Apple is quick to call a revolution.
Its latest comes in the form of an “unparalleled listening experience” that it is dubbing Apple Lossless Audio Codec, or ALAC. Put simply, this is 24-bit/192kHz audio that is being described as ‘lossless’ – uncompressed music that sounds exactly as the creators intended, with no loss of sound quality through format.
Apple Music aren’t the first to jump on the 24-bit bandwagon, of course. Tidal’s entire sales pitch was that it was the world’s first steaming service to offer high fidelity music streaming – with its highest tier giving 24-bit/96kHz, a format it calls MQA. Amazon also offers 24-bit streaming, and Spotify has announced plans to roll out lossless music before the end of the year. It is about to become the standard.
The term ‘lossless’ is a bit of a misnomer. Although Apple proudly claims “most audio compression techniques lose some amount of data contained in the original source file; lossless compression is a form of compression that preserves all of the original data,” this is not strictly true. Analogue recordings lose fidelity the minute they are transferred to digital files; in many cases what is being transferred has already been compressed from the master tape. In essence these can be third or fourth generational copies. The version of Stairway To Heaven you are familiar with has been transferred many times, each time losing something of the original.
“Most people don’t realise that recording technology was decades more sophisticated than playback technology,” Henry Sapoznik, a producer of historical compilation told The New Yorker. “Today, we can decode information off original recordings that was impossible to hear at any time before.”
So, although lossless audio isn’t technically lossless — as recording ability still trumps playback technology — 24-bit becoming the standard for audio streaming is a massive step forward in fidelity.
The difference between Apple’s current high-end audio format AAC (Advanced Audio Codec) and lossless 24-bit audio won’t be discernible to most ears, and won’t even be technically different through speakers that don’t support the later, such as any system that relies upon Bluetooth connection.
The difference between CD quality (16-bit/44.1 kHz) and lossless won’t be the sonic jump many are expecting, either. But so much of painting with the full sonic spectrum involves non-discernible differences, such as sub-sonic tones that add to your enjoyment, even if you cannot quite figure out how or why the sound is improved. Much like the difference between vinyl and CDs, it’s an intangible, vibrating difference. It’s in the air between the speakers and your ears. It’s in sounds you cannot hear but feel.
Another major stumbling block for 24-bit is that the technology doesn’t involve simply up-converting the millions of songs already on these streaming services – they all need to be remastered from the original recording masters, where they will be recaptured at a higher bit rate. This will obviously be a timely and costly exercise. For a lot of music, this conversion will be impossible. For even more, it will be unprofitable, and therefore pointless to the rights holders.
So, while the technology is there to listen to 24-bit audio, it will take a while until the collective history of recorded music catches up. Still, it is clear we have officially entered a new sonically-superior era of music streaming.