Black wired headphones and audio player on a yellow surface

Spotify and Apple Music are bringing lossless music into the mainstream, but they’re not the first to offer audiophiles a higher quality streaming experience. So what exactly does “lossless” mean in terms of audio, and how can you experience it?

Lossless Audio Preserves Detail

In order to save disk space and bandwidth, music files are often compressed. MP3 was one of the first compressed formats to take off, with AAC/MP4 being the dominant format used today.

When a file is compressed it is effectively squeezed down into a smaller file size. To do this, some data must be discarded. When data is discarded, audio quality suffers. You can hear this most clearly in the high and low end of a recording, for example, the crash of a cymbal.

Lossless audio is also compressed, but it is compressed in a way that maintains audio detail. Lossless audio is always presented in the CD-quality resolution of 16-bit/44.1kHz or better and may go all the way up to 24-bit/192kHz.

RELATED: What Does The Hz-KHz Range For Speakers And Headphones Mean?

The trade-off here is disk space (or bandwidth, if you’re streaming). Formats like FLAC or ALAC (Apple Lossless) are around half the size of an original uncompressed recording. By comparison, a lossy version could consume far less space (around 1/5 of the original uncompressed recording) without falling apart completely.

How Can You Experience Lossless Audio?

Tidal was one of the first streaming services to really push lossless audio, but the feature has since been added to Apple Music for no additional fee. Spotify is also set to launch a separate tier called Spotify Hifi for lossless audio. Other services that offer lossless audio include Deezer and Qobuz.

The lossless feature in Apple Music

Before you upgrade your subscription plan, make sure you have the hardware to enjoy lossless audio. For example, many wireless headphones and Bluetooth speakers use their own form of lossy compression to get audio from your device to your ears.

This includes Apple’s entire AirPods range (yes, even the AirPods Max) and the vast majority of standard Bluetooth headphones that use lossy codecs like aptX.

The good news is that new, lossless codecs are on the way such as aptX HD. Be aware that some “high resolution” solutions like LDAC (included on many Sony wireless earphones) lack the bandwidth to pass through unaltered lossless audio.

A portable amplifier

Some devices will require an external digital-to-analog converter (DAC) to playback music at resolutions that exceed CD quality. For example, the DAC in the iPhone can output up to CD-quality lossless audio via 3.5mm stereo jack or USB.

You can also buy media players with high-quality DACs built-in, designed specifically for high-resolution lossless audio.

RELATED: What Is Spatial Audio, and How Does It Work?

Can You Tell The Difference?

Most people can hear the difference between a low-bitrate Napster-era MP3 and a modern AAC stream from Spotify or Apple Music. The real debate is whether you can tell the modern streams apart from their lossless counterparts.

It’s possible that the equipment you’re using to listen to the audio—the headphones, the amplifier, the acoustics of the room—will make a bigger difference than the quality of the stream.

If source quality is everything to you, make sure you check out Review Geek’s guide to a mobile audiophile setup.

RELATED: When Is Lossless Audio Streaming Actually Worth It?

Profile Photo for Tim Brookes Tim Brookes
Tim Brookes is a technology writer with more than a decade of experience. He's invested in the Apple ecosystem, with experience covering Macs, iPhones, and iPads for publications like Zapier and MakeUseOf.
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