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  • Apple Music's Lossless and Hi-Res Mess

     


    This morning I've been testing Apple Music's new lossless and Hi-Res offerings on both my iPhone 12 Pro running iOS 14.6 and my Mac Mini (M1) running macOS 11.4. In my tests, I'm only concerned with playing the music bit perfectly, in other words without making any changes to the audio. If Apple Music says it's streaming lossless audio, then I want to stream that audio losslessly, rather than accidentally converting it to lossy AAC or MP3 etc... Whether or not people can hear the difference is a topic for another discussion. I'm just making sure I can play the music in its original form and that Apple is sending true lossless and Hi-Res to my audio devices. 

     


    Let's Dig in


    What is bit perfect and why should I care? In the simplest terms, bit perfect means that the audio hasn't been changed. The music sent, in this case from Apple Music, into the playback device hasn't been altered. The source is what has been delivered to Apple by the record labels. Apple is just the delivery company.

     

    If you care about high quality, getting the lossless streaming you're paying for from Apple Music, Qobuz, Tidal, Amazon Music, etc... then you should care about bit perfect because without it you have no idea what's happening to your audio. If this isn't a concern for you, no worries. 

     


    Testing Methodology 

     

    Device 1
    My Apple iPhone 12 Pro running iOS 14.6 and the Apple Music app. I connected the newest version of the Apple Camera Connection Kit to the iPhone, so I could attach a USB Audi interface, and feed power to the phone and interface. 

     

    Device 2
    Apple Mac Mini (M1) running macOS 11.4, and Apple Pro Display XDR, and USB audio interface connected to the ports on the back of the display. 

     
    I use the following testing methodology to test Apple Music. 

     

    The USB audio interface is a Berkeley Audio Design Alpha USB that accepts USB input and outputs audio over AES/EBU or S/PDIF (BNC). 
     
    I use a Berkeley Audio Design Alpha DAC Reference Series 3 that identifies and decodes HDCD on all sample rates from 44.1 up through 192 kHz. When an unaltered HDCD music track is played, the HDCD indicator on the DAC is illuminated. The HDCD flag is on the 16th bit for lossless CD files and the 24th bit for high resolution files. Any alteration, DSP, volume leveling, etc... changes this least significant bit and won't enable the HDCD indicator to illuminate on my DAC. Apple Music's lossless audio that I tested was 16 bit / 44.1 kHa and the Hi-Res audio was both 24 bit / 176.4 kHz and 24 bit / 192 kHz. That's the hardware piece. 
     
    With respect to source files, here's what I do. 
     
    I have a list of roughly ten known HDCD albums (although I could use more if needed). Many of these albums were only released as HDCD encoded CDs/files. There is no alternate lossless version. For example, Reference Recordings only releases CDs that are HDCD encoded. Pearl Jam's Live On Two Legs was only released as an HDCD master for its lossless CD version. 
     
    I set a baseline by playing my own local copy of the albums and make sure the HDCD indicator illuminates. I played some Reference Recordings albums through Apple Music on macOS and made sure the app could handle bit perfect playback. All was good there. On iOS, I used used other apps such as Qobuz, to play the identical music through the identical hardware. All was good through the Qobuz app. Again, there are no alternative versions of these lossless albums. It's the same music on all the services that offer lossless streaming.
     
    Absolutely there are possible holes in my methodology, but I believe I've minimized them as much as possible. If anyone can identify a hole, please let me know and I will retest. 
     

     

    Test Results
     
    On macOS, I found no way to play bit perfect lossless or Hi-Res audio from Apple Music. In addition to a couple other nonsensical issues that I'll get into later, Apple is doing something to the music it streams. 

     

    Test 1, streaming Pearl Jam's Live On Two Legs release I was able to illuminate the HDCD indicator for the first couple seconds of playback. After this, the light went out for good, even if I skipped to the next track. When I clicked the play button to start the entire album over again, the HDCD indicator illuminated again for a few seconds. If I had to guess, I'd say this is because of watermarking mandated by the major record labels. Apple has a perfect copy of the album on its servers, the perfect copy starts, but then something changes in the stream that causes the music to not be bit perfect. I'm open to all input on what this could possibly be, but watermarking is my best educated guess for now. 

     

    Test 2, streaming the Reference Recording's album Exactly Like This from Doug MacLeod, displays different behavior and bolsters my aforementioned watermarking theory. This album, from a very small independent record label that I don't believe watermarks it's music, alters between bit perfect and not bit perfect. Upon playback, the HDCD indicator is on sometimes then off for a period of time, then back on etc... I really don't have a good guess for why this happens. I originally thought maybe an adaptive bit rate issue caused it, but even after downloading the tracks to my device offline and playing them, the problem remained. 

     

    Test 3, streaming the Reference Recording's album Break The Chain from Doug MacLeod produced the identical behavior. The only difference here was that the album was Apple's Hi-Res offering at 24 bit 176.4 kHz. Again, no solid bit perfect playback. Something is happening to the music. 

     

    A note about Apple's Hi-Res offerings that makes this a real mess. On Macs running macOS / OS X, the Apple Music app looks at the sample rate in Audio Midi upon the app's launch. Whatever same rate is set there, is the sample rate that Apple Music will use for playback as long as the app is open. OK, fine you say, Apple Music lossless is probably 16 bit / 44.1 kHz and that can be set in Audio Midi. Sure, now for the mess. Apple Music Hi-Res is be definition not 16 bit / 44.1 kHz. It go up through 24 bit / 192 kHz. OK, you can run through the whole dance closing Apple Music, manually setting the sampan rate in Audio Midi, then reopening Apple Music and off you go. Oh no you can't. Apple Music doesn't tell you what the sample rate of its Hi-Res music albums. Thus, you have no idea at what sample rate to set Audio Midi. 
     

    UPDATE: To find the sample rate of the album and play it correctly you have to play a track, click the info button to reveal the sample rate, change Audio MIDI to correct sample rate, restart Apple Music, play the track again. 

     

    How did I find the same rate? Fortunately, the Apple Music app on iOS has auto sample rate switching, which enabled me to get the rate, then sixth back to my Mac to run the tests. This was good because I could see the bit perfect audio stream for the first few seconds once I had the correct sample rate set. 


    Note: the Qobuz app plays this music bit perfect on my Mac.

     

     

    On iOS, as I just mentioned, we have the high benefit of automatic sample rate switching when playing music in Apple Music. The results for Test 1, 2, and 3 were identical on iOS as they were on macOS. Bit perfect for the first few seconds of major label albums. Bit perfect on and off for Reference recordings' albums. Apple Music on iOS switched between outputting 44.1 to outputting 176.4 without an issue. If only the audio would remain bit perfect during playback, it would be a great solution. 

     

    I will note that the Qobuz iOS app played everything bit perfect, but there needs to be an asterisk. For some reason Qobuz resamples the 176.4 Doug MacLeod album Break The Chain at 192 kHz on iOS rather than 176.4. I checked Neil Young's greatest hits to make sure I cold stream 192 material bit perfectly from Qobuz and succeeded. iOS and iPhones are fully capable of bit perfect audio at 176.4 kHz, so I'm not sure why Qobuz is resampling the RR releases. 

     


    What About mQa?

     

    There is interesting news on this front. Some labels have snuck mQa material into Apple Music just like they have on other services. Users of Apple Music can search for mQa and they'll see some albums such as the Radka Toneff Fairytales album. The albums playback as mQa on a DAC in my system that is a full mQa decoder. 

     

    I checked a number of other albums that have appeared on Tidal as mQa only and didn't find mQa for these releases on Apple Music. 

     

    As readers of Audiophile Style know, I'm no fan of mQa and am very pleased it hasn't made its way into more releases or officially into Apple Music. Those who may be reading this as fans of Apple Music, rather than typical audiophile offerings, and aren't familiar with mQa, can get the gist of it and the company from the following videos.


    Part 1 - https://youtu.be/pRjsu9-Vznc
    Part 2 - https://youtu.be/NHkqWZ9jzA0

     


    Wrap Up

     

    As it stands now, Apple Music's lossless and Hi-Res offerings are a bit of a soup sandwich. You can't really stream the audio without some type of DSP going on that makes the music different from the lossless version on CD and on other lossless services. My guess is digital watermarking. In addition, it's not possible to get a consistent lossless or Hi-Res stream for other music that I tested, such as that from Reference Recordings. When I ran into similar issues with Amazon Music HD, using its apps just like I used the Apple Music apps, I was happy to find the Amazon Music HD streams lossless and Hi-Res through third party devices from Bluesound. Given that Apple doesn't integrate with Bluesound, I can't test this. Apple does integrate with Sonos, but as I found previously (link), the new Sonos Port can't stream bit perfect either, so a test on that platform would be useless. 

     

    I will happily update this article if there are holes in my tests or something else changes. As it stands now, I don't know of any holes and I stand by these conclusions. 

     

     

     



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    Auto Sample Rate switching was the very first thing I tested last night when I got it to work with High Res...  Exclusive Access to the DAC, for the Music app in macOS, is another.

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    I didn't expect exclusive mode from iTunes, er, Apple Music, but I did expect bit rate switching on the Mac. I'm not going to say that flat-out makes things useless for my personal needs, but it makes things…wobbly. I'm not sure just setting it to stream "non hi-res" lossless and locking to 16/44.1 with Audio MIDI Setup is the right answer, either, because according to their own specs, Apple's non hi-res can still be 24/48. (Can I personally hear resampling going on if I just set it to 24/96, especially on my solid-for-desktop-but-still-desktop computer speakers? If I'm honest, I doubt it, but it's the principle of the thing.)

     

    That Music on iOS does handle auto rate switching is interesting, though.

     

    For the record, I just went to check my Apple TV, and there's now a setting for "Audio Quality" in the Music app setting -- but the choices are only "High Quality (AAC 256 kbps)" and "Lossless (ALAC up to 24-bit/48 kHz)", so no hi-res there. Since tvOS is based on iOS, it may do auto rate switching, although in extremely short testing it doesn't seem to have switched off 48K.

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    "Apple Music doesn't tel you what the sample rate of its Hi-Res music albums. Thus, you have no idea at what sample rate to set Audio Midi. "

     

    This is not correct or at least it does tell you the "intended" sample rate on my iMac. See the screenshot below.

    I still run into the problem though, where Apple Music defaults to the MIDI setting and even though the song is displayed at 24/96, it will output to the DAC at 16/44 (which is what the MIDI was set to).

     

    Furthermore, if you use the Apple Cloud service iTunes Match, any streaming will default to those settings which are 256 kbs AAC. So for instance if you have a 20K library of mp3's that you've carried over through out the years, those will be limiting your streaming of those files on Apple Music to lossy.

     

     

    Screen Shot 2021-06-08 at 8.18.13 AM.png

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    I never thought to click on that! Thank you. (Silly me, I would have put that info in, I don't know, the window that comes up when you click "Get Info".)

     

    I just commented to a friend that Apple has somehow managed to implement lossless audio -- something only audiophiles are likely to really care about  -- in the least audiophile-friendly manner possible. :)

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    4 minutes ago, The Computer Audiophile said:

    Ah thanks for the info!
     

    Apple design has really gone to the “click around and find out” method. 
     

    If I understand this correctly, you have to play the music, then click on the info button to get the sample rate, then change audio midi, then close & reopen Apple Music. 
     

    So convenient :~)

     

     

    Correct. And as far as the iTunes Match issue that prevents lossless streaming, Apple seems to not give a **ck.  Here is the response I got when I sent them the issue.  

     

    Hi Ken,

    Thanks for contacting us. I understand that Apple Music Lossless audio doesn’t work. I am happy to help you with this.

    About lossless audio in Apple Music, see below mentioned article:

    https://support.apple.com/kb/HT212183

    If you have more questions about this issue, please reply to this email to let me know. I’m happy to help.

    Thanks,
    P******
    Apple

     

     

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    8 minutes ago, KenG said:

     

     

    Correct. And as far as the iTunes Match issue that prevents lossless streaming, Apple seems to not give a **ck.  Here is the response I got when I sent them the issue.  

     

    Hi Ken,

    Thanks for contacting us. I understand that Apple Music Lossless audio doesn’t work. I am happy to help you with this.

    About lossless audio in Apple Music, see below mentioned article:

    https://support.apple.com/kb/HT212183

    If you have more questions about this issue, please reply to this email to let me know. I’m happy to help.

    Thanks,
    P******
    Apple

     

     

     

    Wow, you got a response? I sent a detailed explanation of why auto sample rate switching and exclusive access are required to fully realize the advantages of Hi Res and didn't hear a thing back.

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    @The Computer Audiophile could the off and on light be due to the lack of exclusive access causing the OS to intermittently sample the file when the system needs to make another sound? This thought just hit me when an email beep came through my speakers.

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    Just now, AudioDoctor said:

    @The Computer Audiophile could the off and on light be due to the lack of exclusive access causing the OS to intermittently sample the file when the system needs to make another sound? This thought just hit me when an email beep came through my speakers.

     

    Good thought, but very unlikely in my opinion. It's off 80% of the time, then pops back on. 

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    I haven't gone near iTunes or Apple Music in over a decade. I know why. I am about to order a 16gb Mini M1 though to replace my trash can Mac Pro (w 64gb RAM!). Still make pretty fine hardware imo. 

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    This is a real disappointment! 
    Seems like it’s more of a marketing ploy vs actually commitment and dedication for Apple to actually bring HiRes and lossless to the masses. 
    They may realize 99% of their customers won’t realize the difference on their AirPods or tiny Bluetooth wireless speakers anyhow? 
    So now Apple and Amazon can market to the masses “we play music in HD”, yet in reality, neither service is actually useful or fully operational in a system that can actually play bit perfect HiRes and Lossless audio, but the 99% of both of these giants customers will never even know or understand the difference because they all lack the ability to play audio at that level anyhow. 
    The real negative (in my opinion) to this situation, is that Apple and Amazon will (or already have) captured so much of the consumer market that this will put real pressure on Qobuz and Tidal sales and memberships and subscription fees, that they may have a very difficult time staying in business in the long run? 

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    How about download iOS 15 and verify. It’s available. 

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    1 hour ago, agladstone said:

    This is a real disappointment! 
    Seems like it’s more of a marketing ploy vs actually commitment and dedication for Apple to actually bring HiRes and lossless to the masses. 
    They may realize 99% of their customers won’t realize the difference on their AirPods or tiny Bluetooth wireless speakers anyhow? 
    So now Apple and Amazon can market to the masses “we play music in HD”, yet in reality, neither service is actually useful or fully operational in a system that can actually play bit perfect HiRes and Lossless audio, but the 99% of both of these giants customers will never even know or understand the difference because they all lack the ability to play audio at that level anyhow. 
    The real negative (in my opinion) to this situation, is that Apple and Amazon will (or already have) captured so much of the consumer market that this will put real pressure on Qobuz and Tidal sales and memberships and subscription fees, that they may have a very difficult time staying in business in the long run? 

     

    I chose to look at this as "glass half full". The fact that we have lossless and hires lossless at all is a huge win, even though that we don't have things like rate switching on MacOS or the holy grail of bit perfect communication. We have been waiting for this for many years. Auto rate switching has worked on iOS for many years now....it's just not been a priority on the Mac. I'm sure if this group is politely loud enough that we might get that feature. But there also has to be a legacy reason as to why CoreAudio on the Mac with the Audio Mini app works the way it does. There are still a fair amount of professional music apps that depend on this thing and you don't want to break it just because of needy audiophiles. :) So yes, some more bugs to fix but we're very close now.

     

    One more thing I did notice....if you have chosen "HiRes Lossless" in Mac Apple Music preferences, then play through to an Airplay endpoint, it obviously won't stuff a 24 bit/48khz+ file down that pipe since I don't think it works (yet). But Apple Music instead of downrezzing the sound to 16/44.1, it instead gets the lossy AAC version and upsamples it to 16/44.1. This is a little strange since Apple Music/iTunes has been downrezzing HiRes ALAC stored in iTunes databases for many years now when Airplay is the destination.

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    3 hours ago, ted_b said:

    I've not tested any of this, but for us multichannel fans the new benefit of Apple Music is the lossless Atmos releases.....and especially a VERY rare one indeed..Sgt Pepper!!  Dolby and Apple Ltd (not Apple Music) used an unreleased version of Sgt Pepper to demo Atmos a few years ago, but it never reached release status.   Now the folks on the Quad forum are saying that, indeed, Sgt Pepper is streaming in Atmos!!  Whether it's the same mix, that is currently undetermined (strangely enough, the arguably greatest Beatle song ever, Pepper's closing track, A Day In The Life, is NOT in Atmos).  Apple TV box required.

     

    There's another unicorn recording out there I'm dying to hear again. There is an unreleased multichannel version of Michael Jackson's "Thriller". I got a chance to sample it briefly when on a tour of one of Nashville's pre-eminent recording studios. Sadly, i don't have my own copy.

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    Hi all,

    Thanks Chris for taking the time to do these tests. I tend to think that this lack of bit perfect playback is more a technical issue that eventually could be solved, and not a sort of "plot" by Apple to avoid giving away the crown jewels...

    Could it be that the flag is removed for some reason during the streaming without actually modifying the digital audio content?

    Perhaps this is a naive idea, and don't know if technically meaningful at all: I think there are apps that can capture system audio, so it would be nice if a "fair length" of audio from a supposedly lossless audio stream from Apple Music could be digitally captured and recorded as an audio file, and having that compared with a null-test against a file of the same music obtained from Qobuz or other source.

    The idea is try to see if the audio bits of the stream are modified, besides the mere removal of a flag. Does this makes sense?

    Regards,

    Jorge

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    I remember Queens - A Night at the Opera on Multichannel DVD-A. I wonder if that will make it's way toward Atmos - that would be interesting.

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    I read all this and wonder why vinyl made a comeback the way it has.

    Half full is true, modestly put, half assed a better description. Will give it some time, there's ios15 or 19 to look forward too.

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    1 hour ago, jzahr said:

    Could it be that the flag is removed for some reason during the streaming without actually modifying the digital audio content?


    Not likely. The flag is part of the 16 bits of data. It works partially on and off throughout some tracks. 

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    Don't have Apple Music here @The Computer Audiophile, but just to double check...

     

    Toneff's Fairytales (mQa) is "bit perfect" enough as a 24/48 stream to decode which we know can lose the lowest few bits and still be recognized, but a true 16/44.1 HDCD which has the 16th bit containing the HDCD stream has been altered and thus not recognized.

     

    Is that what you think is happening here?

     

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    14 minutes ago, Archimago said:

    Don't have Apple Music here @The Computer Audiophile, but just to double check...

     

    Toneff's Fairytales (mQa) is "bit perfect" enough as a 24/48 stream to decode which we know can lose the lowest few bits and still be recognized, but a true 16/44.1 HDCD which has the 16th bit containing the HDCD stream has been altered and thus not recognized.

     

    Is that what you think is happening here?

     


    Hi Arch, what’s happening is that the test isn’t apples to apples. Yes, mQa can lose some bits and still light the mQa light. I also don’t know how long it can lose the bits for and still light the light and if this varies between devices.
     

    HDCD can’t lose anything and will immediately lose the light upon anything messing with the LSB. 

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    I'd forgotten about using HDCD as a test for bit perfect output! I remember doing that on a previous receiver. (Originally by accident. "Wait, why is the HDCD light on? I'm playing a ripped…oh, I get it.") I'm pretty sure I no longer own anything that can decode HDCD, though.

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    As an aside, there exists a (Windows) command-line utility that performs the HDCD level compensation function, but not the other dynamic EQ stuff I’ve not seen coherently explained. Still, it made a huge improvement on my Tom Petty box set. 
     

    I could probably track it down again. 

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