Spotify Hi-Fi – Coming Soon
Leaks show that a high-quality, lossless music service is coming soon from Spotify. Clearly, it will work in many home environments but the question I am posing here is to ask whether your wearables will support such a high fidelity music service.
A: The answer is most probably NO…read on if you want to know why.
I’m writing this short article as I rarely see lossless audio quality discussed for wearable audio.
Lossy vs Lossless
There are many factors that affect the audio quality of digital playback that include: the ‘completeness’ of the source recording, the transmission, the conversion of digital to analogue and then the analogue playback over your speaker into your listening environment. In part, this may have to be repeated over multiple audio channels if, for example, you have 7.1 audio but when running I’m guessing we all have vanilla stereo audio (2.0 channels).
Typically the sound quality you experience can only be as good as the weakest part in the playback chain. Simply put…garbage in…garbage during…garbage out.
So we come to the quality of the source and whether it is lossless or lossy. Probably all of what you listen to is lossy; meaning that something has been lost when digitising the recording. The reasons that music needs to lose quality are to reduce the space required to store it and to cope with any limitations there might be with the transmission, for example to your earbuds over Bluetooth.
Various compression algorithms are used which work along similar lines to the .ZIP or .RAR files that you are more familiar with. These compression algorithms might simply remove extreme frequencies that are beyond the hearing range of the normal human, softer sounds that will be drowned out by louder ones or simply make fewer samples each second. There are also more types of complex compression which could be illustrated by the principle such as a song’s chorus that is repeated 3 times…it only needs to be stored once but referenced 3 times…a 66% theoretical space-saving.
You already use either MP3 music files or Apple’s AAC music files. These generic formats cover a multitude of sub-formats but essentially they are all lossy…something is lost. Home Hi-Fi buffs may have copied their old CD collections into perfect quality, lossless .FLAC files, I started that a while back too.
Historically, storage space was always an issue but now wearables don’t really have that problem and it is not unheard of to have 32Gb of storage on a watch…that’s a lot of songs stored on a super-tiny chip.
So if space is not an issue we can all have perfect copies of our favourite songs right?
Well, we could all make perfect copies of our CDs but, as I found, that takes quite a while and then when you want to play them back ‘somewhere else’ it often won’t work (missing CODEC). Plus many of us have switched to streaming services like Apple Music or Spotify, so we rely on whatever quality of source recording they have.
Furthermore, lossless music takes up more space, so you might find that those 32Gb will ‘only’ store 64 CDs.
The Market Moves On
In June 2021, lossless music via ALAC format music files was added to Apple Music at no additional cost for all subscribers.
From this Soptify video and other leaks, it seems that Spotify is following suit.
Playback of Lossless/Perfect Audio
Let’s assume for a minute that Spotify and Apple will both let you temporarily store their lossless music on your watch (they won’t!).
Apple has already pointed out (original content modified by Apple) that the Apple Watch cannot support lossless audio (ALAC CODEC) due to Bluetooth restrictions.
Usually, the audio to your Bluetooth earbuds is changed in the transmission process and this will probably use an audio CODEC like SBC or AptX and these strip out data and hence sound quality. Even if a high-quality CODEC like AptX HD can be supported on your watch (and none do as far as I know) then your earbuds will also need to support the same, high-quality CODEC. Taking an example of the latest Jabra Elite 85t earbuds – these relatively expensive earbuds don’t support AptX HD.
Again, I don’t know of any wireless earbuds that support the decoding of lossless, HD music. Even if they did…what’s the point? You are probably exercising or running outside where it’s windy and you are bouncing around and you have tiny drivers (speakers) in your ears; simply put, you won’t be able to tell the difference in quality even if you could listen to lossless audio.
Note: Several Bluetooth headphones DO support HD audio eg the Sony WH-1000XM3 supports AAC, aptX, aptX HD and LDAC, although AptX HD is still technically lossy, albeit HD-lossy.
If you really want to benefit from listening to the new HD Spotify service whilst on the move you will probably have to use your smartphone and high quality, WIRED earphones. You might be lucky to have a great pair of headphones that support lossy-HD audio.
The differences will be subtle but noticeable, although perhaps the reality will be that you will only truly appreciate lossless music on a very good home audio setup.
Your wearable just won’t play it and your $200/£200 earbuds won’t support it…probably.