Spatial and Lossless Audio Go Live in Apple Music

Posted on June 9, 2021 by Paul Thurrott in Apple, iOS, Android, iPadOS, Music + Videos with 32 Comments

Yesterday, Apple enabled spatial and lossless audio in Apple Music across its own platforms, with Android support coming soon.

Apple announced it was adding these features to Apple Music back in May, but the big surprise was that they would be free additions, and not available only in an extra-cost subscription tier. This scrambled Spotify’s plans for lossless audio, and Amazon announced that day that its Amazon HD lossless capabilities would be free as well in response.

There’s also been a lot of confusion around which devices will support these capabilities. Apple Music’s spatial audio capabilities are provided by Dolby Atmos and work fine with many headphones and most smartphones and tablets, but not with many speaker systems. And Apple Music’s two lossless tiers have even more complicated compatibility issues, especially with Apple’s own audio hardware. Its HomePod smart speakers, for example, will get Apple Music lossless support in the future via a software update.

I tested Apple Music spatial audio yesterday using my iPad Air, which features four speakers and should be a decent on-device experience, and I tried via my Bose Quiet Comfort Earbuds, which I paired with my iPhone 11 Pro Max, but they don’t appear to support Dolby Atmos. And I have to say, the results were impressive in most cases, even with the devices’ built-in speakers. And this makes me wonder about a future Dolby Atoms-compatible speaker setup for the home.

If you’re interested in this functionality, I recommend starting with Apple’s “Made for Spatial Audio” playlist, which is being promoted in the app. It steps you through mono, stereo, and spatial versions of Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On” and several other songs (most of which have stereo and spatial versions).

Browsing through the surprisingly large library of songs with spatial versions, most sound great, but there are some odd outliers that I’ve sampled that sound a bit off. And a user on Reddit discovered that there is a “spatialize stereo” feature in the iOS Control Panel that will apply a fake immersive effect on stereo songs too. It’s all quite interesting and worth checking out if you’re a music fan.

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Comments (32)

32 responses to “Spatial and Lossless Audio Go Live in Apple Music”

  1. smidgerine

    I don't know if you ever heard DVD Audio, but it was amazing. From Fleetwood Mac's Rumors to Disturbed's Believe... Amazing. But you had to have the right speaker setup.

    • lvthunder

      What would be the right speaker setup? I have a 5.1 system. Would that work?

  2. lvthunder

    Does anyone know if you can listen to any of this in iTunes for Windows?

    • Paul Thurrott

      Not today. I suspect we'll see an Apple Music app on Windows this year that will perhaps have this ability.
      • Chris_Kez

        Interesting. With Apple Music on the web coming out of beta I kind of assumed they would give up on native Windows apps and just push Windows users to the web (or else keep updating iTunes for a few more years).

  3. Cardch

    This is all hilarious. I would rather listen to a decent song in mono than a load of garbage (not Garbage, to be clear) in lossless, spatial etc. Same as I'd rather watch Star Wars on a 14" black and white portable TV than Transformers on 100" 4k screen. Give me the content.

    • Paul Thurrott

      Um. OK. Having actually experienced this, I think spatial audio is amazing for music.
      • Cardch

        I am sure it is amazing and, tbh, I don’t deny I would like to hear it but being of the elderly persuasion I’ve seen content reissued so many times (and have usually been expected to pay for it) - VHS, DVD, BluRay, 4K for films, and vinyl, CD, download, streaming and now lossless/spatial etc. for music that I kind of just want to hear the songs these days. If it’s free and it’s better then great, but I don’t want to invest in another bunch of hardware in order to appreciate it. I’m cynical I know, but I’ve lost faith in the latest and greatest actually ending up being either of those things, and instead just another way for companies to monetise art all over again...

  4. foxstar

    The iPad Air? 4th generation I assume? That only has 2 speakers. I don’t think any Air has more than 2, that’s a Pro feature.

  5. JH_Radio

    Now the only reason to choose one over another is design or voice features. For example, with Siri you can't create playlists which I can with the A lady. How long before Pandora, iHeartRadio etc do lossless or Dolby?

  6. Saarek

    Some of the tracks seem to sound worse using Spatial Audio, the Blink 182 track for example sounds a lot better in stereo, at least to my ears.

    The track "Don't know why" by Norah Jones does sound better, but it's not the SD to HD styled upgrade that they hyperboled.

    I don't think it's my setup, I own a pair of Sony XM4's and tried using a wired connection on my B&W P5's too.

    • behindmyscreen

      Check out some of the Beatles tracks. I really think the way the original was mixed has a huge impact on the quality of experience for Dolby Atmos.

  7. tallguyse

    I may be in the minority, but I think it sounds like complete garbage. Listening on AirPods Max. IMHO, vocals sound overly processed and percussion sounds really flat and weak. Listened to many of the tracks on the Spacial Audio playlist and none sounded like an improvement or even good.

  8. bluvg

    Lossless is a waste of bits (compared to good lossy codecs >300 kbps or so). You might notice a difference, but good luck telling which is which with any reliability.

    Spatial audio is more interesting (though hardly new--quadraphonic sound goes way back; SRS was commonly packaged with Windows audio devices back a couple decades, though the audio equipment was typically too mediocre to get the benefits).

    Scoble says Apple is about to make a huge VR play, and spatial audio is one piece of the puzzle.

    • Patrick3D

      It's a shame most people can't hear how truly awful compressed music is, lossless is a necessity for anyone that actually cares about music.

      • bluvg

        It mattered in the days when bitrates were 128 kbps and the like. It doesn't now that they're > 300.

        "Lossless" is a misnomer. Everything is "lossy" when compared to real life (and most non-classical music is already not "real-life"), including uncompressed 16 and 24 bit. But at some point, it doesn't matter (for listening; recording is a different scenario), because the human ear is not capable of distinguish it (and most folks have some hearing loss due to age or damage). That point is ~300 kbps for stereo for modern codecs. It doesn't mean one doesn't care about music to acknowledge that.

    • behindmyscreen

      Did you just compare Dolby Atmos to quadraphonic?

      • bluvg

        Spatial Audio. Not exactly apples-to-apples ("Apples"?), but there have been many attempts and approaches around greater locationality in sound repro beyond stereo.

    • igor engelen

      Agree about lossless but for some people it's a criteria to choose a music service. Guess that's why Apple made the move.

      • bluvg

        With multi-thousand $ 3ft cables (and "cable lifters" in the hundreds--each!), it's an industry fueled by snake oil, nonsense, and intuition/rationalization over data. People will A-B test, but rarely if ever blind A-B test themselves multiple times to determine if they can reliably distinguish results.

        • lvthunder

          Sometimes you can't distinguish a difference, but a difference is still there. Who knows what mind tricks our brain is going through to make lossy audio sound good. If we can stream 4k we can stream lossless audio without a problem.

          • bluvg

            It's not a brain trick, it's a limit of perception issue. If the sense organs are incapable of perceiving it--and they are--then why is it important? "Lossless" is a relative term. Uncompressed 16 bit is lossy compared to 24 bit, which is lossy compared to 32 bit, etc. etc. Can anyone hear 400 KHz? Nope. 22 KHz? Nope. Is the difference there? Yes, but it doesn't matter (unless you plan to alter it with something like time-stretching, etc.). If one A-B tests again and again, even if they can discern a difference between an uncompressed stream and a 320 kbps, if they can't pick which is the "better" version greater than chance, any preference is based on looking at a number rather than perceivable preference (i.e., they'll have "preferred" the "worse" version ~50% of the time). And, if they A-B the same track again and again, it won't be surprising they're not consistent in guessing which is which.

            Many people prefer vinyl, but it's more "lossy" (distorted) than a CD. There are definitely things to care about in audio, but "lossless" is a total red herring.

  9. Scsekaran

    Spatial audio is mostly a gimmick and lossless audio by Apple is just marketing.

    • behindmyscreen

      Eh...It depends on the dynamic range of the music from what I have been able to find.

      A nice wide dynamic range gives a much wider feel for the music compared to stereo. If the music has a compressed dynamic range like most modern pop/rock music then it still feels wider than stereo in the sound stage but not as dramatic.

  10. mclark2112

    Does this work for iTunes Match or just Apple Music

  11. michael_jones

    Your Bose earbuds likely work, it's just that the default in the setup appears to be 'automatic' detection and it's customized for Apple devices apparently according to the notes on that page. You can enable it all the time in Settings -> Music -> Dolby Atmos and switch it to always on. That means it comes out a little funky in places where you aren't wearing headphones, so not 100% ideal. But at least a chance to be able to check it.

    Also, there are changes there in Audio Quality for the new Lossless formats and how they are handled over cellular, wi-fi and downloads.

    I had to look at a lot of different sites to find that they buried all those things in Settings vs in the Music app.