How to Listen to Lossless and Dolby Atmos on Apple Music

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Apple Music is adding spatial audio support with Dolby Atmos Music, plus lossless tracks at up to 24-bit/192kHz, and all subscribers will get access without paying an extra dime.

That sounds like a sweet deal, right? So long as you have the right equipment to actually make use of that improved audio quality, then sure, your ears should feel the serenade. But it may not be quite as simple as grabbing your existing headphones or earbuds — there are a few caveats that go with all the new sonic goodness.

Here’s what you’ll need to take advantage of lossless audio and Dolby Atmos tracks in Apple Music. If you don’t want the full explanation and just need to know what your current hardware can handle, scroll straight to the bottom for a cheat sheet.

Lossless: It’s all about ALAC

ALAC, or Apple Lossless Audio Codec, is the file format Apple Music will use to stream lossless audio tracks. Unlike the Advanced Audio Coding (AAC) codec that Apple Music uses for its standard (lossy) audio quality, which enjoys wide compatibility among wireless headphones, speakers, and streaming devices, ALAC has some special requirements.

Most devices that can run the Apple Music app — including all current Apple iPhones, iPads, and Macs running the latest software — will support lossless ALAC audio. But just because your phone or computer can work with ALAC doesn’t mean you’ll be able to actually hear the extra quality ALAC offers through your normal speakers or headphones.

Let’s break it down so you can see if your current gear will work or if you’ll need to make some additional investments.

Listening to lossless via headphones

Focal Celestee Headphones
Dan Baker/Digital Trends

Apple Music’s lossless audio comes in three tiers: 16-bit/44.1kHz, 24-bit/48kHz, and 24-bit/192kHz. What’s the difference? Well, the first tier (16-bit/44.1kHz) is considered CD-quality, which means you shouldn’t be able to tell the difference between listening to these tracks and listening to an actual CD. The next two tiers are considered better-than-CD quality. Not everyone agrees that they can hear the subtle improvements these tiers offer, but since other streaming services have started to offer them, Apple has decided to follow suit.

Regardless of the tier you choose, most wireless headphones and earbuds won’t let you hear that extra quality. Bluetooth (the technology all wireless headphones use) doesn’t have enough bandwidth to support streaming lossless audio.

This isn’t necessarily a black-and-white issue. Some wireless headphones (like Sony’s WH-1000XM4) support very high-quality Bluetooth codecs like LDAC or aptX HD. When paired with a phone that also supports these codecs, you’ll get to hear more of Apple’s lossless quality, but even then, it won’t be perfect. Even the best Bluetooth codecs still strip out some audio info as they pass the signal along to the headphones.

Unfortunately, Apple’s own devices and wireless headphones don’t support these codecs, so even if you own a set of AirPods Max headphones, most of that lossless quality will be compromised.

So, how exactly are you supposed to hear Apple Music’s lossless audio?

For now, Apple recommends that you use a wired set of headphones or earbuds, something that isn’t so easy now that Apple, Google, and Samsung have eliminated the headphone jack on their phones.

Don’t worry — you’re not going to be left out of the lossless party, but you will need an accessory or two, the most important of which is an external DAC.

Attack of the DAC

You may not realize it, but if you’ve ever listened to digital audio from a phone, tablet, or PC, you’ve been using a digital-to-analog converter, better known as a DAC.

DACs convert a bunch of ones and zeroes into an electrical signal that speakers can reproduce as audible sound. Ever listened to music using your phone’s built-in speakers? It was the phone’s internal DAC that handled the conversion.

While virtually every device that is capable of playing digital audio possesses a DAC, not all DACs are created equal. Some are limited as to the kinds of digital audio they can process, and there can be huge differences in overall sound quality from one DAC to another. DAC specifications are the kind of thing that audiophiles love to argue about.

If you head over to Amazon and search for “lightning-to-3.5mm adapter,” you’ll find dozens of short cables that cost anywhere from $7 to $35. These tiny accessories let you plug a wired set of headphones into an iPhone’s Lightning port because hidden inside their plastic housing is a DAC.

The DACs in these “made for iPhone” adapters share a common trait: They can convert lossless digital audio files into analog signals, but they can only handle up to 24-bit/48kHz and no higher. That’s sufficient for you to hear the first two tiers of lossless audio from Apple Music, but it won’t get you the third and highest quality level (24-bit/192kHz).

Android users, you can get in on the adapter party, too. There are just as many USB-C-to-3.5mm adapters out there, and these DACs can usually go a little higher in their support for lossless audio — up to 24-bit/96Khz. That’s still not going to cut it for Apple Music’s top lossless tier, but you’ll definitely get to enjoy lossless music.

For most iPhone and Android owners, the only way to experience Apple Music’s top lossless tier is through the use of an external, hi-res DAC. These devices are essentially the same as the Lightning or USB-C adapters, but they contain more powerful DAC chipsets that can handle digital audio formats as high as 24-bit/192kHz and beyond.

There’s a wide variety of external hi-res DACs ranging in price from $50 to well over $2,000. For the most convenient and portable solution, look for products that can be powered from either an iPhone’s Lightning port or an Android phone’s USB-C port. These include Astell & Kern’s USB-C Dual DAC, Linsoul xDuoo Link, Maktar Spectra X2, and THX Onyx Portable DAC.

Some Android owners will get to sidestep the whole adapter/external DAC hassle because select Android phones have both a headphone jack and a very high-quality internal DAC. The LG V60 ThinQ and the Asus ROG Phone 5, for instance, both have DACs capable of playing up to 32-bit/384kHz — more than enough to handle Apple Music’s top lossless tier. If you own a phone with these features, you don’t need anything else. Just plug your cans or buds straight into the phone, and that’s it.

One thing to keep in mind: Just because you own a phone or tablet with a headphone jack doesn’t mean the device’s internal DAC can keep up with all of Apple Music’s lossless tiers. The iPhone 6, for instance, had a headphone jack, but Apple limited the DAC to 16-bit/44.1kHz. That’ll work with the first tier (CD-quality) but not the other two tiers. If you’re not sure what your phone can support, Google the specs. GSMArena.com is a great resource for this.

Hi-res headphones

We’re now venturing into heavy audiophile territory, but we’d be remiss if we didn’t mention that some wired headphones and earbuds are considered “hi-res” capable, while others are not.

The difference between these so-called hi-res products and non-hi-res products is the frequency range they’re capable of reproducing. Technically speaking, only the frequencies between 20Hz and 20kHz are audible to the human ear, and this is what the vast majority of headphones are designed to work with.

But hi-res headphones go further, offering up to 40kHz or even higher. Is there any point to these headphones? All other things being equal, audiophiles would say yes. Losslessly encoded music at 24-bit/96kHz or higher can contain audio information that resides above the 20kHz threshold. So if you’re in pursuit of Apple Music’s top lossless tier and want to be certain that every ounce of that extra detail will make it to your ears (whether you can actually hear that detail or not), hi-res headphones (along with a very high-quality DAC) are required.

But given that all things rarely are equal, we’d argue that you will be much happier with a set of wired cans or earbuds that have exceptional performance within the 20Hz-20kHz range over an inferior set of cans that promise to reproduce those extra-high frequencies.

Listening on your connected speakers

Bluetooth speakers will never be able to join in on the lossless audio party for the same reason as Bluetooth headphones and earbuds. But Wi-Fi speakers are a different story thanks to their higher-bandwidth wireless connections.

Apple’s HomePod and HomePod Mini weren’t part of the initial Apple Music lossless audio announcement, but the company has since said that a software update will bring them into the loop to support lossless playback. When that happens, you can expect to hear 16-bit/44.1kHz and 24-bit/48kHz lossless audio, but 24-bit-/192kHz is unlikely to ever make it to these products.

Other Wi-Fi speakers will likely support some tiers of lossless audio from Apple Music but not necessarily all three tiers.

Sonos, for instance, recently added support for lossless audio up to 24-bit/48kHz when streaming to its speakers from the Qobuz streaming music service. It would make sense if these speakers could support the same tier from Apple Music.

But none of Sonos’ products are currently considered hi-res capable, so it’s unlikely they will ever support 24-bit/192kHz.

Other Wi-Fi speakers from companies like Denon and Bluesound are considered hi-res devices. They can natively decode 24-bit/192kHz digital audio from personal libraries as well as services like Amazon Music HD and Tidal. Will these products gain access to Apple Music’s top tier?

As long as they’re allowed to stream directly from Apple Music, the answer is likely yes. However not all hi-res capable Wi-Fi speakers can claim this. Both Denon and Bluesound lack native Apple Music support. To hear Apple Music via these products, you’ll need to use Apple AirPlay, which is currently limited to 16-bit/44.1kHz but might be upgraded to allow 24-bit/48kHz. AirPlay probably won’t go as high as 24-bit/192kHz.

If you own a great set of powered bookshelf speakers and don’t mind a few extra cables here and there, you can plug them into a Mac (or an iPhone or Android device) with an external DAC connected between them. Depending on the DAC and the speakers, this setup should let you hear full lossless audio from Apple Music.

Turn the feature on

Apple won’t necessarily have lossless on by default because of how much data hi-res tracks need when streaming from Apple Music servers. To turn it on, go to Settings > Music > Audio Quality. When you toggle Lossless on, you also have the option to adjust the quality. You can go to the standard lossless resolution at 24-bit/48kHz or hi-res lossless at 24-bit/192kHz.

Dolby Atmos and Spatial Audio

Dolby Atmos Music offers a more immersive, 3D way to listen to music. Thousands of tracks on the Apple Music library will get the Dolby Atmos treatment via Apple’s support of spatial audio.

If you have an iPhone or Android phone and a set of headphones — yes, even wireless ones — you’ve already got everything you need to experience Dolby Atmos Music.

If you’re using AirPods or Beats headphones with an H1 or W1 chip, Atmos versions of your selected tracks will be chosen by default. For other kinds of headphones, you may have to select Atmos manually: Go to Settings > Music > Audio and set Dolby Atmos to Always On.

Atmos will also work automatically on the built-in speakers for select iPhone, iPad, and Mac computers. Support for this is a bit uneven. For example, the MacBook Pro and MacBook Air from 2018 and later support it, whereas the 2019 iMac does not. Any iPhone 12, 11, and XS model works with it, along with iPad Pro models starting in 2018. The later your device, the more likely it can work with Atmos.

You can also hear Dolby Atmos from Apple Music if you own an Atmos-capable soundbar or A/V receiver, but you will need an Apple TV 4K to act as the arbiter. The Atmos signal will pass through Apple’s set-top box and play through the receiver or soundbar that way.

Some TVs can passthrough Dolby Atmos via their HDMI ARC or eARC connection. If your TV is among them, you can connect the Apple TV 4K to one of your TV’s non-ARC HDMI ports, and the TV will transfer just the audio to your connected audio gear.

We know that Apple’s HomePod can do Dolby Atmos when you have two of these speakers paired to an Apple TV 4K in a home theater setup, but Apple has yet to confirm if you’ll be able to stream Dolby Atmos Music tracks directly from Apple Music without the help of an Apple TV 4K.

The HomePod mini can’t do Dolby Atmos in an Apple TV 4K-based home theater setup, which makes us suspect it won’t be able to support Dolby Atmos Music in any configuration.

Your best bet for Dolby Atmos Music outside of the HomePod or a dedicated home theater speaker system is Amazon’s Echo Studio. It can stream Dolby Atmos Music from Amazon Music HD, which means it should theoretically be able to do the same from Apple Music, but this has yet to be confirmed by either Apple or Amazon.

Apple Music playback format cheat sheet

Catch all that? If not, here’s a quick look at different hardware combinations and how they affect what you can hear.

iPhone with wireless earbuds

  • Lossless 16-bit/44.1kHz: No
  • Lossless 24-bit/48kHz: No
  • Lossless 24-bit/192kHz: No
  • Dolby Atmos Music: Yes

iPhone with wireless headphones

  • Lossless 16-bit/44.1kHz: No
  • Lossless 24-bit/48kHz: No
  • Lossless 24-bit/192kHz: No
  • Dolby Atmos Music: Yes

iPhone with wired earbuds/headphones and Lightning adapter

  • Lossless 16-bit/44.1kHz: Yes
  • Lossless 24-bit/48kHz: Yes
  • Lossless 24-bit/192kHz: No
  • Dolby Atmos Music: Yes

iPhone with wired earbuds/headphones and hi-res external DAC

  • Lossless 16-bit/44.1kHz: Yes
  • Lossless 24-bit/48kHz: Yes
  • Lossless 24-bit/192kHz: Yes
  • Dolby Atmos Music: Yes

Android phone with wired earbuds/headphones and hi-res internal DAC

  • Lossless 16-bit/44.1kHz: Yes
  • Lossless 24-bit/48kHz: Yes
  • Lossless 24-bit/192kHz: Yes
  • Dolby Atmos Music: Yes

Android phone with wired earbuds/headphones and USB-C adapter

  • Lossless 16-bit/44.1kHz: Yes
  • Lossless 24-bit/48kHz: Yes
  • Lossless 24-bit/192kHz: No
  • Dolby Atmos Music: Yes

Android phone with wired earbuds/headphones and hi-res external DAC

  • Lossless 16-bit/44.1kHz: Yes
  • Lossless 24-bit/48kHz: Yes
  • Lossless 24-bit/192kHz: Yes
  • Dolby Atmos Music: Yes

Android phone with regular wireless earbuds or headphones

  • Lossless 16-bit/44.1kHz: No
  • Lossless 24-bit/48kHz: No
  • Lossless 24-bit/192kHz: No
  • Dolby Atmos Music: Yes

Android phone with aptX HD- or LDAC-capable wireless earbuds or headphones

  • Lossless 16-bit/44.1kHz: Yes*
  • Lossless 24-bit/48kHz: Yes*
  • Lossless 24-bit/192kHz: Yes*
  • Dolby Atmos Music: Yes

iPhone or Android phone with a Bluetooth speaker

  • Lossless 16-bit/44.1kHz: No
  • Lossless 24-bit/48kHz: No
  • Lossless 24-bit/192kHz: No
  • Dolby Atmos Music: No

Lossless-capable Wi-Fi speaker

  • Lossless 16-bit/44.1kHz: Yes
  • Lossless 24-bit/48kHz: Yes
  • Lossless 24-bit/192kHz: No
  • Dolby Atmos Music: No

Hi-res lossless-capable Wi-Fi speaker

  • Lossless 16-bit/44.1kHz: Yes
  • Lossless 24-bit/48kHz: Yes
  • Lossless 24-bit/192kHz: Yes
  • Dolby Atmos Music: No

*You won’t get a fully lossless signal, but much more of the detail will be preserved than with non-aptX HD- or LDAC-capable wireless earbuds/headphones.

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