The inbound Apple Music Lossless feature promises high-fidelity music recordings, but does it even matter in the first place? Here's how to test your own hearing and gear to see if it matters to you.
On Monday, Apple introduced a Lossless option to Apple Music, which aims to provide listeners with every single bit of the original audio file in the song's production. In effect, this makes it so that listeners will be able to "hear the exact same thing that the artists created in the studio," claims Apple.
Having the chance to listen to the original as-intended recording is certainly an attractive proposition for music users. However, once you've sourced a lossless recording, there's still two main obstacles standing in your way from being able to actually hear it: your hardware and your hearing.
The hardware side is actually the easiest of the two, as Apple has outlined products which support Lossless Audio at launch - and none of Apple's wireless earbuds or headphones can, due to Bluetooth limitations. While you could use built-in speakers to play Lossless Audio, you can also connect the devices up to compatible hardware that's also capable of playing the audio in the first place.
Even after you've got your Mac or iPhone set up properly and everything is configured correctly, you still may not be able to hear any difference. Thankfully, you can actually test this out at home.
How to check if you can tell the difference between lossless and lossy audio
It is entirely possible for someone to be able to hear the difference in audio from a track that is defined as "lossless" and another encoded to play at lower bitrates. Likewise, some can't hear a difference at all.
One sure-fire way to find out is to put your hearing — and your gear — to the test. One extremely comprehensive trial is the ABX test from DigitalFeed.net. Originally introduced as an alternative to an online test produced by Tidal, the test provides a way to see if you can actually tell the difference, using your equipment and a selection of audio tracks.
The test functions by playing you three audio sources that can be switched between at any time, known as A, B, and X. The aim of the task is to listen to all three samples, and to determine whether sample X matches with Sample A or Sample B.
When you have determined whether sample A or B matches to X, you lock in your answer and can move on to the next trial.
Since the trial is all about matching the sample, there's the chance that sample X could be the lossless or the lossy version. That means you won't know which you're trying to uncover each time, and so you only have to decide if it matches, not whether sample A or B is better.
Rather than doing it once for each of five tracks, the test actually requires multiple trials of each, ranging from 5 trials per track and a total of 25 trials, to 20 trials per track and 100 trials. The higher the number of trials you undertake, the more chance the results will be accurate.
After you complete the test, it will give you a percentage mark for overall correctness, whether it believes you can or cannot tell the difference between lossless and lossy audio, and a percentage score for matching samples for each track.
After completing the test, it's likely that you will get a result saying you "probably can't" tell the difference between lossless and lossy audio. This is quite normal, and certainly nothing to be downhearted about.
Five AppleInsider writers attempted the test using their varied computing setups, and got similar results across the board. All were scored that they "probably can't" tell the difference between lossy and lossless audio.
Percentage scores on the test ranged from 52% to 64%, which isn't a great spread. Collectively, we were barely better than random at determining which was better, and the results backed up comments made during the test where the subjects openly admitted they couldn't tell the difference.
As for why the AI team couldn't tell the difference, that could be down to a range of factors, including their particular audio setup, the decision to use headphones or a speaker, whether they directly connected their output devices to the source or used a DAC, and so on.
The AppleInsider team may be able to get better results if all could use setups that will definitely work with lossless audio, though not necessarily.
The other main factor is their ability to hear. Gradual hearing loss due to age could be a contributor, along with any damage to hearing, the build-up of wax, environmental issues, or other medical reasons.
We all know that our hearing deteriorates as we get older, be it through normal use or from external factors. Using headphones at loud volumes or working in high-volume environments won't do hearing many favors.
What does this mean to me?
Being able to hear lossless audio is great, both in terms of having audio hardware capable of playing it, and of having the ability to hear it as well. But at the same time, not being able to hear it isn't the end of the world.
The addition of Apple Music Lossless isn't a must-have thing for everyone. Most people will be perfectly fine listening to the standard streams, without all of the fine detail. A small audience of audiophiles absolutely want that detail, but that's a really confined group.
There's also benefits of not listening to Apple Music Lossless too, such as not having to worry about higher storage or bandwidth usage due to the larger file sizes required. There's also not having to worry about needing compatible hardware to get the best possible quality, as you wouldn't be able to tell the difference anyway.
But sure, it would be nice to be able to hear every little frequency change of an instrument playing a note, but not everyone wants that.
Many just want to listen to the music.