Streaming music might be entering a new era of hi-fi audio, but Apple’s AirPods Max aren’t technically ready to go along for the ride. The company has confirmed to The Verge that its premium noise-canceling headphones do not natively support playback of lossless music files.
“Lossless audio is not supported on AirPods, any model,” an Apple spokesperson said by email. “AirPods Max wired listening mode accepts analog output sources only. AirPods Max currently does not support digital audio formats in wired mode.”
It makes complete sense that the AirPods and AirPods Pro have no way of playing lossless audio. They’re totally wireless, and Apple supports the AAC codec over Bluetooth. AAC sounds plenty good, but it’s nowhere near the bit rate of CD-quality or high-resolution tracks. To do any better, Apple would need to come up with some new wireless codec — its own version of Sony’s LDAC, sort of — or make these things play music over Wi-Fi instead of Bluetooth. None of that is happening today or by June when Apple Music will start offering lossless.
Things are a little more complicated with the AirPods Max, which can be plugged into audio sources with a cable. However, it turns out that even if you have Apple’s $35 Lightning-to-3.5mm cable plugged into a device that’s streaming lossless Apple Music tracks, you’re not going to hear the full audio fidelity of the source.
So the natural question becomes… well, what are you hearing in that scenario? Apple tells The Verge that when you play a 24-bit / 48 kHz Apple Music lossless track from an iPhone into the AirPods Max using both the cable and Lightning dongle, the audio is converted to analog and then re-digitized to 24-bit / 48 kHz. That re-digitization step is the reason that Apple can’t say you’re hearing pure lossless audio; it’s not an identical match to the source.
Is it still going to sound very good? Almost certainly. The AirPods Max sound exceptional — even with AAC over Bluetooth, and plugging in can make the experience richer. But if you’re a stickler for the technical details, this is why the AirPods Max can’t pull off lossless audio in the truest sense. It also leaves Apple in an awkward spot where other high-end headphones that do support digital audio when hard wired — over USB-C, for example — could deliver the full lossless audio that the AirPods Max can’t.
The Apple Music spatial audio feature also announced today will work on the AirPods, AirPods Pro, and AirPods Max. So any songs that have those Dolby Atmos mixes are going to feel more immersive than their stereo counterparts. I think Apple suspects spatial audio will be a bigger deal for many customers than lossless quality — and it may be right. But hopefully the company also has a long-term plan for increasing the fidelity on its wireless headphones, especially now that lossless doesn’t cost anything extra.