You may have noticed a collection of new badges appearing under album covers in Apple Music— Dolby Atmos, Apple Digital Master, Lossless, and Hi-Res Lossless. What do these badges mean, and how do they change our music listening experience? It turns out there are only inelegant answers. But I have them for you.
It’s worth noting that I wrote this article with the average Apple Music listener in mind. One who has an iPhone and AirPods as their primary set up for consuming music. Not that someone would be lost with the information provided if they have a different setup, just that additional hardware comes with other technical caveats, and it would be not easy to list them all in one post.
This article is a deep dive. We’ll explore not only what these badges mean for real-world use but why this recent Apple Music update lacks a certain elegance we’re used to with Apple. If you enjoy a bit of tech drama, buckle up, you’re in for a frustrating ride. If you only want to learn the differences between the four badges, you needn’t read past the definitions below. Either way, I love you and wish you all the best on your musical journey.
A glance at what each badge means:
Apple Digital Master: This song (or album) was remastered by an audio engineer to take full advantage of Apple’s proprietary audio technologies. Anyone with a pair of headphones or speakers can enjoy songs with this badge without any additional action.
In my experience, the Apple digital Master program shines brightest when applied to older songs (think Motown or The Beatles) that would otherwise sound low and fuzzy. It pairs well with AirPods and HomePod.
Note: If your headphones or speakers are not compatible with the rest of the badges listed below, that does not mean the song won’t play, just that it will default to the AAC format, a term I include and define below.
Dolby Atmos: This song was remastered with Dolby Atmos technology and can be played back using Apple's Spatial Audio*. It can provide listeners with a more immersive sound experience and better instrument separation (among other things). Anyone with a pair of AirPods or Beats headphones with the H1 or W1 chip (most models) can enjoy this new format.
If you’re thinking Dolby Atmos sounds a lot like Dolby Digital Surround Sound, but for music, hey, that’s what I thought too! Music with the Dolby Atmos badge sounds incredible...sometimes. When applied correctly (by an audio engineer), Dolby Atmos + AirPods makes you feel like you’re in the middle of a room and the band is playing all around you. Black Skinhead is a great example. Take a listen.
Note: If you already have this song saved in Apple Music, you may need to delete and re-download to hear it in Dolby Atmos.
Lossless: This song is provided in an audio format that has not removed any sound data from the original recording supplied by the artist or record label. Bluetooth audio hardware, like AirPods are not equipped to play music in lossless and will automatically default to the standard AAC format. HomePod, which uses AirPlay via WiFi, will support lossless in a future update, says Apple. Users with wired speakers and headphones may be able to listen to the lossless file depending on a laundry list of other factors.
Technically, you can now listen to lossless music through the iPhone’s stock speakers, which doesn’t mean it’ll sound good. For the average music listener who throws on AirPods when we go for a jog or AirPods Pro with noise cancellation while we’re in a noisy coffee shop, the Lossless format won’t change our listening experience in any meaningful way.
Note: Apple uses a proprietary lossless format called ALAC (Apple Lossless Audio Codec), and I’ll use the terms ‘lossless’ and ‘ALAC’ interchangeably from here on out.
Hi-Res Lossless: This song is provided in an audio format that has not removed any sound data nor any frequency data from the original recording. Nothing supports this format without special equipment (like a DAC). Even then, it is debatable whether there is any real listening benefit for the average set of ears or if there’s some compression going on in the background unbeknownst to the listener. If you have to ask, your audio setup probably can’t support Hi-Res Lossless and will default back to AAC. Hi-Res Lossless is the format Apple never wanted to explain to the average user in the first place.
AAC (Advanced Audio Coding): You won’t find an AAC badge on any songs or albums in Apple Music because it’s the default format for all of the streaming service’s 75 million song catalog. AAC is known as a ‘lossy’ format because it uses a compression technique that strips away some of the data from the original audio recording to achieve a smaller, more manageable file size. More on what that means for sound quality in a bit.
You likely listen to music in AAC format anytime you fire up Apple Music. AAC is the format Apple wants you to believe is just as good as lossless. Some would say that’s an egregious claim, while most others wouldn’t be able to pass a taste test to offer an opinion either way. I think I fall in the latter camp.
In The Beginning, There Was MP3
I have one theory in consumer behavior that does not miss— we will always trade quality of experience for convenience. But not you and me, though. We’re too smart for that. We understand the worth of a good experience, right? Anyway, how’s that lukewarm sushi you had delivered to your front door for $60? That tastes good, does it?
In the beginning, humans needed a way to store music on their computers. We were tired of scratched CD bottoms and flimsy CD towers. Sam Goody employees were weird and talked about Perl Jam too much for comfort. We never asked for twelve CDs for one penny. How do I mail this fucking thing back? We were ready for the digital revolution, but our hurdle was file size. CD data was too big for our tiny disk drives and slow internet speeds. We needed a way to extract audio data from a CD, shrink it, and store it onto a PC. Then, in 1993, a hero came along with the strength to carry on. Nah, not Mariah Carey. The invention of the MP3 audio file format.
The iPod and MP3
It’s a cold autumn morning in 2001. The MP3 is the king of the digital music world, having indirectly given us Napster, LimeWire, and iTunes. In Cupertino, California, Steve Jobs is about to take the stage and pull from his pocket the first iPod. The new device proudly uses the MP3 format. Overnight, it seems, we ditch that CD book taking up our passenger seat and trade it for a thousand songs in our pocket. We take a jog sans-Discman, and to our delight, our favorite song does not skip!
Significantly reduced sound quality is the price we pay. Few people notice, and even fewer care. The iPod becomes the defacto music consumption device for millions around the world. Then, a few years later, in some coffee shop in Portland, a hipster wears a shirt that reads “Vinyl is Warmer.” And thus, the Audiophile vs. Digital Music wars begin.
A Messy Leap Forward
Apple would like you to forget about Lossless and Hi-Res Lossless audio formats. It isn’t for you or me, nor does it work with any AirPods model. It is for power users with $3,000 headphones who will accept nothing less than lossless. Conversely, Apple wants you hyped about Dolby Atmos and Apple Digital Master. Both work well with Apple’s audio hardware offerings, AirPods, HomePod, and Beats headphones.
Each badge in Apple Music represents a format option for consuming your music, and each holds its claims to benefits, some of which are up for debate. Whether you can experience these benefits may rely on factors that are out of your immediate control, like the type of headphones you’re using or if you have special audio equipment. Some hurdles may be impossible to jump, like obtaining a better set of ear holes. Things in your control, like your environment (quiet room vs. noisy subway), are also factors to be considered in concert with these new formats in achieving better overall sound quality.
To complicate things further, two of these badges, Dolby Atmos and Apple Digital Master, rely on human audio engineers to go back and remaster their songs to take advantage of the technology. Meaning, not every song will wear either of these two badges on day one (if ever), and in some cases, specifically with Dolby Atmos, users have reported that some songs sound worse than before.
If you have a pair of AirPods, check out these two songs. The first sounds like you’re in the room with the band. It’s a truly incredible feat of engineering. The second song sounds flat and weird. Different songs, but both carry the Dolby Atmos badge. It seems a song wearing the Dolby Atmos badge is only as good as the effort that went into remastering it.
The other two badges, Lossless and Hi-Res Lossless, are earned with a flip of a switch, so to speak. You’ll see these badges pop up more often because it’s simply a matter of reducing file compression, not retroactive sound mixing.
But not so fast. If you’re using your AirPods, you cannot enjoy either of these lossless formats. Whether you’ll ever be able to listen to ALAC files wirelessly on Apple Music is currently unclear and will depend on the Apple gospel. But, I can tell you right now, brother, that hymn isn’t being sung in lossless.
Here’s what Apple has to say about the lossless format:
While the difference between AAC and lossless audio is virtually indistinguishable, we’re offering Apple Music subscribers the option to access music in lossless audio compression.
Note: Lossless and Hi-Res Lossless are not available by default. You’ll need to go into Settings > Music > Audio Quality to gain access to the files in Apple Music. Unless you understand why you need these files, I’d recommend leaving the setting as is since lossless files are enormous and take up a lot of space. But also, live your life, you know?
Apple goes on to explain that AirPods (and Beats) do not support the lossless format. Basically, Apple is saying— we’ll give you music nerds the fucking file, but don’t expect compatibility with any Apple or Beats branded audio equipment. That’s not to say it’ll never happen, just that Apple’s current motivation is likely closer tied to eliminating their smaller competitors than it is to improving audio for current Apple Music subscribers through lossless formats.
Smaller music subscription services like Tidal have carved out a niche by offering lossless streaming to the audiophiles who demand it. In recent months, it appears that Tidal has committed blasphemy by pushing its users to a faux lossless format called MQA. While such a move is a topic better explored on another day, you can see why it was smart of Apple to swoop in and announce their own lossless offerings. Audiophiles make up a small but passionate subset of the music subscription demographic. They spend thousands of dollars on insanely precise audio equipment that takes advantage of the lossless format, and they wouldn’t dream of using Bluetooth headphones like AirPods for serious music consumption. If Apple can sway these enthusiasts over to Apple Music with files already in the company’s possession, why wouldn’t they? If Apple can crush multiple, smaller competitors in the process, all the better (for Apple).
ALAC Probably Isn’t Apple’s End Game
So, if audiophiles aren’t in the Apple audio hardware market and are happy with the ALAC file they can access in iCloud or on their iDevice, why would Apple develop a proprietary lossless format for Bluetooth wireless? Because that is what Apple would have to do since Bluetooth is the technical reason why your AirPods don’t support ALAC. The Bluetooth highway is too narrow for the semi-truck that is lossless. Apple would need to make a smaller truck with the same amount of cargo space to pass through. If Apple did develop such a format, similar to Sony’s LDAC, who would that be for? My guess is AirPod Max users. If you’re a lucky owner of these expensive-ass headphones, don’t get your hopes up just yet. If, and it’s a bit ‘if,’ Apple says fuck it, let’s give them lossless with true wireless, a hardware update may be the only way to achieve it. AKA AirPods Max 2.
Okay, but what about if I plug in my AirPod Max to my iPhone using the $35 cord Apple offers? Could I then listen to songs in lossless since I now have a wired connection? The answer is no. The technical reasons provided by Apple are, whatever, a bit of bullshit. You can read about it more here.
Does this make you mad? Because I honestly cannot decide how I feel about it as an AirPod Max owner. I still am not convinced lossless on AirPods Max would make any difference, but I feel like I should have the option to decide that myself, for $550.
The Next Digital Dynasty
With the introduction of AirPods, we again chose convenience. This time in the form of wireless freedom. But unlike the iPod, the quality we’re giving up isn’t as clear-cut. Yes, Bluetooth does not and cannot give us lossless streaming. But we now have noise cancellation and new, exciting technologies like Dolby Atmos (even if it’s not fully realized yet).
The debate has gone on for over twenty years now— can a lossy digital format ever sound as good as lossless? In 1993, the inventors of the MP3 assured us that its compression technique only removed data undetectable to the human ear. That claim turned out to be false.
The engineers who developed the MP3 were working with incomplete information about how our brains process sonic information, and so the MP3 itself was working on false assumptions about how holistically we hear.
The first MP3s sounded so bad that even a novice pair of ears could hear the difference. Since then, audiophiles have taken it upon themselves to preserve and consume music as intended by the artist— without sound data compression. Anything else is less-than.
In the following years, the AAC format set right the past sins of the MP3 dynasty. But its claim to the crown sounds all too familiar— most people can’t tell the difference between AAC and ALAC (lossless) files™. When the average person disputes this claim, they may be doing so with outdated information. For those of us hip to the game and understand that AAC will never be “as good” as lossless, we may be technically correct, but I wonder if it’s our past MP3 trauma that does not allow us to feel our feelings and move on.
Maybe we’re asking the wrong question. Perhaps, a cleaner answer can arise from asking ourselves — what kind of experience do we want from our music, and can a lossy digital audio format like AAC provide it?
Lossless squeezes out the last bit of digital toothpaste from the tube so, If ALAC is the future of Apple Music, then I’m happy to embrace it. However, maybe Apple’s time is better spent hiring a team of audio engineers to expand their Dolby Atomos and Apple Digital Master music catalog. But, now that Apple has opened Pandora’s Box will the average AirPods user also demand their music served lossless, or are we content with lossy advancements? This is our fork in the road, and the stakes couldn’t be lower.
*Update: Statement has been edited for accuracy