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Apple Music and audiophile cynicism (Part 2)

  • Apple vs audiophiles – it’s a modern day People’s Front of Judea battling the Romans. Complaints have come thick and fast that Apple Music is a me-too service put together so that the chaps in California can scrape another $10/month from the average guy’s credit card. But so what? Spotify has supplied this kind of music streaming service in Europe since 2008, the USA since 2011. As usual, nothing to see here for anyone who cares about sound quality (or so the rhetoric goes).

    “Apple isn’t innovating, it’s playing catch up,” they say. “They’ve taken everything we ever had and not just from us, from our fathers and our fathers’ fathers. And what have they ever given us in return?”

    The iPod – “1000 songs in your pocket”. Apple weren’t the first to market but their iPod would quickly become the definitive MP3 player.

    iTunes. Yeah iTunes was – and still is – a damn good media player and used on millions of desktops worldwide. Tag editing and cover art addition are an cinch and it’s pivotal to software players like PureMusic and Audirvana.

    “All right, I’ll grant you: the iPod and iTunes are two things Apple has done.”

    …aaand the iPhone.

    “Well, obviously the iPhone. The iPhone goes without saying, doesn’t it?”

    “But apart from the iPod, iTunes and the iPhone, what have Apple ever done for us?”

    A Graphical User Interface (GUI) – without Apple’s take, computers wouldn’t operate in the way they do today.

    The MacBook Air – at its 2011 launch, it was the slimmest laptop to hit the mass market (< 2cm at its thickest point). Remember how Steve Jobs pulled an Air from an envelope during his keynote speech announcing the same?

    Oooh – The iPad. Yeah, that was pretty good.

    “Yeah, alright, fair enough…

    …alright: apart from the iPod, iTunes, the iPhone, the iPad, the Graphical User Interface and the MacBook Air, what has Apple ever done for us?”

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    And now for something completely different.

    Part 1 of this coverage showed just how easy it is to take an adversarial (and patronising) position on Apple Music. In the longer-term, complaints of it being too little too late or that it’s targeted at Mums and Dads are too diffuse to gain long-term traction. What did anyone expect? There’s only a finite number of ways to package and present access to the same-ish multi-mill song library. Each provider needs a point of difference, no matter how small. For Apple that means Connect – a service that lets artists upload fresh work direct to followers – and Beats 1 – a global, 24-hour radio station.

    With Spotify’s free tier already providing access to music streaming for nought, it’s easy to sneer at Apple Music’s attempts at differentiation but are they really worth getting snarky about when an individual subscription starts and ends at US$10/month? Access to Beats 1 comes gratis to anyone who wants it, Apple Music subscriber or not.

    Apple Music doesn’t arrive without a serious launch-time flaw. Designed to unify your local library across all devices, the iCloud synchronization service introduced with iTunes 12.2 – a mandatory upgrade for Apple Music access on Mac and Windows desktops – is reportedly misidentifying some files, retagging them with the wrong data and cover art and even adding Apple’s Fairplay DRM, potentially locking users out of self-ripped files if/when they choose to end their Apple Music subscription. No doubt Apple’s software engineers will fix it eventually…

    …but I sense a more insidious anti-Apple Music force already at play, especially in the audiophile community. You’ve probably encountered them already. Their names are Snobbery and Cynicism.

    Rubbishing something just because it’s popular is nothing new. From the musicians themselves to the labels to which they sign, there’ll always be section of music geekdom that’ll try to point out what’s cool, what’s not and why. To them, ‘popular’ translates to ‘sell-out’.

    Some might complain that Apple Music isn’t cool because it’s popular. Not much we can do about that. It’s also tough to take issue with the service’s suggestion-heavy interface when it a) facilitates music discovery and b) reacquaints us with long-forgotten gems. Isn’t that precisely why Roon rocks? Ask yourself this: if Tidal or Qobuz had Apple Music or even Spotify’s UX, wouldn’t you just be a little more eager to sign up to a lossless rival?

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    Neither content provision nor its associated interface is the problem. The primary factor fuelling snobbery and cynicism with Apple Music is its codec: AAC at 256kbps.

    Audiophiles tend to recoil at the idea of lossy compression. Many audiophiles believe that a 10% (or whatever) hit to audio quality is beneath them; that the audiophile club cannot be joined without first committing to lossless sources.

    Before we acknowledge mastering quality matters more we need a reality check.

    If we see Tidal Hifi as bringing home the CD store for $20/month, we must also acknowledge that Apple Music brings home a lossy-encoded version of a slightly better stocked store for US$10/month.

    In other words, Apple Music (and Spotify) offer a larger catalogue reproduced with a minor hit to sound quality for half the cost of Tidal or Qobuz’s CD-quality option.

    How minor is minor? Therein lies the crux of the matter: one’s perception of codec loss depends entirely on the hardware being used. Audiophiles tend to own the good stuff so they hear it loud and (mostly) clear. People listening via Bluetooth speakers, soundbars and cheaper headphones probably won’t/don’t. Complaining about lossy compression in the context of less capable hardware is akin to bemoaning the use of E10 Ethanol-blended fuel in a Kia Rio.

    Audiophiles turning their noses up at the man in the street’s contentment with Apple Music’s lossy-encoded music supply are missing the larger issue. Per last year’s editorial piece surrounding the launch of PonoPlayer, the average Jo/e needs better audio gear if s/he’s to reap the (very real) audible benefits of lossless streaming services and, even more so hi-res files.

    As both Pål Bråtelund of Tidal and Skylar Gray of AudioQuest opined at The Munich High End Show last month: “Redbook is the ground floor of hi-res audio”. I’m with ‘em both on that one. I’d prefer to see the elimination of lossy encoding practices BEFORE the conversation with the main in the street is moved to hi-res matters. 24bit/192kHz PCM and DSD can wait for the guy still punching on with MP3s. He first needs stepping up to Redbook.

    Moreover, let’s not turn people away from the pursuit of better sound because they listen to Taylor Swift in MP3. Time to show audiophile cynicism the door.

    Average Joe is more interested in better sound when applied to his own music choices. Put the demo CDs to one side for a moment. High street retailers could be tapping the potential of what’s in every potential customer’s pocket – a smartphone. Apple Music and streaming service like it are the ultimate starting points because of their prevalence. In theory, the low dollar entry fee to Apple Music et all frees up more disposable income for gear. Music has never been so affordable!

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    The popularity of Beats by Dre hammers the point home – and then to smithereens – that the most common first upgrade for the man in the street is a better pair of headphones. Any head-fier worth his salt knows there are numerous superior-sounding options for the money. That’s not the point. Headphones offer the biggest bang-for-buck smartphone supplement; that’s especially true of the iPhone, which stacks up well when compared side by side with some more of the more affordable DAPs.

    From an entry-level perspective, I find very little to complain about when Master&Dynamic’s MH40 (review here) are fed Apple Music from an iPod Touch (5th Generation). OPPO’s PM-3 (review here) would be my second choice. Invert these preferences for the softer sounding Google Nexus 5 and Samsung Galaxy S5.

    Fresh ‘phones might ultimately fuel a desire in our newcomer to bring some additional scale, impact and tonality to his lounge room. That means ditching the soundbar in favour of amplifier and speakers…and perhaps a DAC. Or maybe he’ll drop dollars on a portable headphone amplifier? For better slam, detail and frequency extension I add the ALO Audio Continental Dual Mono (coverage to come) to the iPod/MH40 combo. At US$1500, it’s expensive but to those with more luxury cans and deeper pockets it’s worth it. As with everything hi-fi, less expensive options are available to those on tighter budgets.

    Only with the right hardware in place will the conversation about lossy vs lossless compression take on a palpable reality for our regular guy, freshly turned audiophile.

    It’s almost certain that there are already more Apple Music users worldwide than there are audiophiles. Let’s seize that opportunity to talk about how to make Apple’s (lossy) streaming service – and those like it – sound better rather than complaining that the man in the street just doesn’t get it and that Apple never did anything for us.

    Further information: Apple Music

    John Darko

    Written by John Darko

    John currently lives in Berlin where creates videos and podcasts and pens written pieces for Darko.Audio. He has also contributed to 6moons, TONEAudio, AudioStream and Stereophile.

    Darko.Audio is a member of EISA.

    Follow John on YouTube or Instagram

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                    Apple Music and audiophile cynicism (Part 1)

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