Thoughts: Apple Music Lossless, Dolby Atmos/Spatial Audio

I am in no way an audiophile and can’t articulate the difference in audio nuances. I listen to vinyl and I have a Technics SLQ 300 and a Rega P2 turntable with both using below $100 needle and an amp/speaker below $500. While I will not claim that vinyl has superior audio quality (it’s not), I enjoy the warmer sound it offers and it allows me to just sit and listen to the music. I am usually on my desk, and I listen to Apple Music on my MacBook Pro with Grado SR325e headphones. Sometimes, I use my wireless Grado GW100 when I wanted to be able to move around. I use my Airpods to listen to music when I’m outside.

I am excited about Apple Music Lossless & Spatial Audio but I wanted to share my thoughts and want to hear what others think of the recent significant upgrade to Apple Music. Maybe someone else can share their thoughts and setup. For this post, I will share my thoughts using headphones only.

My audio gear:
Airpods (1st gen)
Grado SR325e ($300) - wired and considered as a beginner audiophile headphones
Grado GW100 ($250) - wireless Bluetooth (can also be wired) with drivers that one notch below the Grado SR325
Audio Technica ATH-M20X ($30-$50) - wired monitoring headphone which I use for podcast recording and mixing

Note: I tested Lossless by changing settings. I also A/B tested with the same iTunes purchased song (downloaded) and a Lossless Apple Music song (downloaded) just to make sure that I’m not listening to a cached song.

Using AirPods with Spatial Audio:
better sound experience than the vanilla output when turned on. It has improved the AirPods as a listening device with Spatial Audio (Dolby Atmos). I think more people would appreciate this setup with their iPhone.

Grado GW100 with Spatial Audio connected through BlueTooth:
brighter and louder with added hum from too much treble and bass. Will keep this turned off when using this headphone.

Grado SR325e with Spatial audio (wired):
Connected to the iPad Pro with a dongle. I tried it with my 16" MBP but no way to check if Dolby Atmos is turned on or not (I toggle on/off but it doesn’t switch compared to when testing Apple Music on the iPad Pro.) I tried turning it off on the settings but there was no difference on my MacBook Pro. On the iPad Pro, better sound output compared to Grado GW1000. I hear more details and I can notice the Spatial audio with this setup. Soundstage is also more noticeable.

Grado SR325e with Lossless (CD quality) with a Macbook Pro:
Hard to tell the difference between High Quality and Lossless. There are added details to some of my fave songs that I didn’t notice back then but not mind-blowing enough.

Audio Technica ATH-M20X wired connected to a dongle on the iPad Pro using Spatial Audio:
a bit muddled, sometimes the vocal is underpowered. Bad Soundstage. Disappointing but I think I am used to the warmer sound of the Grado headphone. With the ATH-M20X, I prefer to turn off the Dolby Atmos.

Audio Technica ATH-M20X connected to a MacBook Pro for Lossless:
no noticeable difference between High Quality and Lossless.

Conclusion:
Spatial Audio is a game-changer for average Apple Music listeners, especially for Airpods users. Lossless will only factor in a better audio setup. My setup has no noticeable difference between High-Quality audio and Lossless. If you don’t notice any difference, I think it’s best to just stick to the High-Quality settings as it doesn’t eat up that much bandwidth.

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Thanks for the thorough review!

I used to think myself an audiophile, but gradually came to accept that it’s mostly a snake oil industry. Sure, there might be differences between low-end music+gear and high-end music+gear, but past a certain threshold it’s mostly a matter of preference and personal perception.

In other words, I suspect audiophiles are mostly a market based on a subculture of consumption, not a market based on a functional difference in product.

I found Eddy Cue’s opinions matched mine:

“The reality of lossless is: if you take 100 people and you take a stereo song in lossless and you take a song that’s been in Apple Music that’s compressed, I don’t know if it’s 99 or 98 can’t tell the difference.” Cue revealed that he has regularly done blind tests with the Apple Music team, and they confirm how rare it is for anyone to be able to consistently recognize lossless audio. “You can tell somebody, ‘Oh, you’re listening to a lossless [song],’ and they tell you, ‘Oh, wow. That sounds incredible.’ They’re just saying it because you told them it’s lossless and it sounds like the right thing to say, but you just can’t tell.” (as quoted from Billboard by The Verge)

I was also underwhelmed by spatial audio—though, I think, only because of how much it’s been hyped. I tried a few tracks listening wirelessly with Airpods Max. There was certainly a difference, and it was a fun one, but it’s not life-changing.

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I picked up a set of AirPod Max yesterday and and was going through the spatial playlists. Some of the music I couldn’t tell any difference, while others were excellent. For instance Stauss’s Blue Danube Waltz (2001 intro) sounded amazing. Yet, Beethoven’s 5th sounded very flat. Marco Arment pointed out that in the spatial rock playlist there is music that is not actually Dolby Atmos though.

Then again, I am new to AirPod Max and they already sound really good compared to regular AirPods. I am most certainly not an audiophile, so no one should listen to me in what sounds good or doesn’t. :slight_smile:

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The industry has tried to move beyond stereo for decades.

Quadphonic, to Dolby Multi-Channel to SACD/DVDA Multichannel.

Consumers have generally balked. Lack of content and requirements to buy more speakers with dubious results have just about doomed every music multichannel format.

This format is leveraging two speaker so they eliminate the reluctance to buying more speakers and amplification but overall I think people are just most happy with stereo sound for music.

Spacial Audio is buzzword compliant to me but not a gamechanger in any way.

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Definitely agree with you.

My rule is, if I don’t notice any difference then there is no need for me to upgrade. What I love about upgrading to the Grado was it made me realized that it was the first time that I am really listening to the music. So it’s really a turning point for me, but investing in a very expensive gear is not really my thing.

I think Spatial Audio will stay as it can make any regular headphones “feel” like an expensive gear for most.

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Listening to a few things on my AirPods. I don’t hear nothing. Apple says they are compatible with the spatial audio in a few places. I’ve never heard of position sensors in (non pro) AirPods, so I don’t know how it would know how to pan the sound.

I have to look through the Pink Floyd to see if that’s in Spatial audio yet. They have certainly released albums in all the surround formats mentioned in the top post.

P.S. went through the AirPods page at Apple.com and they do mention accelerometers in the non pro AirPods. Now I need to go back and test more.

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P.S. went through the AirPods page at Apple.com and they do mention accelerometers in the non pro AirPods. Now I need to go back and test more.

I wasn’t aware. I thought Spatial Audio is more like listening in front of or being surrounded by musicians.

Doesn’t matter if you’re not an audiophile, what sounds good for you should be enough :slight_smile:

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I love listening to recorded music, but nothing can replace the experience of a live concert. Hearing a Mahler Symphony at Carnegie Hall can never be matched by a recording. So I prefer to save my money for concert tickets.

Hmmmm. According to Apple Music Lossless tidbits: iOS 14.6, HomePod support, compatible headphones, more - 9to5Mac
AirPods (not pro) don’t do the head tracking. Not sure what the Dolby atmos is supposed to be doing without head tracking.

More info:

Apple Music doesn’t do head tracking until the fall OS releases. So, if you don’t hear surround sound, that’s because it’s not there, not because you are broken.

Spatial audio/Dolby Atmos with music has nothing to do with head tracking. That only works with devices with a screen while watching videos. The audio matches the position of your head.

With music it is supposed to provide more of a 3D sound. Like you are in the middle of the music. Does it do that? I am not sure, but some tracks really do stand out in that the music seems to be richer, layers stand out. If you are an Apple Music subscriber, go to the browse page, and there are some samples.

I am not sure how amazing it is, but I do hear it in some tracks. But I also think you need really good headphones for it.

So on a somewhat related note, could someone recommend a usb-c DAC to plug some Sony Studio monitor headphones into? I’d love to delve deeper into this new high res Apple Music but I do know you need wired headphones. I figure a stand alone DAC may make a difference in driving some headphones.

My 2 cents: a well performed, recorded, produced, mixed and mastered (for digital) track IS spatial by design, already as straight stereo. Lossless has much higher dynamic range and does provide better channel separation.

These qualities are easier to appreciate when listening on good headphones driven by a well matched amp. Using different equipment, I can hear subtle differences in presentation, but differences between DACs are generally harder to spot than differences in the amplifier stage.

Headphone designs also affect the sound. Open backs, closed backs, multi-driver IEMs, in-ears all sound differently. All of them can sound great too. Simply changing the silicone tips for memory foam tips on your in-ears will give you a much improved bass response.

There are endless discussions online about high res and encoding formats, but for me, standard CD quality 44.1/16 is good enough as source material. Higher resolution MQA files sound slightly different, but better? Hard to tell.

That said, mixing and mastering can still be optimized for low end equipment, like standard radio play. This is very easy to hear if you play, for example, the early Whitney Huston albums and then listen to the soundtrack from "The Bodyguard ". Her voice is the same, but the differences in sound due to mixing/mastering decisions really jumps out at you.

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Either Audioquest or a DAC from Schiit Audio.

Yes especially with open back. They are known for having great soundstage and it sounded like already being immersed in a a music hall or surrounded by musicians.

Spatial Audio will benefit average listeners with regular earphones/headphones. This will feel like an upgrade for them.

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I was throughly impressed with Spatial Audio. If you listen to the version of the Blue Danube that is available in the Classical Playlist it is engineered so that if sounds like you are sitting at the piano bench. You can hear the locations of the keys being played and the strings being struck. Classical isn’t the only music affected positively. In the Country playlist the version of Folsom Prison by Johnny Cash was similar engineered so that you could hear the space between the instruments in the locations where they were traditionally located when performing that piece. In some of the music by Joji in his album Nectar they played around with the layering and spatially moved some of those layers around in addition to pushing certain instruments forward or back to make the track sound more like a live performance. Some of the tracks on After Hours by The Weekend almost sounded like remixes the reengineering was so strongly apparent. This is the major point. When it is well engineered a track will have the 3D quality of an analog recording but it will have the precision of digital. This is the value. Granted, if you aren’t accustomed to listening for these things and don’t care about the sound of the locations of, say, the lead guitars in a track by Lynyrd Skynyrd, then you won’t care about what Spatial Audio is doing. I, for one, however, am throughly impressed with what is possible while not always impressed with the execution. A lot rests on the shoulders of the engineers who make the decisions about how to implement this technology. A good engineer will do amazing things while a bad one will really mess up a track.

I have no comment on Lossless since I can’t afford the equipment to make it worth while. However, most humans can’t hear the higher and lower ranges the Lossless audio can produce, especially those of us older than 40. So, unless someone is nice and spends a few thousand dollars on my audio equipment for me, I’ll probably never know if there is any significant change in the audio experience.

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Anyone have an opinion on if it’s worth getting a headphone to Lightning cable to listen to music from my iMac to AirPod Max? No DAC. I am not an audiophile, but I have been really enjoying them and I am curious if it is noticeably better with a cable.

I haven’t experienced it, but for me, the convenience of wireless trumps the questionable changes in perceived quality.

Again, it’s a subculture of consumption. There’s little actual difference, but the difference that is there is facilitated by socialization and buy-in. You’ll perceive a difference because you’re told there is one, and/or because you invested in it.

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Not that I have tried it, but to my understanding, that cable will have an ADC in the Lightning end.

So, going from the DAC in your Mac, output as an analog signal, processed back to digital by the ADC in the cable just to be again converted into analog by the DAC in your headset. Can’t believe that this will in any way improve your experience.

The use case for this cable is if you want to use your headset with older HiFi equipment that don’t have Bluetooth. (To the best of my understanding, feel free to correct me on this.)

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I recall being equally excited about the 5.1 DVD mixes back in the day. Sounded great and very immersive. Got a few titles, but soon realised that many were badly mixed for multichannel. Soon the supply of albums dried up too, as a result of yet another dying format.

Let’s hope Apple has the pull to make great Atmos mixes standard for music as well. For now, I’m sticking with good headphones and a decent 2+1 setup.