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Here’s why Apple Music could sound worse than Spotify

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Apple has been loud and proud about the imminently-launching Apple Music streaming service, but it hasn’t really detailed what sort of quality we can expect from the audio.

Fortunately, a new report claims to have insider knowledge of the fledgling music platform’s inner workings.

According to Mashable, Apple Music will stream music at a bit rate of 256 kilobits per second (kbps) using Advanced Audio Coding (AAC).

For clarity, bit rate is how much data is processed over a period of time. In this case, every second of a song contains 256 kilobits of information.

This means that higher bit rates equate to more detailed songs, which translates to better sounding audio – although how much us simple human folk really notice these small differences is open to debate.

For instance, Tidal offers a HiFi tier which streams at an incredible 1,411kbps using the Free Lossless Audio Codec (FLAC) format. That’s the equivalent of CD quality audio.

Spotify, by contrast, streams at 320kbps, as does Google Play Music, and Rdio. Xbox Music, however, streams at just 192kbps.

Related: Apple Music vs Spotify

But why has Apple seemingly chosen to fall in the middle? Apparently, it’s because songs downloaded from iTunes are also encoded in 256kbps AAC.

It’s important to note that most people won’t be able to tell the difference between 256kbps and 320kbps, so Spotify isn’t necessarily an inherently better proposition than Apple Music because of its higher bit rate.

That's especially true because AAC is a codec that was specifically designed to retain better audio quality than its MP3 counterpart at the same bit rate.

This means that even if an MP3 track has a higher bit rate than the same song in AAC, it might not nnecessarily sound better.

Don’t forget that Apple hasn’t actually officially confirmed the Apple Music bit rate yet, so we’ll have to hold off on judgement until the launch.

Apple Music goes live across 100 countries today, June 30, at 4pm (BST), bringing with it Apple’s 24/7 Beats 1 radio channel.

Would a 256kbps bit rate put you off Apple Music? Let us know in the comments.

Also, if you still need a device to listen to Apple Music on, check out our iPhone 6 video review:

Alexandre Masset

June 30, 2015, 2:15 pm

Well,...sorry about my english, but some people here in Brazil are telling that this is because Apple uses AAC format, but Spotify (and the others) uses MP3 format. And AAC is superior than MP3 format, so it compensates that difference (320kbps vs 256kbps). I don`t know if it`s correct.

BMPVisual

June 30, 2015, 2:24 pm

welll if youre streaming on a data package the smaller bit rate saves you money.

Pbryanw

June 30, 2015, 3:19 pm

AAC is a more efficient codec than MP3. It's mentioned in the mashable link but TR failed to report it:
"However, AAC was created specifically to retain better audio quality than MP3 at the same bit rates (i.e. to do more with less), and almost all listening tests confirm that it does so. So format matters just as much as bit rate."

I suspect there's not much difference between 256kbps AAC and 320kbps MP3, and those that want lossless will stick to Tidal's FLAC streaming.

MikkaMakkaMoo

June 30, 2015, 3:24 pm

Yes it's pretty daft to naively compare the bit rates of two different audio codecs, when AAC was developed by the Fraunhofer Institute (and others) to be a more bit-rate efficient successor to MP3 (developed by the Fraunhofer Institute).

LeeTronix

June 30, 2015, 8:51 pm

Your absolutely right about the comparison. For me personally I have no intention of using the apple service.

Karl Rainer

June 30, 2015, 10:16 pm

Flac or nothing, sorry Apple. Plus no 24 bit sound - really?. This is so 2000 and late.

dpanch_89

July 1, 2015, 11:36 am

The only way it could be successful IMO is if it offers a "spotify migration service" to transfer your saved music and playlists.

Richard C

July 3, 2015, 3:12 am

To my ears, 256kb AAC (encoded in iTunes) sounds superior to MP3 at any bit rate. When I order CDs from Amazon I might listen to their complimentary 320kbit MP3 downloads until the discs arrive, and then I immediately import them as 256kb AAC and ditch the MP3s.

Also, I can't hear any difference between 256kb AAC and lossless/uncompressed even through my excellent $300 over the ear Sennheiser headphones or streaming through my Pioneer floorstanding speakers. 128 AAC sounds good enough for most music, 192 is very hard (if not impossible) to differentiate from the original CD, and 256 is utterly flawless. There is no comparison between this format and MP3.

Richard C

July 3, 2015, 3:19 am

By the way, AAC has an optional (rarely used) second level of compression called HE-AAC that cuts the bit rate in half to a quarter of the standard size with a small but noticeable loss in quality. The iTunes Store never used it but iTunes itself does. You could conceivably get internet radio down to only 64kbit for cellular steaming and have it still sound pretty good. (I played with audio as low as 32kbit using all of HE-AAC's compression tricks, and it sounded about the same as a 128kb MP3.)

I wonder if Apple is using it for their smaller cellular-quality stream.

Paris TX

July 3, 2015, 9:51 pm

Although I was put off by the apple music app why I first tried it, I will say that the several songs I have compared to my spotify subscription songs sound a lot better. I use spotify at the top bit rate and am also wearing high end earphones. To my ears it just has a lot more detail and overall better sound. Both are very good, but I really do see quite a difference with apple winning the battle.

solcotto

July 4, 2015, 3:48 pm

Perhaps they'll get this sorted out but the new Apple music service sound quality is horrendous. Apple does quality so I'm sure its only a matter of time before they sort this out, but until they do I can't make a realistic comparison to Spotify or Tidal HiFi which I also subscribe to. I'll give it a few weeks. The trial is 3 months long so I've got enough time to wait.

solcotto

July 4, 2015, 3:59 pm

No streaming service offers 24 bit so you can't really hold that against them.
Tidal offers 1411 kbps which sounds great through a quality DAC but even that is only set up to emulate 44.1/16.

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