's (or Beats's) wireless earbuds and headphones, such as AirPods, AirPods Pro or AirPods Max, you won't be able experience lossless audio with them.
In order to listen to Apple Music's new lossless audio and actually hear the difference, need to have a wired connection or stream to a hi-fi system over Wi-Fi. Here's what you need to know.
Get a pair of wired headphones (and a DAC).
The simplest way to experience Apple Music's lossless audio tracks is through a wired connection. This means plugging a pair of wired hi-fi headphones directly into your iPhone or iPad — but there are a few things to know.
First, you need to use a pair of wired headphones that use a 3.5mm jack. This is problematic because most recent iPhones don't have a traditional headphone jack. Unfortunately, Apple's Lightning connection doesn't support lossless audio, which is why its AirPods Max (which uses a Lightning connection) can't play lossless audio tracks even when they're wired directly into your iPhone. So you'll also need Apple's Lightning-to-3.5mm adapter ($9) as well.
Apple's little dongle has a built-in DAC that supports lossless audio (up to 24-bit/48 kHz), which means it'll help you listen to the better quality audio, but not the best. To listen to the even higher-resolution audio tracks (up to 24-bit/192 kHz) that Apple Music now offers, you'll need a higher-quality DAC.
(Check out our guide to the best portable DAC/amps for your smartphone.)
Get a pair of powered speakers (for your Mac).
If you want to listen to Apple Music's lossless tracks on your Mac, you can plug your wired hi-fi headphones or a pair of powered computer speakers directly into your Mac — thankfully Apple hasn't gotten rid of the 3.5mm jack on any of its Macs. That said, you probably still want to get an external DAC.
Just like with iPhones, Apple's Macs can play the CD-quality audio files that Apple Music now offers but they aren't able to play higher-resolution lossless audio tracks without an external DAC. That said, we recommend buying an external DAC anyway because even if you don't plan on listening to these super high-resolution files, you'll definitely notice an improvement with an external DAC. And you don't have to buy an expensive one, either. There are great desktop DAC/amps for less than $200.
Get a HomePod or HomePod mini.
Neither of Apple's smart speakers can play lossless audio just yet. Apple has stated (via a support page) that the HomePod and HomePod mini can only play AAC audio files right now, but both will receive a software update that will give them support for ALAC and thus be able to play these new lossless audio files. Alas, there's no exact timeline for this software update right now, but we're crossing our fingers that it'll be "soon."
This advice is further compounded by the fact that Apple discontinued the HomePod earlier this year. Its rationale was that it would allow them to focus more energy towards the HomePod mini, which is smaller and more affordable, but it doesn't sound as good. And since the whole point of listening to lossless audio is sound quality, we'd definitely recommend the larger HomePod (which also supports Dolby Atmos).