Apple Music offers both Spatial Audio and Lossless Audio as part of a subscription at no additional cost. With Apple offering the same features that more premium streamers like Tidal have, many Apple Music users are very excited about the news.
But are spatial audio and lossless audio good? Or is Apple just doing a lot of marketing? Let's find out.
What are Spatial Audio and Lossless Audio on Apple Music?
Spatial Audio manipulates the sound as if it came from the front, from the back, from above, and from left and right. Without getting too technical, Spatial Audio uses filters to adjust the audio frequencies and can place sounds anywhere in a 3D space.
Apple's Spatial Audio works the same way, using Dolby Atmos as the audio format. You need a pair of AirPods Max or Pro with an iPhone or iPad to use the Spatial Audio function.
Spatial Audio in Apple Music also supports head tracking in iOS 15 so that the sound can follow your head movements. The gyroscope and accelerometer in AirPods Pro and Max detect movement and anchor the sound to your device's location.
Lossless audio is a little easier to understand. Pretty much the entire time we've been listening to music digitally since CDs, we've been using the MP3 or M4A file formats for audio. Streaming services usually use this format as well.
Both file formats compress the music track to make the file size manageable for everyday listening. However, in the process of compression, parts of the audio that the computer does not consider to be relevant are lost.
With Lossless Audio, music is saved and streamed in a WAV or FLAC file format. These files are much larger because they are not compressed. The result is an audio track that sounds exactly as it left the music studio.
Here's how Apple Music's Spatial Audio works
To see how effective Apple Music's Spatial Audio was, we ran a blind test. Playing a track that supports Dolby Atmos on Apple Music, a track from Spotify, and a track from YouTube. When playing the Atmos track, you could immediately see that it was spatial audio and not normal stereo sound.
One blind test wasn't enough. We might end up being biased because we know what to hear. When we repeated the same blind test on two other listeners, we got the same results. The Spatial Audio track was recognizable.
So now we know Spatial Audio works, and the question is whether or not it works. Tracks expertly mixed for Dolby Atmos will sound great with this feature. The sound of the various instruments, beats, and voices was directional, and it was a much better way to hear the track.
However, not all tracks for Dolby Atmos are mixed. Some are only labeled to support spatial audio, but they don't and sound the same or worse. Many tracks have both voices and instruments muted so you often cannot hear the bass.
This is the only problem with Spatial Audio – you don't know if a track was mixed for Dolby Atmos or not. This is not due to Apple, but to the labels that incorrectly mark their tracks on the platform. Perhaps Apple needs an option to differentiate between working with spatial audio and mixing for Dolby Atmos.
Once Apple finds a way to solve this problem, Spatial Audio will be perfect. Spatial audio is likely a feature you'll turn off at the gym, especially with head tracking in iOS 15. However, if you're only listening to one track, you'll want to enhance your listening experience.
Unfortunately, there isn't a computer test you can run to visualize where the sounds are best coming from. We therefore marked a track in a diagram where we could hear noises.
Although this is a 2D representation and not a 3D representation like it would in real life, you can still see where the sounds were coming from. Instead of just coming through the headphones, Spatial Audio offers different sounds in the track depth and position. And that's exactly what it's supposed to do.
Here's how Apple Music lossless audio works
Lossless audio is probably the more beneficial of the two features. While Spatial Audio enhances your listening experience, you likely won't be using it at the gym or using it in your car. Lossless Audio ensures that you get the best possible audio quality.
To test how well Apple's Lossless Audio worked, we ran the same blind tests as we did for Spatial Audio. There was one listener who couldn't make out the track on lossless audio, but everyone else said they could distinguish between the quality.
We used a pair of AirPods Pro in the tests. To access Hi-Res Lossless, which is even more premium, you need high quality wired headphones. At this stage, unless they are an audiophile or an expert, most people would have difficulty distinguishing between quality. What's impressive about it is hearing the difference with lossless audio through AirPods.
If we take a closer look at Apple Music's Lossless Audio, we can see if the tracks are actually lossless. If we look at a sound wave from a lossless audio track and compare it to a normal track (both from Apple Music), we should see the difference in the sound waves.
These sound waves show us exactly what we expected. The lossless audio files have a lot more range than the standard audio files because they are not compressed. In fact, the difference is pretty stark when you look at the amplitude (height) of the track in some areas.
Should you switch to Apple Music for lossless and spatial audio?
Compared to other music streaming services in the past, Apple Music has always been somewhere in the middle. There's nothing Apple Music did particularly well at, and there were a few features it probably could have added. Apple Music wasn't bad – just mediocre. That has now changed.
From the tests we ran, we can see that Apple Music's Spatial Audio and Lossless Audio offerings do really well. The features do exactly what they promise on the can, and they can take your music to the next level. Of course, audio is a very personal preference. What sounds good to some may sound better or worse to others.
But with new premium features in Apple Music at no additional cost, it would be stupid not to try it out in the three month free trial. You will find that it is probably enough to make you switch.