AirPods, HomePod lose out on Apple Music lossless audio streaming [Updated]

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AirPods Max connected to iPhone
AirPods Max have a lot to offer, but not the upcoming Apple Music lossless option.
Photo: Ian Fuchs/Cult of Mac

Apple Music fans who are super-excited about the just-announced lossless audio option should be aware that it won’t work with AirPods or HomePod. Not even the $549 AirPods Max.

But Apple’s headphones and smart speaker do support Spatial Audio for songs mixed in Dolby Atmos, another new feature of Apple Music.

Apple revealed early Monday that its streaming audio service will begin offering lossless audio in June as a free option for customers. The bad news about AirPods and HomePod followed quickly.

The word comes from Apple itself via T3. Apple confirmed to the site that neither AirPods Pro nor AirPods Max support the new Apple Music lossless options. And MacRumors confirmed that HomePod and HomePod mini don’t support lossless audio.

Why lossless Apple Music is too much for AirPods

Audio can be stored and streamed in lossless or lossy formats. In the latter options, some of the audio quality is stripped away in order to reduce file sizes and thus the bandwidth required to download or stream the music. An enormous amount of work went into crafting lossy formats, including Apple’s own AAC, that sound as much like lossless ones as possible,.

AirPods support only AAC. But Apple Music will stream lossless audio in the ALAC format (short for Apple Lossless Audio Codec). So the headphones can’t use the new audio option.

It’s not a question of bandwidth. Bluetooth 5.0 has the bandwidth to play a lossless audio, and AirPods Pro and Max have Bluetooth 5.0. And HomePods use Wi-Fi. But these devices don’t support the necessary codec.

Hardware matters

Apple Music’s lossless options start at CD quality: 16 bit/44.1 kHz up to 24 bit/48 kHz. The top-of-the-line service is 24 bit/192 kHz. Listening to this — and being able to truly hear the improvement in quality — will require a wired connection to a top-quality speaker system.

And that’s the cusp of the issue. Apple stuck with a lossy codec like AAC because it takes professional-grade equipment to be able to tell any difference between its well-made lossy codec and a lossless one. It’s certainly not coming from a speaker small enough to be jammed into someone’s ear.

That said, one might argue that a $549 pair of AirPods Max over-the-ear headphones should support ALAC. It’s likely many people who bought the product — which debuted only a few months ago — will make this point.

And HomePod owners are likely to be equally disappointed. Even if the full-size version of this smart speaker has been discontinued.

Still, users of AirPods Pro, AirPods Max  and HomePod do get to enjoy Spatial Audio, which is also being added to Apple Music. “Listening to a song in Dolby Atmos is like magic. The music comes from all around you and sounds incredible,” said Oliver Schusser, VP of Apple Music and Beats, in a statement Monday.