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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?”

    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?

    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!


    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


    1. Wonderful editorial. I am a Tidal subscriber for my audiophile wants/needs but my teenage kids want Spotify. So we spend $40/mo. as a whole and have multitudes of tunes, endless tunes in fact, at the click of a mouse or finger. We owe so much to Apple for its innovation and bringing the music literally home to us. Without an iPod or iPhone always at the ready I doubt many of us would have become dedicated audiophiles and our musical tastes and catalogues would almost certainly be far more limited. And you know what? If I am reading a great review of some fantastic amplifier or speakers in print or online and it recommends a song to highlight the clarity and quality of sound of said amplifier or speakers, if I can’t find the song on Tidal I usually luck out on Spotify. And it sounds pretty damn good; often, even in my pricey separates systems I can’t tell the difference between the two streaming services. I would defy many audiophiles other than those with the true “golden ears” -do such persons actually exist? I am admittedly skeptical – to do a blindfolded A/B comparison of the lossy and lossless streaming services. I would love to see the real results. Apple was and is the innovator that spurred on the development of nearly everything us techie, streaming-loving audiophiles enjoy so much – 25 million songs at our fingertips, with the number growing every week if not month. What teenager like me growing up in the ’70’s would have ever thought this wondrous opportunity to listen to almost any artist or song on our Technics turntable and Pioneer receiver would exist in just a few short decades? Admittedly, since the advent of high-res music streaming around a year ago, my turntable and CD player have remained largely in the off position. Nonconformists be damned, Apple is an incredible success story and without it I can safely guess that this marvel of technologies (music streaming services) would either not have existed on a commercial level right now, or certainly would not have attained the acceptance and universal access and appeal as it does today.

      So three cheers for the most technological of fruits on this July 4, the 229th anniversary of the independence of the great U.S. of A – hooray for baseball, hot dogs, Chevrolet and APPLE!!!

    2. Well said, John! Really liked the Python references as well. All of these discussions, inevitably, come down to personal preferences. The key thing to take away here is that it’s all about the music and our enjoyment of it. If Apple Music makes you happy, then that’s fine. If Tidal, or another service, does the same, then great. If, down the road, I want to enjoy my music even more, then there’s sites like yours and others that will help me make informed decisions to do that. It’s a conversation that’s always worth continuing. Keep up the good work. Cheers!

    3. Apple did not invent the GUI. They stole it from Xerox. Nor did they invent the concept of thin laptops. Toshiba released the 2.4 pound, 0.7 inch thin R100 laptop in 2005, three years before Apple debuted the first MBA. Nor did Apple invent touch screen phones or tablets. It’s very common for those in the reality distortion bubble to believe that Apple “invents” everything, when the truth is that Apple largely steals their ideas from others, refines them to a degree, and then slaps their “genius” marketing on them. Apple has actually *invented* VERY little over the years. Even Apple’s famous industrial designs are largely stolen from old Braun ideas.

      It won’t be long before people begin to believe that Apple invented the first streaming music service in 2015. What I do find interesting is that in the post Jobs era, Apple’s previous mastery of intuitive UI seems to be slipping. Using the Watch is a bit of a mess, and most of the early impressions of Apple Music seem to be largely about complaints about what a clunky UI it has, and how it can take 3 or 4 steps through menus and submenus just to get where you want to go. Is that what regular moms and dads want?

      In the end, yes, Apple Music IS a “me too” product, and Connect seems to be little more than iTunes Ping 2.0. It’s fine. So is Spotify. What is NOT fine is that at least some “lossless” songs on Tidal, I suspect probably from UMG as they have a history of it, are watermarked, and carry clearly audible distortion as a result.

      • I didn’t say Apple *invented* the GUI, the super-thin laptop or touchscreen devices. Nor did I imply it. However, I have corrected my wording ever-so-slightly so that ambiguity is removed. As for the genesis of streaming services, this article (as well as others I’ve written on streaming) thoroughly name check Apple Music’s forerunners. I even purposefully pointed out that Spotify began in the mid 00s.

        On UI, Apple might be slipping for some, especially those who like to probe deeper into what Apple do and the way they work. However, with Apple Music I see little to complain about. As per comments from others, the UI is an oft-neglected part of the music playback equation, especially for those who like get more hands on with their music collections.

        “What is NOT fine is that at least some “lossless” songs on Tidal, I suspect probably from UMG as they have a history of it, are watermarked, and carry clearly audible distortion as a result.” <--- can you provide an example? I'd like to hear this for myself, as would DAR readers.

        • Regarding Apple’s contribution to the GUI and how computers work… Microsoft deserves just as much, if not more, credit for how computers work today. Last I checked PC’s outnumber Mac’s by orders of magnitude.

          When it comes to streaming services, Zune was the forerunner for the streaming music business and was the first big player is the subscription based music services. It unfortunately too early like many Microsoft products, and because of nerd rage, the fact that it was released by Microsoft held it back.

    4. John,

      Me thinks you’re way too sensitive over this. Good luck to Apple, they’ve served the tech industry well; good luck to you if you choose to use Apple; good luck to others who make that choice too. I use Windows, is that a big deal? I think not, it’s a non-issue, at least I hope it is.

      Daily Tech has a really interesting article on music streaming. The article came out on the back of the Apple announcement, but is full of all sorts of great info’ for all users. Check it out here:

      Enjoy the music, it’s never been easier or better.


      • Sensitive? Not really. Audiophiles often complain that (young) people today don’t care about good sound and that all they listen to is ‘MP3 rubbish’. On top of that, a large portion of the mainstream tech press enjoys kicking Apple, presumably because it’s now the incumbent and not the underdog. Apple Music will (hopefully) get more people listening to more music. As you say, it’s never been easier (or better) – that deserves championing. It’s also a platform from which to discuss the real problem beyond the audiophile niche: shitty playback hardware.

    5. Great article, Darko; you came at it from a healthy position of impartiality.
      I credit the iPod with totally reinvigorating my love of music in my middle-years.
      Yes, with ALAC files and good ‘phones, stuff can sound d_mn good.
      But I am also a fan of the humble 256 AAC file (as I’ve mentioned a few times on this site) and appreciate what excellent recording and mastering can serve up, even in lossy codecs.
      I remember once coming across a website called ‘Anything But iPod’ and this, unfortunately, kicked off my instant disdain for and suspicion of the so-called ‘audiophile’ world. I even recently got dumped off of an ‘audiophile’ website I had only just registered with, on account of my response to a sneering article on it!

    6. John, I’ve always admired your open-mindedness – that’s why I keep coming back to your little place on the World Wide Web. I really like your attitude towards finding out what’s real in the music delivery world and what is just baseless complaining of some audiophiles or “audiophiles”.

      There’s been a lot said already about the streaming services, their pricing models and their quality of sound. As for the attitudes toward Apple – those who complain the most are usually those who only own and use an iPhone from Apple and everything else Windows-based or Android-based. They are hopelessly ignorant about everything that Apple offered throughout the decades. And I suspect that they remain ignorant by choice. They are just pissed off because they simply can’t afford buying into the Apple ecosystem. That is the crucial (in my opinion) factor which turns people off and makes them attack everything Apple-related.

      But there is also another class of people (much less populous one) who complain about Apple and its products. Those are life-long users of Apple’s hardware and software, who remember how much better Apple used to be when Steve Jobs was still with us.

      I prefer to think of myself as a sceptic rather than a complainer. I base my objections toward Apple on my 21-year-long usage of their computers and the ability of comparing the quality, performance and worry-free usage of their products in a span of two decades. I can say with all honesty, that I am seeing an abrupt nose-dive after Jobs’ untimely departure. At the same time, though, I believe that Apple contributed more than all other companies belonging to the same category put together, to the technology-based and gadget-based side of consumerism.

    7. To each his own. A lot of people choose replay services for their own reasons. That’s for them to decide, not the dreaded “audiophile”. What I do kind of perceive is that the article seems to be classifying ALL audiophiles as cynical snobs. That kind of feels like a poke in the chest and is too much of a broad stroke, stereotype, to those who consider themselves audiophiles. If Apple, Spotify or other streaming service works for you, have at it. There’s nothing wrong with being at either end of the spectrum. There’s a market for everyone so let’s play nice in the sandbox and not call each other names!

    8. One should put to rest this illusion of educating/enlightening the \man in the street’. He is in the street because he is busy making a living. Because he does not have one good the man in the audiophile chair has – leisure. And leisure – just like the capital – never trickles down. At Apple they know that. That is why they are not even thinking of relieving the man in the street of his daily chores. Instead they are serving him whatever they think he needs while he is toiling.

      • It’s not about educating (or taking the game to) the man in the street. It’s about laying out the opportunities should he take an interest. A subtle difference of approach but a difference nonetheless.

    9. Hi John, from Chile here 😉
      I´m not a audiophile guy, but y like good sound in my desk and my pocket. I see that everybody are concerned about the quality of the sound, but what happen with the quality of the content (music). Is necessary that Apple Music have audiophile quality? for what? for listen Pitbull, Don Omar, Juan Gabriel and the 70% of the poor content?
      If you search Bill Evans on Apple Music the result is for cry, 70% of collections, reissues, master of jazz, essentials, the best of, etc.
      Try to search a good album of ECM records or from ACT Records, nothing!!!
      Everybody is worried if Taylor Swift will be on Apple Music or not. The general of people don´t like the music, they believe that they like music, but… they do not know that they really like the rhythm, the beat… and for that, don´t need high quality of the sound, they need high volume.
      And for finish, i don’t think that Apple Music need to stream in high quality if no improve the content first. I don´t think that is necessary to listen Pitbull in 16bit and 44.1KHz, that is rhythm no good content. 😉

      PD: Excuse me my poor English.

      • No need to apologise for your English, Jaime. It’s perfectly fine.

        So you’re saying that lossless encoding is a waste of bits for pop music? I don’t know if I agree. Sure, some recordings benefit from CD-quality streaming more than others, but that doesn’t mean that those lesser recordings don’t deserved to be streamed losslessly. And who are we to judge? Who gets decide what’s worthy of lossless streaming and what isn’t?.

        • Hi John, i don´t say that the problem is the pop music or other genere, i say that the market, the people are different to others. They consume content (music) in different ways, and the majority consume the lossy way or without worrying about quality. For example, my mother listen Sinatra, but she is no worry about the engineering and some like me when i listen Sinatra, yes i worry about engineering 🙂
          My mother represent the majority, i look this effect on friends, friend of friends and people en general. And i think Apple look and know this too.
          Now, the people i know and i read (like you) who value end feel the quality are few and, i think, that is the reason why the content is poor. If Apple improve the content and the quality, could be that be more attractive to this people, who consume content the other way.

      • Hi jaime,
        There’s a lot of ECM and ACT stuff on iTunes if you look. I regularly check ECM’s own site to find the latest releases and they nearly always turn up on iTunes; perhaps it’s a regional thing….

        • Hi Graham! in itunes store yes! i found ECM records for buy but in Apple Music not =(
          In fact i bought ECM releases in itunes, but this releases are not in Apple Music. Could be a regional thing… yes
          Try looking Keith Jarrett – The Koln Concert. I can buy it in itunes store for USD9,99 but i can`t hear it in Apple Music. And this is only one example… of… ufff ;(
          If you can hear it… ok is a region stuff.

    10. I’d say that the way of encouraging people to become audiophiles is by giving them a reasonable upgrade path, not through snottiness. Maybe start with a <100$ headphone.

    11. This two part article is soooooo spot on. Thank you for being down-to-earth when it comes to audio!

    12. Great write-up JD. Enjoyed reading both parts immensely. No arguments from me. Not using Apple Music myself, but then again, I don’t use Spotify either. Still mostly a SoundCloud and MixCloud guy here. Tidal’s to posh for my peasant tastes.

      I’ll wait for some of the producers in my preferred genres to post their 2015 streaming earnings before I decide on streaming; Till then, I’ll still be visiting Bandcamp, Bleep, Juno, etc.

      I did check out the Beats 1 radio show for a bit. Zane Low and Julie Adenuga are still the same as ever. They talk way too much.

    13. I think you misunderstand where a lot of the audiophile frustration comes from. Speaking for myself, and by virtue of statistics, almost certainly many others, I am frustrated because I want to be able to use apple products and would prefer to not have to make the choice. I’d love to be able to use iTunes /Apple TV but can’t because it doesn’t support FLAC. I just don’t understand why, since they are the last company to market, they can’t at least match the specs of their competitors. Even if your gear is insufficient to be able to tell the difference it wouldn’t hurt anything to know you have it in case you wanted to upgrade in the future. Especially before getting ‘married’ to the ecosystem.

      • “I think you misunderstand where a lot of the audiophile frustration comes from. ” I do? How so? Got a link to those statistics?

        Frustration and cynicism are different things but possibly linked.

        This article is about cynicism. The condescension brought by some audiophiles to the conversation about lossy formats. No Apple Music doesn’t sound as good as Tidal Hifi but in the context of the newcomer with modest (or even limited) hardware, the audible difference isn’t *that* wide.

        On frustration, yours is with iTunes not supporting FLAC. I hear ya! And I agree. I even gave it a holler in a recent piece on Audirvana+ v2 and how it frees the OS X from being shackled to one’s iTunes library that, for lossless lovers like you and I, is strictly ALAC.

      • “Even if your gear is insufficient to be able to tell the difference it wouldn’t hurt anything to know you have it in case you wanted to upgrade in the future.”

        That’s an audiophile mentality that more than likely hasn’t yet taken root in the newcomer’s mind. His game isn’t (yet) one of future-proofing. Before he’ll even jump from lossy to lossless, he wants to hear the difference.

        As for “Wouldn’t hurt”, our newcomer will likely disagree. Lossless streaming is an extra $10/month. That’s nothing to those who already see the value in it. But our newcomer needs to be convinced. Then there’s the ‘hurt’ hurdle of switching from Apple Music’s or Spotify’s cosy / slick interface to Tidal’s more rudimentary UX.

    Apple Music and audiophile cynicism (Part 1)

    Sennheiser 280 Pro headphones w/ Zu Audio Mobius