Apple Music may come with a long list of advantages over rivals like Spotify — such as real radio and a super-affordable family plan — but there’s one thing it’s lagging behind on, and that’s music quality… or so it seems.
The highest bitrate Apple Music will offer is 256 kbps, which is lower than the 320 kbps offered by Spotify, Rdio, Tidal, and Apple’s own Beats Music service.
Kbps, or kilobits per second, refers to the number of “bits” — pieces of data — that are processed every second. So when you listen to a 256 kbps song, every second is made up of 256 kilobits of data, and that’s what you’ll be used to if you buy most of your music through iTunes.
1,411 kbps is considered “lossless” audio, and anything under that is classed as “lossy.” In simple terms, this means the file has been compressed to save space and has lost some of its bits along the way. The lower the bitrate, then, the poorer the quality.
So, theoretically, Apple Music’s 256 kbps bitrate shouldn’t sound as good as the 320 kbps offered by rival services. But there’s more to it than just bitrate.
Apple uses the AAC format for its tracks, which tends to be much better than the MP3 format used by Spotify and the others because of the way in which it’s encoded. In some cases, then, a 256 kbps AAC track can sound better than a 320 kbps track.
But either way, most users probably aren’t going to notice a massive difference — especially if they predominantly listen to services like Spotify on mobile, where the bitrate is lowered by default, or they’re already used to iTunes music.
Spotify may have an advantage over Apple Music in bitrate on paper, then, but don’t let that fool you.