When will Apple start selling lossless music on the iTunes Store?

“A few months ago, I posted an article discussing Why iTunes Doesn’t Support FLAC Files,” Kirk McElhearn writes for Kirkville. “I’ve gotten a lot of feedback, both in comments to the article and in emails, from people wondering when Apple will start selling lossless files on the iTunes Store. (These are music files that are the exact equivalent as music on CDs, and Apple could use the format that they developed, Apple Lossless, to provide this quality.)”

“I think Apple will eventually do this, but that they’re in no hurry to do so. The quality of the AAC files that Apple sells (at 256 kbps) is certainly ‘good enough’ for most uses,” McElhearn writes. “If you do the kind of test I discuss here, it’s unlikely that you’ll hear a difference. And unless you have very good audio equipment, then you most certainly won’t.”

“Nevertheless, many music fans (though certainly a minority) want lossless music files,” McElhearn writes. “And, just as Apple has pushed its ‘Mastered for iTunes’ files – which, interestingly, are not always better quality than regular AAC files – they could use the sale of lossless files as a marketing tool.”

Read more in the full article here.

54 Comments

  1. If not Lossless, then at least bump up the bitrate to 320kb, which is what I rip cd’s at, because I’ve yet to detect any significant difference between 320kb and the Lossless equivalent, and that’s listening through $300 in-ear monitors.
    Being able to import FLAC files directly into iTunes would be a big advantage, when they’re offered as an option, though.
    Then, of course, the question arises; when are we going to get an iPod with something like 250Gb of storage?

  2. Audiophiles have been wondering this for years. Hard to believe that the sales of premium music — full ALAC albums, for example — wouldn’t be very profitable. “Mature” listeners spend many times what the kids do on audio equipment, and they would strongly prefer that the source material be correspondingly better. The fact that Apple hasn’t even attempted a trial promotion is really disappointing.

    Also, while it’s easy to convert a FLAC file to ALAC or AIFF, it makes no sense for Apple to not natively support FLAC. As usual, Apple leaves everyone in the dark as to its intentions.

      1. If other companies support FLAC, it’s rather weak to claim that Apple would expose itself to legal risk by doing what other companies already do. Rather vague claim of the “possibility” of patent protection. Moreover, Apple has all the resources in the world to buy or license any patent — it’s never had a problem with that before.

        Reality is that Apple simply isn’t pursuing pro audio with enthusiasm anymore. Cook has slowed Apple development and left it to 3rd parties to pick up the slack. The Audio group at Apple seems to have been slashed to the core. ALAC was needlessly open-sourced. The end result has been that the “it just works” paradigm has been destroyed if you want to use a Mac in audio production. You can’t master high-resolution audio and then natively audition it on Apple equipment, or put it on your iPod to review it on the way home. Apple has no end-to-end solutions. Tweaking and getting 3rd party wares to work together is now the norm.

        Apple offers no native BluRay mastering and playback capability. No SACD or DVD-A support, and very complicated support for high bitrate audio files. Airplay is limited to CD-quality bitrates despite the fact it has the bandwidth to transmit 1080p video. iTunes is also needlessly limited such that playing high-res audio practically forces one to use another player. The settings to enable high-bitrate playback through a Mac are buried in the MIDI settings, with no notification in iTunes.

        Long story short, Apple took its eye off the ball. For a company with a premium image, Apple is well off the leading edge here. And yes, I do blame Cook. Enabling this stuff isn’t expensive or hard, it just takes leadership. Cook, obviously having no background in media production, is simply not paying attention. He is obsessed with the profits that Job’s App store has dumped in his lap, and ignored all the “old school” Mac technologies that enabled it. Quite a slap in the face to the videophiles and audiophiles who would gladly invest in more Apple equipment if only it worked as well as the non-Apple audio equipment. I am certainly not abandoning the Mac platform, but Apple seriously needs some direction here.

  3. What is the impact on file size when you go “Lostless”? I am always to of memory on my 32 Gig iPhone and with the crazy prices on 4g Data don’t even bring up “streaming”. If the file sizes are higher I don’t want my music in another format. Even at 320 I would have to leave some of my music at home. Until 64Gig becomes the “standard” iPhone I don’t see this happening (assuming Lostless are bigger files).

    1. Obviously more information in the recording requires more data. A CD is likely to be about 700 M and Apple lossless can reduce that to about half – but the exact reduction depends on the programme material.

      If you’ve only got limited storage space or limited internet bandwidth, you need compressed data if you’re going to have a lot of music.

      If you’re OK with a slightly reduced quality, there is a tick box in iTunes to convert files to 128 K when they’re copied to a portable device. That way you keep the bulky, higher quality version on your computer, with a smaller, but slightly lower quality version on your iPhone.

        1. The question is “what is the impact on file size, when you go lossless”, not “benefits”.

          I was comparing 256 kb/s to CD quality 1411kb/s (which in itself is lossy).

    2. I have a little over 3700 lossless files at about 58GB. The quality difference even on my $200 computer speakers is obvious. I ran numerous tests years ago when Apple came out with the lossless. There is real big difference on two high end systems I have. Since then I have bought CDs of things first tested on iTunes Store.

  4. When Apple came out with it’s newer format, I compared that with the CD, and with MP3s and FLACs, and found the CD to be best. The problem I found with FLAC was the same problem I found with MP3s – even at high bit rates… The sound staging was changed during the encoding. It was pretty close on the AAC stuff, but the FLAC files were down right horrible, and the MP3 files were worse in most cases.

    1. Explain to me how a FLAC file which preserves the exact bit stream of the input audio can change the sound stage or for that matter anything about the audio. Audiophiles are … I want to say … idiots.

      1. It’s not FLAC that preserves it so much, it’s simply a format of the data. The rate of sampling and the bit depth are what make the difference.
        Imagine using dots to define a curve. You can do it with 5 bits (some would say 3) or you can do it with 3,000,000 dots. Which is the smoother and more representative of the (analogue) concept of a curve ? You can tell the difference. then if you go to 30,000,000 dots is it any better ?. Then again, how big are the dots themselves and at what size would you like to see this image ?

        Sounds is the same, if you have the ears, or if you’re an idiot apparently.

        1. I’m sorry peter but you are wrong. The FLAC or ALAC files contain exactly the same amount of information as the original CD recording, even though they are smaller. If you take some raw PCM data, for example from a CD, compress it using FLAC or ALAC then uncompress it again, you will get back exactly the same data you started with. The bit stream being sent in to your DAC is identical, there is no way the bits can be ‘coloured’, ‘moved’ or ‘spatially relocated’, they are just bits and they do not possess any such properties that can be altered. The same goes for any component in your home hifi system that comes before the DAC, such as the expensive streamers or media servers some hifi brands are starting to offer. If the data is lossless there is no impact on quality no matter how it is transported – Sonos and a cheap NAS box are just as good, as long as you are taking the digital output from your Sonos box and feeding it in to your hifi DAC. It is only worth spending money on the DAC and things that come after it.

          Now, you may well want to know how ALAC can preserve perfect quality from a CD with only half the information. The answer lies in information theory – the amount of information stored in a message is not proportional to the length of the message, rather the ratio between the length of the message tells you how efficiently the data is represented. There is more than one way to represent a waveform; PCM is the standard used for CDs, WAV files etc. and it represent the save form in the time domain. That is, a series of samples taken at even intervals over time. The quality of the representation can be increased by increasing the sampling rate, or the resolution of each sample. Audio compression works by representing the waveform in the frequency domain. So, instead of describing how the waveform rises and falls over time, it describes the frequency and amplitude of the sine waves that make up the audio signal over a finite time window. The two descriptions are equivalent, since any waveform of finite length can be constructed out of a linear combination of sine functions to an arbitrary degree of precision – this is a mathematical result know as Fourier’s theorem. For lossless audio codecs, the parameters of the Fourier transform are chosen so that the precision achieved is equal to the resolution of the original PCM data. That way when the transformation is reversed, the result is the exact same PCM representation that you started with. It turns out that it is more efficient to represent waveforms in the frequency domain that in the time domain, hence the reduction in size. How much of a reduction you get depends on the complexity of the signal – sounds consisting of very few constituent frequencies such as a flute or a synthesised sine wave are much easier to represent than complex signals or white noise, which is why cymbals always suffer on MP3 recordings. For lossey codecs such as MP3 the process is essentially the same, but the amount of data used to store the new representation is capped at some limit (e.g. 256 Kb/s), which is not sufficient to encode all frequencies that comprise the original sample, so some get lost.

          So there you have it. I am something of an audio buf myself (currently auditioning some B&W 800s w/ Bryston power amp) but honest-to-goodness anything that happens in the digital domain with lossless data has zero impact on sound quality, it is a mathematical impossibility. If you audition your hifi critically and honestly you will verify this.

          1. Of course that is correct IF you are making a copy of the data form the CD. I’m talking about a higher bit dept and sampling rate in the master and using the master to create the higher resolution file. Naturally you can never achieve (true) higher resolution than that which was recorded (although analogue recordings to digital format complicate that). My point is simply that digital masters are at higher bit depth and sampling rates and if that is preserved it is superior.

  5. Yep I’ve been waiting (and still waiting) for Apple Lossless codec to be available on iTunes. Then and only then will it lessen the need to buy the CD and rip it to Apple Lossless for the hard drive collection. The time has come. Also time to break loose of the 16-32-64-128Gb music player storage tetralogy that’s been standard for too many years now.

      1. At each iteration of what? Every year when we see a device upgrade? That hasn’t happened in a while. We’ve been in the 8-16-32-64 rut for far too long. It finally got bumped to 128Gb but I would like to see 256 & 512Gb. Simple request, yes? 🙂 Just would like to see the large storage capacity Humongo iPod introduced for those who want to carry their huge lossless collections around with them. I also am one of those who prefers a dedicated music player.

  6. … and if Apple offers lossless files, some audio fans will start lobbying for 24 bit 48 kHz files instead.

    With audio, there is never a point where it’s totally perfect and each incremental improvement costs a great deal of money and is only apparent to a diminishing proportion of customers.

    As in all things, a balance needs to be struck between what is pretty good for most people and what is theoretically ideal. Obviously Apple aims towards the perfectionist end of the spectrum, but I have my doubts whether they will be willing to go much further in that direction. than they have.

    Apple will doubtless have a view about what the demand might be and how much extra those customers will pay. It’s hard to imagine the economics making sense as those who want higher quality than 256k AAC still have the alternative of buying a CD and many purists would prefer to buy a physical disk anyway, even if lossless files were offered.

      1. And the LP was lossy in comparison to what was heard in the studio or concert hall. Perfection in sound recording is simply not achievable. Good enough is what matters.

        1. The term “lossless” is indeed weak, but the audio industry generally uses it in relation to the RedBook CD standard. All consumer audio since has been offered at lower quality, and yes, that includes FLAC and ALAC “lossless” formats.

          Pros know that the CD (AIFF) is not perfect. But Sony got it right with the SACD. There’s probably only a handful of people in the world who can discern the difference between a live performance and a properly mastered SACD played on a proper hi-fi system. Imaging is outstanding.

          But then, if helps to put together a proper listening studio:
          http://www.kipnis-studios.com/The_Kipnis_Studio_Standard/Kipnis_Home_Theaters.html

    1. “… and if Apple offers lossless files, some audio fans will start lobbying for 24 bit 48 kHz files instead”
      The 24bit 48khz craze is a marketing scheme developed by predatory business to siphon money from unwitting music enthusiasts pockets It is impossible for the human ear to hear anything above 20khz, so the true audiophiles will never vie for such a ridiculously over-inflated file. We dont need 48khz 24bit files, we need redbook standard, tried and tested lossless audio, and we’re willing to pay good money to get it. Shove your slippery slope fallacy up your ass and educate yourself.

  7. People need to understand that CDs are a better investment than MP3s. While it is very convient for me to listen on my iPhone 4 with iOS 7 on it, it just does not have the same quality as CDs. I tried to download MJ’s 2001 masterpiece “Invincible” from iTunes and the quality would make the Jackson Family cry! There was a reason while ol’ Michael Jackson did not want his music on Sega Genesis games: The quality sucked! Not that I would by any music these days, because must music sucks now, but if I were to do so, I would buy it on CD or even vinyl.

    1. The Beatles Original Studio Recordings box Set on Amazon is $179; on iTunes, it’s $149. I really can’t imagine why anyone would purchase the download over the CD box, unless they have absolutely no free space in their home.

    2. Most of MJ’s back catalog has been decimated with each digitally remastered re-release… victims of the loudness war. The problem is poor mastering, not the codec.

  8. The reason will be because they’re not losing sales by not offering it. There is no large market for people downloading from other services offering lossless. Higher Definition physical sales never took off, so it’s just something with a large demand. The same goes for upping quality to 320 from 256. Most people won’t notice the difference, they’ll just realise they’re fitting less stuff on their devices.

    1. What evidence do you have to support your claims? People still DO buy CDs, you know. Many people are happy to pay a bit more for superior quality. Or are you one of those people who thinks Apple is always correct as it limits consumer choice?

      1. Sales of CD’s are not because those people want lossless music. Higher quality formats than CD have not caught, on so the market can’t be that huge. Yes, some people might want higher quality, so buy CD’s which they can then convert to non-physical formats at any level of quality they want (up to the maximum CD offers), but that is not what the entirety of CD sales consists of.

        I, for example, buy CD’s when the CD is cheaper than the version on iTunes, or amazon, or whatever. Often, if I buy a CD on amazon, it and the mp3 version they typically give you with it can be cheaper than the same mp3 version on amazon alone. A lot of sales are because it’s cheaper sometimes. A lot of CD’s are because people just still buy CD’s

        I’m not saying I wouldn’t like the option of Lossless, or that there wouldn’t be a market for it, but I can’t see it being a huge market, or a particularly profitable one, that Apple should see it as any sort of priority. In much the same way that Apple could sell a lot of things, and make a profit on them, they don’t because there are bigger/better things for them to do. I’m not saying that’s right, I’m not saying it’s wrong. I don’t see it as limiting consumer choice either, in much the same way that I don’t see shops not selling higher quality formats than CD for all the music they offer. There are practical reasons why companies don’t do things, it’s not personal, it’s just a reasonable business decision.

        More so, in terms of increasing the quality to say 320, I really can’t see that happening. The advantages are not going to be that great, they certainly couldn’t sell them side by side as it would just confuse people and use up extra space on devices and increase bandwidth requirements for no real benefit.

  9. Considering that a majority of the music-listening public was quite happy with AM radio (unbelievable, but true!) and 256Kb AAC is higher quality than even FM radio, I think this argument is moot. The audiophiles will continue to spend big buck for ultra hi-fi and the rest will be happy with audio that is actually very good in terms of fidelity.

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