Apple Music lossless won’t work with AirPods — here’s why

Apple Music lossless won’t work with AirPods
(Image credit: Future)

Apple Music getting lossless streaming and spatial audio, both at no extra charge, may sound too good to be true. It is indeed the real deal, though there is one significant limitation: you won’t be able to enjoy lossless audio on the AirPods, AirPods Pro or AirPods Max.

Apple confirmed to T3 that lossless Apple Music content won’t be playable over Bluetooth, ruling out all three pairs of wireless headphones — despite Apple itself having built them.

Even more oddly, while this limitation makes wired headphones a necessity for lossless songs, the AirPods Max still won’t be compatible even if you connect using a Lightning to 3.5mm cable. Apple told 9to5Mac that the AirPods Max “currently does not support digital audio formats in wired mode.”

In other words, you’ll be able to use a pair of AirPods Pro or AirPods Max to take advantage of spatial audio when it’s added to Apple Music in June, but those same headphones won’t be able to use the streaming service’s other big new feature. How could this be?

Basically, it comes down to Bluetooth codecs and file formats. The AirPods family is currently designed to use Apple’s own AAC Bluetooth codec, which allows for decent-quality sound but not lossless or Hi-Res Audio content. To accommodate the higher-quality content Apple Music is introducing, Apple has come up with the Apple Lossless Audio Codec (ALAC), which simply isn’t compatible with headphones that can only use the more basic, lossy AAC.

Apple Music lossless won’t work with AirPods

(Image credit: Regan Coule/Tom's Guide)

That doesn’t just go for Apple headphones, but all of the best wireless headphones that can’t switch to a wired connection, like the Bose QuietComfort Earbuds or Master & Dynamic MW08. According to the Verge, even the Apple HomePod and HomePod mini, two of the best Bluetooth speakers, can’t play ALAC-encoded content.

What’s more, if you want to listen to Apple Music’s absolute best-quality, Hi-Res tracks on a mobile device, you’ll also need an external DAC — though if you’ve looked up how to play Hi-Res Audio on iPhone before, you may already be familiar with them.

In fairness to Apple, most wireless headphones can’t handle true lossless audio without a cable. But for such a major update to Apple Music, it wouldn’t have been beyond the realms of possibility to see something like Sony’s LDAC codec, which actually can enable Hi-Res Audio over Bluetooth.

This development also raises questions about the oft-leaked AirPods 3. We understand this won’t be a premium pair of headphones like the AirPods Pro or AirPods Max, but now it would represent an opportunity for Apple to improve its wireless tech and allow for higher-quality wireless listening. We’ll have to wait and see there, though — contrary to rumors, the AirPods 3 was not revealed alongside the Apple Music lossless/spatial audio announcement.

James Archer

James is currently Hardware Editor at Rock Paper Shotgun, but before that was Audio Editor at Tom’s Guide, where he covered headphones, speakers, soundbars and anything else that intentionally makes noise. A PC enthusiast, he also wrote computing and gaming news for TG, usually relating to how hard it is to find graphics card stock.