Apple Music: How to hear the difference

Kishore Bhargava | | Updated on: Aug 17, 2021

AudioQuest DragonFly are expensive, but worth to listen on the transformation in the music

AudioQuest DragonFly are expensive, but worth to listen on the transformation in the music

Lossless and hi-res tracks may be available now, but you need to take a few steps to listen

Amongst all the announcements made back at WWDC-2021 by Apple, one that had a lot of people excited were the changes coming to Apple Music. They announced three significant changes. Apple Music would now be available in lossless (CD quality), hi-res lossless (better than CD quality) and spatial audio (Dolby Atmos) or basically music coming at you from all angles.

Along with this they also announced that this would be a server side change and only needed to be enabled in settings on the device playing it and finally, no change in the pricing plans even for the hi-res lossless tier. This is huge since many other services like Tidal and Qobuz actually make their money based on the fact that they provide hi-res lossless music which you can’t get anywhere else. Suddenly, Apple has the opportunity of converting its entire library of over 75 million songs into better than CD quality.

It was a month after the event that the changes happened in the US and some other countries. For India, the services started sometime in mid-July and ever since we have been listening to higher quality music. But life is not that simple. To truly get the best out of Apple Music you may need to add some additional pieces to your music system.

First-up, if you just want to listen to CD quality music, then you will need at the very least a pair of wired headphones. This is primarily because Bluetooth is not capable of streaming CD quality. While there are some headphones like those from Sony that have the proprietary LDAC protocol and get to be very close to CD quality, but it still falls short. If you are using an iPhone, then the lightning to 3.5mm stereo adapter does the job very well and you will most certainly hear the difference.

For an iPad, depending on whether it has a USB-C port or lightning port, you will need the appropriate adapter. Airplay does support lossless and can be used. An Apple TV or speakers which support Airplay2 can definitely be used to stream lossless music.

AudioQuest DragonFly

The challenge is when you want to go to a higher resolution. The built-in DAC (digital-to-analog) convertor in the phones are just not good enough for the job and you need to add an external DAC. If you like listening on headphones, there are many choices of good headphone DACs which will not break the bank, the Shanling UA1 is a good starting point. And as you fall through the rabbit hole of becoming an audiophile you can invest in an AudioQuest DragonFly. You’ll find these available on Amazon, Headphone Zone and AV shops. They’re expensive sometimes, but worth the transformation in the music.

Of course the real fun begins when you want to listen on a nice pair of speakers, whether powered or ones with an amplifier. In our listening journey, we tried several types, starting with the low-end speakers the kind that you normally connect to a computer and moved onto a pair of Sonos Play 5 speakers and then finally to a pair of Klipsch speakers. Our final chain was a Schiit MODI DAC with a Schiit MAGNI pre-amp connected to the Klipsch speakers. For the source, we used an iPhone, an iPad, a Oneplus phone (yes, did we mention that lossless and hi-res lossless is also supported on Android) and finally an Android tablet. All of them worked very well.

Spatial audio

In terms of listening, the difference between the normal AAC stream and the lossless and hi-res lossless stream was stark. Even at CD quality, the sound stage really opened up, tonal clarity was simply amazing and dynamic range was brilliantly handled. In some ways even listening to tracks from our college days felt like rediscovering some of that music. Hearing things which previously sounded like a “thak” sound to actually hearing them as a “clink” which is what it should have been all along.

Only time will tell if the serious audiophiles will come flocking to Apple Music or not, but for the beginner audio buffs this is music to the ears.

But wait it’s not yet over: we haven’t discussed “Spatial Audio” yet. A few years ago, Apple introduced spatial audio for its AirPods. Other manufacturers also had similar options but the content was lacking. The first and most obvious choice for content which is 360° are movies and TV shows and if you use your headphones to consume such content then it was a very interesting and immersive experience indeed. But what about music? Nobody thought music would go the same direction. In fact, Apple actually talks more about spatial audio than it does about lossless. A classic old track by Marvin Gaye has been used to demonstrate the progression of music from mono to stereo to spatial audio and if listening on headphones it does truly feel immersive. As newer music is recorded with this in mind it would be an interesting journey to follow. We would love to see Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon mastered as Spatial Audio or Dolby Atmos or whatever you may want to call it. That would be a fascinating listen. Apple Music is only Rs 99 a month and just Rs 49 for students.

Published on August 17, 2021
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