There’s a lot of fuss these days about high-end audio. Neil Young’s still trying to convince people to part with 400 bucks for oddball triangular music player Pono, which he argues will make your ears squeal with glee on experiencing it. The Pono store and others are selling so-called high-resolution audio files, which they claim better more typical downloads in closely resembling what studio recordings intended. And even streaming services are getting in on the act, taking advantage of high-speed internet to deliver less compressed music.
But what if you’re perfectly happy with your iOS device, and don’t really fancy buying a separate player for audio, and then pretending it’s October 2001? What can you do to improve your experience playing music on your iPhone or iPad?
How to improve the audio quality of your music: choose the best type of audio files
The simplest way to potentially improve music on your mobile devices is to change the music format you use. Audio can be lossy or lossless. Compressed lossy files (such as MP3 and AAC) have long been the norm in digital. They essentially approximate a raw music file, attempting to discard ‘irrelevant’ data that people cannot hear, resulting in a smaller file size, but losing information along the way. This is similar in nature to how you can take a high-res scan and then turn it into a compressed JPEG. The trick is in finding the right balance between file size and ensuring the original content isn’t degraded to the point differences in quality are overly noticeable.
When ripping CDs in iTunes, the Import Settings within General Preferences determine the encoding used. Options include MP3, AAC, AIFF and Apple Lossless (ALAC). AIFF will result in files that sound identical to the original source, but these will be huge: about 10 MB per minute. On a Mac with a boatload of storage, this might be OK, but mobile devices are more limited. Unless you only want a tiny selection of music on your iPhone, AIFF is not a good bet. Apple Lossless is compatible with the iOS Music app and will generally take up about half as much space, but sound identical to the original CD. It’s a better bet.
But do not entirely dismiss compressed lossy audio. Using the iTunes Import Settings dialog, you can fine-tune the level of compression for these formats when CDs are ripped, matching iTunes Plus for AAC (256 kbps, although you can go higher) or setting the bit-rate of MP3 all the way up to 320 kbps. Even at their maximum settings, the resulting files will be significantly smaller than AIFF and Apple Lossless. However, at higher bit-rates, which discard less information, the vast majority of people won’t be able to hear any real difference between AAC/MP3 and the original CD source.
Find out if you can tell the difference between high and low quality audio here.
Where to buy the best audio quality, high res audio downloads
Another thing to bear in mind is where you download music from, if CDs are something you consider should be consigned to history. iTunes sells 256 kbps AAC, and 320 kbps MP3 is commonplace elsewhere online. (The two are roughly comparable.) However, if you bought or downloaded MP3s many years ago, they may be at a much lower bit-rate (128 kbps, say); while most people find it difficult or even impossible to tell the difference between modern iTunes Store downloads and CD audio, 128 kbps removes too much of the original data and can sound noticeably muffled, compressed, tinny, or just plain bad.
Where possible, get newer versions of your files. If you’ve got a ton of them, consider buying iTunes Match for a year. There are tutorials online about how you can match (an admittedly fairly well organised) iTunes library, delete your local files, and then replace them with shiny new 256 kbps AAC from Apple. For new purchases, ‘Mastered for iTunes’ recordings have generally gone down well even with relatively jaded and picky audiophiles.
Alternatively, experiment with purchasing higher-quality audio files from sites that offer formats such as FLAC (Free Lossless Audio Codec) rather than just MP3. Note, though, that iOS devices do not support this format by default, and nor does iTunes. Depending on how you’d like to manage such files, you can either convert FLAC downloads to Apple Lossless using something like X Lossless Decoder, or use apps such as VOX, FLAC Player, and CanOpener for directly playing back FLAC on iOS devices.
Buying higher-quality audio also gives you more options later, regardless of what you do with it right now. A 128 kbps MP3 can’t really be improved, but a FLAC file can be re-encoded to 320 kbps MP3 for your iPhone today, and the original file can happily wait for the day when it or its Apple Lossless equivalent makes sense on an iPhone 10 with 2 TB of storage. (OK, we can dream.)
As noted earlier, some online music stores now plug high-resolution files, which claim to go well beyond even CD audio, although, when you look into it, also beyond the limits of human hearing. You’ll see music listed as 24/96, which means 24-bit/96 kHz. By comparison, CD audio is 16-bit at 44.1 kHz. A larger bit depth results in higher potential dynamic range capture within a specific slice of time, while the frequency refers to the sample rate — the slices of audio captured per second. So 96 kHz audio is sampled more than twice as much per second as 44.1 kHz audio.
Naturally, the assumption with bit depth and frequency is that larger numbers are better. One thing they certainly are is larger, and this extends to file sizes. If you thought Apple Lossless, FLAC and AIFF audio files were big, high-resolution audio equivalents will seem gargantuan; single albums can easily clock in around the 1 GB mark. The snag is 16-bit audio deals ably with what people can hear, and so it’s hard to make an argument in favour of higher-resolution audio at the best of times, let alone when you’re dealing with mobile devices that have limited storage. (Additionally, there’s plenty of discussion online whether even the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus can output high-res audio through their headphone ports, which rather puts a dampener on everything unless you stick an external digital-to-analogue converter between your device and headphones. Not very handy when you’re out and about, getting on with your day.)
Therefore, when purchasing music we’d say FLAC and Apple Lossless is a good yardstick to aim for, or AIFF/WAV if you’re feeling a bit paranoid about lossless compression. Sites like Bandcamp, depicted above, often give you the option of which format or formats to download, so you can always grab the MP3 or AAC for your iPhone and FLAC or Apple Lossless for future-proofing. But leave overly expensive high-res audio for the people who claim buying £1000 cables and ‘risers’ for speaker leads makes their music sound like unicorn tears caressing their ears. Also, if you’re into streaming rather than buying, consider the likes of Tidal over Spotify, but again be mindful that on your mobile device, you might not be able to hear the difference between the former’s 1411 kbps streams and the latter’s more compressed audio.
Get better headphones: best headphones for audio quality
Beyond ensuring you’re not trying to play audio compressed so heavily it sounds like it’s coming from a transistor radio someone threw in a hedge in a garden half a street away, the main difference you can make in improving your iOS audio experience is purchasing new headphones. The ones that come with the iPhone and iPod touch aren’t bargain-basement, but they are merely fit-for-purpose in covering the basics. They’re fine for calls and OK for music, but far from great.
Macworld has a round-up of alternatives (see: Best headphones for iPhone), all of which are better Apple’s headphones. Even twinning a 30-quid pair of Sennheiser CX 300 IIs with reasonably high-quality lossy audio will greatly improve what’s going into your ears. To a point, though, you get what you pay for, at least up to a few hundred pounds, and so if you can budget a bit more for headphones, your inner audiophile will be happier.
Note that the type of headphones you go for will also impact on audio quality. Over-ear headphones (‘cans’) tend to be better than earbuds, although they’re of course significantly bulkier. Bluetooth wireless headphones have improved a lot in recent years, but still tend to offer inferior sound quality than wired equivalents, and for a higher price.
In a home set-up, you’ll again find spending a bit of money helps improve the sound coming out of your device. Often, small speaker docks offer mono rather than stereo output and are essentially the speaker equivalent of cheap earbuds. More expensive speakers designed for mobile can be better (read: Best speakers for iPad and iPhone) but you must still remain mindful of those only capable of outputting a compromised signal when it comes to the stereo image. When possible, consider buying a hi-fi amp and speakers for a home or office system and connecting your iOS device to that. Note: don’t get taken in by snake-oil claims regarding cabling; it’s one thing to pay a few hundred quid for a decent set of speakers, but anyone splashing out the same on a cable to connect their iPhone to their amp is a mug.
The final word
This guide is a starting point. There are countless pieces of kit and countless opinions about how you should experience audio. It's a very subjective field, and so we’ll finish with a few thoughts. First, don’t feel bullied into buying a lot of kit because you think you should. Second, where possible try 'blind' tests, to check different headphones and speakers out on music you enjoy. You may find a £50 pair of headphones is fine and - to your ears - no worse than the £200 pair. Similarly, do some blind tests on file compression, because there’s no point in re-ripping your entire music collection to Apple Lossless and desperately cutting down the albums you can store on your iPhone if it turns out you can’t tell the difference between such files and the same music encoded as 256 kbps AAC.
Also be mindful that a lot of modern music is mastered in a manner that means a lot of nuance has been lost, regardless of the technology you throw at it. (Do a web search for 'loudness war' for more information.) Things are slowly changing, but no amount of careful ripping and perfect headphones will save recorded audio designed to punch your ears in. And finally, realise that compromise is inevitable to some extent when dealing with mobile. iOS devices are limited in terms of storage and technology, and so your aim shouldn’t necessarily be the best audio experience ever, but one that you consider good enough for the effort you make and the financial outlay you can happily afford.