Apple has announced twin upgrades to its Apple Music audio streaming service: Spatial Audio (with support for Dolby Atmos) and Lossless Audio. The second one was strongly expected this week - even if the announcement was expected tomorrow rather than today - but the first comes as something of a surprise.
Both features will be implemented from June and will be available to all subscribers to the service at no extra cost.
Apple was also expected to launch its new AirPods alongside the upgrades to Apple Music but nothing has been announced so far. Perhaps these will appear later in the week; they are certainly overdue, the last Apple wireless earbuds having arrived in the second half of 2019.
For some time now we've been expecting Apple to announce an upgrade to the audio quality of its Apple Music service; the game was rather given away by the discovery in a beta of iOS 14.6 of references to "lossless audio", "high-quality stereo streaming" and "HiFi", and by a teaser ad that appeared in the Browse tab of the Music app. An announcement was expected on 18 May, making today's launch both unsurprising and early.
Apple Music will be moving its catalogue to Lossless Audio starting in June. In theory this should mean a greatly improved (CD-quality and better) audio experience, with listeners enjoying output that far more closely matches what was laid down in the studio or concert venue.
The Lossless tier starts at 16bit at 44.1kHz, and goes up to 24bit at 48kHz.
"For the true audiophile," Apple says, "Apple Music also offers Hi-Resolution Lossless all the way up to 24bit at 192kHz." But this elite tier requires external equipment such as a USB DAC.
"Apple Music is making its biggest advancement ever in sound quality," said Oliver Schusser, Apple's vice president of Apple Music and Beats.
It's also worth pointing out that lossless is an option rather than a blanket change: Apple says you can turn it on in Settings > Music > Audio Quality. This may be worthwhile for those listening away from Wi-Fi and facing a tight data limit.
There was some speculation about how Apple would market and price the new offering - perhaps as a more expensive tier - but there is no additional cost.
Spatial Audio with Dolby Atmos
Also offered at no additional cost is Spatial Audio with Dolby Atmos, a feature for Apple headphones that was previously confined to video services.
Spatial Audio is Apple's 3D audio headphones tech, designed to intelligently 'locate' sounds in the space around a listener. While watching a film on an iPhone, for example, sound effects will appear to come from the correct place, and even if you move your head the headphones will compensate.
This obviously makes most sense for audio that has a visual component to tie sounds to, and up to now Spatial Audio has been available on Apple's TV+ and a few other video services such as Hulu and Amazon Prime. This is the first audio-only service to support Spatial Audio, the general idea being to make you feel like you're in the studio or concert venue with the musicians. It's virtual surround sound for headphones.
Not everything will be Dolby Atmos-ready, but Apple has pledged to expand the range of available content and provide curated playlists.