What’s Next in Music Streaming?

Are lossless music and Dolby atmos the way forward?

Adwitiya Pal
ILLUMINATION

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Image designed by the author: Adwitiya Pal

Apple Music just announced support for two new features: high-quality, lossless audio and Dolby Atmos’ Spatial Audio. These will be available to all subscribers by next month at no additional cost.

Apple says that it will make its entire catalog of over 75 million songs available in a lossless format using ALAC (Apple Lossless Audio Codec), which is its alternative to the common lossless compression format FLAC. With ALAC, users can now choose to listen in CD quality, which is 16 bit at 44.1 kHz and going up to 24 bit at 48 kHz. With an external digital-to-audio converter (DAC), subscribers can also stream at a ridiculous quality of 24 bit at 192 kHz, which Apple is calling ‘Hi-Resolution Lossless’.

In contrast, the highest quality music currently provided by Apple Music sits at 256 kbps, more than five times lower than the base-level lossless CD quality and a whopping 36 times lower than the Hi-Resolution Lossless files.

Sharing the spotlight with this announcement was also the news that Apple will be bringing Spatial Audio with support for Dolby Atmos to all headphones playing music via an Apple device.

What Does It Mean For You?

It’s not just Apple Music; Amazon Music and Tidal are already onto lossless streaming and Dolby Audio, and Spotify’s expected to join very soon. To break down what these two new features mean for you, let’s take a look at them separately.

Digital music quality has come a long way today from the days of 64 kbps MP3 files. The highest quality provided by all streaming platforms at present is sufficient for most listeners. AAC or Advanced Audio Coding format used by services like Apple Music and Amazon Music is an extremely high-quality compression (much better than MP3) and arguably the best format available for most mobile situations. Even Spotify’s Ogg Vorbis format, a slightly inferior encoding than AAC, goes up to 360kbps in its highest quality and is more or less enough to fulfill the expectations of listeners.

To really discern a difference between CD-quality audio and digital music, you need good, wired headphones, as Bluetooth’s compression and data transfer rate limitations do not allow it to play files in their lossless quality. This is true for Apple Music’s new lossless offerings as well, which the company has confirmed will not work on AirPods.

Even with wired headphones, it’s not a given that you’ll be able to tell the difference. You can always take a blind test and find out if you can really hear the difference in quality. If you cannot, there’s no need to feel disappointed. Not many can, and the quality of the audio equipment plays an important role too. Studio-grade headphones — often used by audio mixers and engineers in controlled environments for mastering tracks — are recommended to get a true depth of the Hi-Res Lossless qualities. If you’re walking, commuting, or sitting at a public place with your standard headphones, there’s a good chance you won’t need any sort of lossless anyway.

Spatial Audio with Dolby Atmos is the feature that Apple wants you to try out. Not only because it will be readily supported by all Apple devices (hopefully, other devices will be joining soon too), but also because it is the feature which is most likely to be appreciated by everyone, with thousands of tracks from different genres available with Spatial Audio at launch.

In simple terms, Dolby Atmos provides a 3D soundscape for the audio mix to reside in. Instead of having two channels (left and right) delivering the sound, engineers can precisely input the direction and distance of the sound with Dolby Atmos, and it automatically decides which speaker or channel to output the music from. This gives an immersive scope of depth and orientation to the music, as the perceived audio sources appear to change in real-time. Spatial Audio takes it a step further by allowing the audio sources or the channels to move dynamically by sensing the position of your device or ears.

What Does It Mean For The Future?

Being the feature benefitting most users, Spatial Audio and Dolby Atmos could have a massive impact on the music industry as a whole. Dolby has been used in films and video games for many years now, and reshaping the music industry seems like the logical next step. To help push it as an industry standard, Apple says that it’s collaborating with artists, engineers, and labels to produce tracks with Spatial Audio and working with Dolby to set up Dolby-enabled studios and provide adequate resources to independent artists.

You may already have an idea of what this audio experience sounds like if you have a subscription to Tidal HiFi or Amazon Music HD with an Echo Studio speaker. Or, you can try it on Dolby’s website with any decent pair of headphones and notice the difference between the Dolby audio and the stereo track. Once widely implemented, it’s safe to say that this has the potential to be a technological and auditory overhaul of the proportions which the music industry hasn’t seen since switching from mono to stereo channels in the 1950s.

Lossless music, on the other hand, presents a nasty quagmire. Hours after Apple’s press release, Amazon announced that its ‘HD’ tier service, which lets users stream lossless music, will be made available to existing subscribers of Amazon Music Unlimited. Spotify is also set to release its ‘HiFi’ segment later this year. Adopting Dolby — a relatively new feature in the industry — makes sense, but what’s with the sudden push for lossless streaming?

The availability of lossless music on streaming platforms is nothing new. Tidal has made lossless HiFi streams its unique selling point since 2014. It also launched Tidal Masters recently, with authenticated master quality streams exceeding even Apple’s Hi-Res Lossless. Other services like Deezer and Qobuz, which also feature music in CD and Hi-Res quality, have expanded worldwide in the last few years.

These services have so far acted as the flocking terrains for many audiophiles. Tidal, Deezer and Qobuz charge a higher fee than their more popular counterparts for the lossless tier, which is duly shelled out by people who wouldn’t trade anything for music quality. But now that all major services offer, or will soon offer, their own lossless streams at no added costs (although Spotify hasn’t disclosed a price for its ‘HiFi’ tier yet, it would feel under pressure to do the same too), it’s hard to see users still sticking with these niche platforms.

Truth is, the streaming industry is harsh. Spotify, the most popular streaming platform with the biggest market share, posted a net loss of €581 million in 2020. Spotify’s plans of pricing its HiFi tier at a slightly higher cost than its Premium subscription was aimed at raising its average revenue per user, which has been in decline since 2017. With Apple and Amazon’s announcements, those plans have been dealt a severe blow.

Reports of financial losses are already amidst the furore over Spotify not paying sufficient royalties to the artists (almost half of its operating costs in 2020 went into sales and marketing). Tidal, which boasts of paying the highest royalties of all the streaming platforms, is in deep waters too. According to its latest annual report, the company lost $52 million in 2019.

This is where tech giants like Apple and Amazon enjoy a decisive advantage over their competitors. With multiple other high net-income cash streams, they can easily afford to let their streaming platforms recede to the background of the business and suffer losses. In fact, these services factor in offsetting these losses to an extent as existing subscribers help in driving the sales of other products within their ecosystem, like AirPods for Apple and Echo speakers for Amazon.

What remains to be seen is how users react to the availability of lossless music and if it will be of any use for the average listener, at all. Keep in mind, not only are good audio equipment required for enjoying lossless music expensive, these files are huge and require high bandwidth to play.

Surviving as a music streaming platform solely looks more and more of an uphill task today. As The Verge’s contributing editor Casey Newton says, this move by Apple and Amazon could end up stifling competitors like Tidal and Deezer, which already have smaller audiences than both, and then decide to hike the prices of their lossless tiers. Those who truly need lossless audio will gladly pay once again, but the independent companies would be gone by then.

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Adwitiya Pal
ILLUMINATION

Reading and writing about tech, culture, history and business most of the time. Find me at adwipal@gmail.com