Apple Music Lossless and AirPods: The Confusing Highs and Lows

Apple Music's new lossless playback is big news, and not just for audiophiles, but you'd be forgiven for getting confused when it comes to how the higher-quality streaming plays with your AirPods or other headphones. While subscribers won't pay any more for Apple Music with the Lossless and Hi-Resolution Lossless tracks, you may need to spend something on new hardware – yes, even if you've already bought AirPods Max.

"Regular" Lossless tracks on Apple Music will start at 16-bit at 44.1 kHz, and run through to 24-bit at 48 kHz. That, Apple says, is around CD quality. Hi-Resolution Lossless, however, will kick things up to 24-bit at 192 kHz for even more sound quality.

Will my AirPods play Apple Music Lossless tracks?

The bad news is that Apple Music Lossless playback isn't compatible with Apple's Bluetooth earbuds, or specifically the AAC codec which Apple uses for its AirPods, AirPods Pro, and AirPods Max. Lossless files, in contrast, rely on the ALAC format, or Apple Lossless Audio Codec.

Without the codec support, it doesn't matter what level of quality you've streamed, or downloaded, to your iPhone or iPad: your AirPods are always going to play a more compressed version.

What about lossless with AirPods Max in wired listening mode?

Apple's flagship headphones, the AirPods Max, also prioritize wireless streaming like AirPods earbuds. However, Apple does offer a wired adapter, which plugs into the headphones' Lightning port on one end, and gives you a regular 3.5mm plug on the other. It's $35, and designed so that you can use the headphones with an in-flight entertainment system, for instance.

Unfortunately, the AirPods Max' wired listening mode only supports analog output sources. Since you can't play digital audio formats, it means you can't use the headphones to get the quality boost from Apple Music lossless, even if you plug them in.

So how do I listen to Lossless music on my iPhone?

Apple's AirPod (and Beats Audio) range may not play nicely with Apple Music Lossless files, but that doesn't mean you can't listen to them at all. Unfortunately, it does mean you'll need extra hardware.

To listen to Apple Music Lossless files, you can use Apple's own Lightning to 3.5mm headphone jack adapter. That's a 24-bit DAC, and is able to handle everything in the Lossless audio tier. You will, of course, need a set of wired headphones that also support that level of audio quality in order to hear the difference.

For Hi-Res Lossless tracks, meanwhile, you'll need a DAC that can support the sort of 192 kHz files that Apple Music's highest quality files deliver. You're definitely going to find more options there for Mac than you will for iPhone: USB DACs are fairly commonplace, but versions designed to work with Apple's smartphone are less numerous. Some of Audioquest's latest DragonFly models do support 192 kHz and will work with a Lightning to USB adapter on an iPhone, for instance. Even then, you're limited to wired audio, not wireless.

Apple says Lossless and Hi-Res Lossless music will be added to Apple Music from June. It's expecting to have around 20 million songs available in Lossless audio at launch, with the remainder of the 75 million song-strong catalog upgraded by the end of the year.