A new Kuo report yesterday suggested that we can expect new AirPods with lossless audio support – more specifically, an AirPods Pro 2 model that allows users to listen to ALAC (Apple Lossless Audio Codec).
This was given additional weight by Apple's AirPods lead hinting to What HiFi that the company may have plans for achieving the wireless bandwidth needed for lossless audio. However, while I do think this is a likely development, I don't think we should get too excited about it …
Why AirPods don't currently support lossless audio
The short answer is that they use Bluetooth, and that simply doesn't have the bandwidth needed. The short-range wireless data protocol is used for a huge range of tasks and is the very definition of a jack-of-all-trades, master of none.
Specifically, when it comes to audio, the best Bluetooth can currently achieve is Enhanced Data Rate (EDR). In theory, that can exceed 2Mbps, but in practice often struggles to hit 1Mbps. Either way, it doesn't get anywhere close to the 4.6Mbps needed for true hi-res lossless audio (24-bit, 96kHz).
The signs pointing to AirPods lossless audio this year
Noted Apple analyst Ming-Chi Kuo has directly told us to expect it .
We expect Apple to launch AirPods Pro 2 in 4Q22 with new selling points, including a new form factor design, support for Apple Lossless (ALAC) format, and a charging case that can emit a sound for users to track.
Apple's AirPods lead Gary Geaves didn't directly confirm this but did give a strong hint .
"There's a number of tricks we can play to maximize or get around some of the limits of Bluetooth. But it's fair to say that we would like more bandwidth and… I'll stop right there. We would like more bandwidth", he smiles.
The number-one reason for wanting more audio bandwidth would, of course, be lossless audio support.
Three reasons not to get too excited
However, while the evidence does look good, there are three reasons to temper our excitement.
Most people can't tell the difference
First, and most importantly, most people can't tell the difference between the AAC 256kbps format Apple Music uses as a standard and a true high-res lossless.
That's true even in ideal conditions – closed headphones in a near-silent environment. The truth is that Apple's AAC 256 is a very, very good lossy codec, so even if your ears are good, it's still difficult to distinguish from true lossless audio.
You can test your own ears using an ABX test . Personally, I barely scrape a pass in ideal conditions. In real-world listening on the move (which is where AirPods are mostly used), I wouldn't stand a chance.
Not all lossless audio is equal
If you listen to Qualcomm, the problem is solved. It offers something called aptX Lossless, which is a Bluetooth codec that supports lossless audio. Apple could adopt that, or it could create its own equivalent.
But not all lossless audio is equal. Qualcomm aptX can only transmit lossless audio in 16-bit form at 44.1kHz – that is to say, CD quality. That's not what an audiophile would consider high-res audio (24-bit at 96kHz).
We don't know what tricks Apple has in mind, but one possibility is the company using aptX or similar to achieve CD quality, not hi-res quality.
AirPods will still be AirPods
Lossless audio transmission is one thing; faithful reproduction of the music is something else altogether – and that takes audiophile-grade headphones, or something very close to it.
The cheapest headphones that What HiFi considers worthy of the term are Grado SR325x – and a large part of their secret is that they are open-back (which is less challenging than closed-back), and hence not something you're going to be using in public unless you hate people more than you love music. If you want audiophile-grade earbuds, you're mostly into four-figure territory. All wired, of course.
However much Apple improves this year's AirPods Pro, they aren't going to be audiophile quality – which means even if you can hear the difference on reference headphones, it's exceedingly unlikely you will on AirPods. In truth, AirPods with lossless audio support are mostly going to be a marketing gimmick.
Bluetooth LE Audio is more promising
There is, however, another new Bluetooth standard, which I personally think is more interesting: Bluetooth LE Audio – which includes a clever new codec known as LC3.
The background here is that there are effectively two types of Bluetooth comms: Bluetooth Classic, which is used by wireless headphones, and Bluetooth LE (Low Energy), a much more power-efficient version used for, among other things, communication between your iPhone and Apple Watch.
Bluetooth LE Audio, aims to bring low-power comms to Bluetooth headphones too. On its own, that's already interesting, as it will likely offer substantially improved battery life.
But LE Audio also comes bundled with a new audio codec, LC3. This is a lossy format, but one which promises to be even better than Apple's AAC.
There's a standard five-point perception test , which measures people's ability to hear lossiness in audio transmission, where a score of five is completely imperceptible from lossless. While the standard Bluetooth audio SBS codec only scores just over three at 240kbps, LC3 scores almost 4.5 at just 160kbps, and hits close to five at 240kbps.
For most people, then, Bluetooth LE Audio headphones are going to mean something indistinguishable from lossless quality with greatly improved battery life.
We don't know whether Apple will get on board, but it seems likely – if for no other reason than it won't want to be left behind on battery life. So if and when Apple makes the switch to Bluetooth LE Audio, that will be the point to get excited.
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