On May 17, Apple announced that Lossless Audio playback for Apple Music would finally be available to subscribers in June. The highly anticipated option allows users to stream songs with much higher quality than ever before. Still, Apple noted in the fine print that you don’t look at it best sound quality – Hi-Resolution Lossless – on your iPhone without a DAC.
Hi-Resolution Lossless is included in addition to the normal Lossless Audio playback and Spacial Audio features that Apple brings to Apple Music. While the extra high-definition audio comes at no extra cost, you do need to buy a DAC, which isn̵
What is lossless playback?
Digital music, like all digital files, consists of a large collection of ones and zeros. These binary numbers contain the information needed to play each song, which your audio processor decodes to play the tunes you hear in your headphones.
Traditionally, digital music prioritized file size over quality, as storage space and streaming data used to be more limited. These files are compressed, removing some less critical binary data from the music, such as less audible sounds that may not immediately have a noticeable effect on the fidelity of the song. Most of us never know that this data is missing due to lossy compression, but the better your equipment is, the more noticeable the compression.
As the name implies, Lossless refers to music files that do not lose important information during compression. The idea is to provide a listening experience that matches the master recording file, so you can hear the same sounds that the artist and producers in the studio intended. With Apple’s lossless format, files take up about half the space as the raw uncompressed data, but are generally much larger than their lossy counterparts.
What are Apple’s lossless formats?
Apple Music’s Lossless Audio uses Apple’s ALAC (Apple Lossless Audio Codec) to maintain the fidelity of the original data. ALAC has been around since 2004, but is only just hitting the Apple Music streaming service. This lossless compression starts at CD quality, which has a bit depth and sample rate of 16 bit at 44.1 kHz (kilohertz), and can go up to 24 bit at 48 kHz.
As long as your “Audio Quality” settings are correct when you launch the improved Apple Music service from iOS 14.6 on your iPhone, you can immediately start listening to over 75 million songs in Lossless Audio with your wired or wireless headphones. But not all lossless is the same, and there is an even better way to listen to Apple Music on your iPhone.
Apple has a “Hi-Res” lossless option for Apple Music that increases file sizes up to 24 bit at 192 kHz. Once you hit the high-resolution area, a simple setup of an iPhone and headphones isn’t enough.
Why is a DAC needed for high-resolution lossless audio?
A DAC, or digital-to-analog converter, is simply an audio processor. What it does is take the burden off your iPhone or other Apple device’s likely weak sound card and do all the audio processing itself. Because the unit is specially designed for this kind of processing, it can better handle the large amount of data that comes with Hi-Res Lossless Audio.
A Lightning-based DAC can also boost your headphones when needed. All headphones have an impedance in ohms, and it determines the amount of current the amp needs to function properly. Higher quality headphones traditionally have a higher impedance, requiring a DAC that can deliver enough power to reach their full potential. Unless you drop some cash on your headphones, most DACs will likely power your headphones just fine.
Speaking of headphones, DACs are not made for wireless headphones. To listen to Hi-Res Lossless Audio on Apple Music, you need wired headphones. That’s because wireless headphones use Bluetooth technology, which is supposed to compress audio files. Bluetooth 5.0 achieves up to 2 Mbps streaming, but Hi-Res Lossless Audio requires 9.2 Mbps.
But Apple has stated that even Lossless Audio doesn’t work over Bluetooth, so your AirPods won’t do you any good – you’ll need a wired connection. AirPods Max can connect to devices with a wired adapter, but Apple recently said, “AirPods Max does not currently support digital audio formats in wired mode.”
DACs are built into Apple devices such as the iPhone, but they are only mid-range DACs that are maximum 24 bit at 48 kHz. Apple’s Lightning to 3.5mm headphone jack adapter has a DAC, but it’s likely to max out at the same bit depth and sample rate. Some Lightning and USB headphones have DACs, but again, they probably won’t give you Hi-Res compatibility. Therefore, a higher quality DAC is needed.
While it requires a DAC for Hi-Res Lossless Audio playback, Apple has no recommendations for purchasing one. The company says any DAC should work fine, but a search on Amazon makes buying a DAC a bit of an overwhelming decision. We break down a few options for you to make it easier to find out which DAC will work best for your situation.
Option 1: Made for iPhone (FiiO Q1 Mark II Native)
FiiO’s Q1 Mark II Native DSD DAC & Amplifier may have a long name, but it’s a great product. This DAC is made for Lightning ports, something you don’t see in many DACs on the market. That means that no adapter is required for the iPhone; just connect the Q1 Mark II to your iPhone, connect your headphones to the DAC and enjoy Hi-Res Lossless Audio.
Featuring an output wheel, bass booster, switch for low or high gain, single-ended and balanced headphone outputs, this DAC automatically determines what type of device it is connected to. It can decode files up to 32 bit at 384kHz, which is way above the ceiling for Hi-Res Apple Music songs.
The Q1 Mark II is a respectable $ 99.99 and is MFi certified. That means it’s made specifically for use with Apple products, so you know it plays well with iOS and the iPhone. That said, it is a Lightning device that is not directly compatible with USB-C Apple devices such as iPads or Macs. If you’re using these for one of those devices, you’ll need a Lightning to USB-C adapter.
Option 2: More Affordable (FiiO E10K)
If you’re looking to shave some cash off that price tag, FiiO has another option for you: the E10K. This DAC costs $ 75.99 and uses micro USB to USB to connect to your devices. That may make it more compatible with other devices in your life, but your iPhone requires a Lightning to USB adapter.
This DAC does not have as many functions as the Mark II Native. That said, you still have an output wheel, a bass amp, and a high or low gain switch, but that’s about it. But if all you need is something to take advantage of Hi-Res Lossless Apple Music files, this DAC will work fine, pumping files up to 24 bit at 96kHz.
Option 3: Dongle-Life Convenience (Maktar Spectra X2)
Let’s face it – DACs are great, but they are a bit big. While they will fit in most bags and carry-ons, they are still not the ideal portable adapter. That’s why you should consider Spectra X2 from Maktar, a dongle DAC that allows you to listen to Hi-Res Lossless Audio without carrying a small stone in your bag.
Better yet, this dongle is made for Lightning, so it connects directly to your iPhone. Again, if you want to use it with a USB-C product you’ll need to buy an adapter, but this dongle is pure convenience for iPhone audiophiles. It can also drive headphones up to 150 ohms and can decode 32 bit at 384 kHz files.
It’s just not super cheap. At $ 199.00, it’s more expensive than the first two options on this list. But if you’re willing to spend a little more for that extra convenience, you’ll be happy with the Maktar.
Option 4: Suitable for desktop (AudioQuest DragonFly)
If you know you’re going to be a heavy Apple Music desktop user, consider the AudioQuest DragonFly. It looks like a USB stick, which you can easily connect to any USB-A port of your installation. If you have a USB-C Mac or want to use this device with your iPhone, this is of course adapter city for you.
It supports decoding up to 24 bit at 96 kHz, perfect for Apple Music Hi-Res Lossless, and has a headphone jack on the other side of the stick. There is even a handy cap for the USB connector to protect it. At $ 99.95, it’s not an unreasonably priced DAC, especially for convenience (if your setup makes it easy anyway).
Option 5: Over-the-Top, Money-to-Burn (Chord Mojo Black DAC)
If you must have best portable DAC you can buy, you may want to draw your attention to the Chord Mojo Black DAC. This beast can give strength two headphones to 600 ohm at the same time. If you happen to have two headphones that fit this description, nothing on this list will unlock its full potential like the Mojo.
It can also decode the largest file sizes from any DAC on this list – 32 bit at 768 kHz. Of course, all of the DACs on our list go beyond Apple’s file size ceiling, but if you think you need a powerful DAC for other purposes, it certainly won’t disappoint.
That said, they don’t just give these things away. Quite the opposite actually; the Mojo can be yours for not $ 399, not $ 499, but $ 699. For the price of an iPhone 12 mini, you can shoot two expensive headphones out of one very expensive DAC.
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