Apple might have bigger plans for next week than initially thought. The new iMac, iPad Pro, and Apple TV 4K are all set to start shipping to early preorder customers on or around May 21st, but now it seems there could be two surprise announcements: a hi-fi streaming tier of Apple Music, and maybe even AirPods 3.
The Apple Music part seems extremely likely when you factor in a report from 9to5Google. Digging into the latest Apple Music for Android beta app, they discovered direct references to high-resolution audio that didn’t exist previously
These are the prompts found in the app’s code, though they’re not user-facing quite yet:
Lossless audio files preserve every detail of the original file. Turning this on will consume significantly more data.
Lossless audio files will use significantly more space on your device. 10 GB of space could store approximately: – 3000 songs at high quality – 1000 songs with lossless – 200 songs with hi-res lossless
Lossless streaming will consume significantly more data. A 3-minute song will be approximately: – 1.5 MB with high efficiency- 6 MB with high quality at 256 kbps- 36 MB with lossless at 24-bit/48 kHz- 145 MB with hi-res lossless at 24-bit/192 kHzSupport varies and depends on song availability, network conditions, and connected speaker or headphone capability.
It doesn’t get much more direct and clear than that, with Apple warning about both the higher data consumption of streaming lossless music and the added storage space that will be necessary to download it for offline listening. The fact that Apple has now added this data to its Android app suggests that this could all be happening sooner than later. I say that because Apple’s Apple One bundle showed up in Apple Music for Android just days before its public announcement.
The Android app code also reveals that Apple Music will offer two choices for lossless playback:
ALAC up to 24-bit/48 kHz
ALAC up to 24-bit/192 kHz
So it sounds like Apple has every intention of matching what Tidal, Amazon Music HD, and services like Qobuz currently deliver. It’s also worth noting that there’ve been recent references to Dolby Atmos spatial audio in Apple Music on iOS, according to 9to5Mac.
Apple has for years stuck to its customary 256kbps AAC files for both iTunes and Apple Music. When iTunes Plus debuted all the way back in 2007, that was a substantial upgrade over heavily compressed MP3s that people were downloading from peer-to-peer apps like Napster and Limewire during the height of music piracy. And it’s still perfectly adequate. Mastering of tracks has just as much influence on the listening experience as encoding details do, and Apple has tried to play to this aspect with its “Apple Digital Masters,” which aim to get the most dynamic range and detail from songs on its platform.
But in terms of pure music fidelity, Apple has objectively been surpassed by companies like Tidal and Amazon over the last several years. My friend Micah Singleton has a great piece over at Billboard about how we’re entering the hi-fi era of the streaming music wars. Amazon Music HD is performing strongly, with subscriptions up 100 percent year over year. Spotify has also promised the launch of “Spotify HiFi” for later this year.
There’s money to be made, and the ingredients are all there: Apple now sells premium headphones in the AirPods Max, and wireless carriers continue to talk up the promise and speeds of their growing 5G networks. I can’t imagine 5G will be required for lossless Apple Music streaming, but it’s a nice flex of the technology right in the middle of the iPhone 12 cycle.
What about those AirPods 3, though?
There have already been quite a few leaks that revealed details about Apple’s next iteration of AirPods, but the real question has been around release timing. Yesterday, a report from a site called AppleTrack suggested that the new AirPods could be announced alongside this new lossless tier of Apple Music. I don’t quite follow the logic, myself; no one really thinks of regular AirPods as the right choice for audiophile listening, but maybe Apple just wants new hardware of some sort to launch in tandem with the new service.
Taken on its own, the AirPods rumor seems “sketchy” as 9to5Mac said. But the sudden discoveries about lossless audio in Apple Music for Android seem to add some fuel to the fire.