Mac Rumours. Ordinarily, we’d pay them no mind. But when those rumours relate to better sound quality for the mass market and are substantiated by breadcrumbs found in Apple’s own code, we pay closer attention. Over the weekend, MacRumors (the website) found mention of “lossless audio”, “high quality stereo streaming” and “hifi” within a beta version of the forthcoming iOS 14.6 operating system.
Preceding that discovery was this from Hits Daily Double on April 29th: “Apple will announce a new high-fidelity audio streaming tier in the coming weeks at the same $9.99-per-user price point as its standard plan, label sources are telling us. The announcement is expected to coincide with the launch of the third-generation AirPods.”
If true, it seems Apple Music will be matching Spotify’s recently teased ‘hifi’ lossless tier but at a more aggressive price point of US9.99/month.
Looking at the subscriber counts for each service, it’s easy to see why Apple wouldn’t want to leave the appeal of ‘hifi’ streaming to chance. Spotify has around 300 million subscribers, roughly half of which pony up the monthly fee for Spotify Premium. Apple has no free tier and its last reported paid subcriber count (from 2019) was 60 million. More recent estimates put the Apple Music 2021 subscriber base at 72 million.
What about Qobuz and Tidal? In mid-2019, Qobuz told Variety that it has 200,000 subscribers and wasn’t trying to compete with the ‘big guys’. In 2016, Tidal had laid claim to 3 million users. This is the most recent data available for both services. Whichever way we look at it, ‘audiophile-adopted’ music streaming services remain small fish in a very large pond.
If the rumoured Apple Music ‘hifi’ tier becomes a reality, 2021 will be remembered as the year the mainstream was invited to step up to CD-quality streaming — but no further. It would seem that Spotify and Apple Music’s market research has told them that the hi-res juicebox just isn’t worth the squeeze. That’s not surprising when we consider that 1) hi-res audio supply as a percentage of all streamable music (less than 10%!) is vanishingly low from a mass-market perspective and 2) hi-res audio will eat 4G/5G mobile data allowances at 6x the rate of CD-quality streams — crucial intel for anyone whose mobile phone is their only internet connection and isn’t paying for unlimited data.
By year’s end we might see the following scenario where three of the biggest four music streaming services (will) have taken a hard pass on hi-res audio:
- Spotify (153 million paying subscribers): CD-quality streaming
- Apple Music (70 million paying subscribers): CD-quality streaming
- Amazon Music (55 million? paying subscribers): CD-quality and hi-res streaming
- Deezer (7 million paying subscribers): CD-quality streaming
And yet a CD-quality ‘hifi’ service for Apple Music isn’t the biggest Apple rumour to come across this commentator’s desk over the weekend. Not by a long shot.
Notebookcheck has suggested that Apple Music’s CD-quality service will be matched by an extension in the Bluetooth/wireless audio capabilities of some of its Airpod models (with presumably a matching update to iPhones). After all, why would Apple – a company so heavily invested in wireless headphones – introduce a CD-quality streaming service when no Bluetooth audio codec is currently capable of transferring audio losslessly from smartphone to headphone?
Despite some slippery language that makes suggestions to the contrary, both Qualcomm’s aptX HD (576kbps) and Sony’s LDAC (max 990kbps) are lossy codecs: they discard data because their bandwidth capabilities come up seriously short on the 1411kbps needed by CD-quality audio. The numbers make it easy for anyone to see that aptX HD or LDAC’s lossless carriage of 24bit/48kHz (2304kbps) is a long way from reality. It would seem that “Hi-res audio wireless”‘s yellow-and-black officiating sticker points to a reframing of hi-res audio in a Bluetooth audio context that doesn’t just blur the lines between lossy and lossless but wipes them off the map.
Perhaps Apple has managed to squeeze something hitherto unseen from ALAC running across its H1 chip? The Holy Grail of CD-quality Bluetooth audio might soon be upon us. In a few short weeks, we’ll know for sure.
Further information: Apple
Darko.Audio reader Patrick writes…
John, Love your work. For lossless earbud transmission do not think of Bluetooth. The new Apple trackers run (partly) on ultrawideband. This is in theory very energy efficient and very high bandwidth. So ultrawideband to your earbud??? Now have I got your attention? This has the advantage to Apple of forcing us to buy newer phones, as only they have the UWB chip. I have enjoyed your work since you lived down under. I deserve some sort of marsupial medal. Thanks.