Lossless Streaming –  the future of high res audio

As a raft of higher tiered, lossless offerings from the leading streaming services invite us to part with yet more cash per-month, in return for sparkling, lossless audio, it’s time to take a deeper look at this audiophile-grade standard, and consider whether it’s really a necessary upgrade for most listeners…


Apple Music Lossless


At what point do you consider music not just listenable, but clear enough that you can pick out every nuance of bass, every speckle of treble and all the facets of an evolving vocal or instrumental performance? For many, back at the dawn of digital audio file sharing, an easily sendable (or burnable) 192 Kbps MP3 seemed more-or-less robust enough to mirror a close enough facsimile of CD’s 44.1kHz, uncompressed digital audio. However, true audiophiles balked at (what they considered to be) a pale imitation of the CD’s more accurate picture.

While ripping CDs may seem like something of a moot topic here in the 2020s, the format is still the benchmark setter when it comes to audio quality. The term ‘Lossless’ might have tantalisingly appeared only recently on the radar for many casual consumers, but, in reality all this standard offers is the full frequency range audio that CD’s provided listeners with even back at the medium’s birth in the 1980s.

The secret behind CD’s continued primacy as the audio format of choice for audiophile lay in the way that audio is programmed onto the disc. While many who ripped CDs back in the day might have assumed that the format was simply a collection of hard-pressed MP3 files – as their burned CD-Rs were – in actual fact CD-coding was a vastly more intricate affair.

CDs stored audio via PCM (aka, Pulse Code Modulation). This provided a means to take mini-snapshots of each track’s waveform at a staggering 44,100 times per second, building an overall frequency image above 20kHz – beyond the hearing range of the sharpest human ear. This means that every instrument (or musical element) can produce frequencies which span the discernible human listening range (between 20 Hz and 20 kHz).

Lossy compression is so-called because it carefully snips out those upper (or lower) range frequencies that most human ears can’t detect. However, the higher the compression, the more apparent that audio chiselling is taking place (best evidenced by the shrill, electronic-sounding distortion found on tracks compressed to around 128 Kbps).


While the ease of sending and streaming MP3 (or similar lossy containers) has resulted in its ubiquity over the former full-frequency PCM standard over the last few decades, the increased speed of data transfer means that the streaming of full-fat lossless audio is no longer a modem-crippler. In the past few years, we’ve seen the development of codecs and containers that are able to deliver crisp uncompressed dynamic range and, concurrently, streaming platforms adding higher-priced tiers to experience their music with every frequency intact.


                Amazon’s official breakdown of their High Definition offerings


Apple Music’s lossless codec, ALAC supports audio resolutions that span beyond the CD-quality 16-bit/44.1kHz up to 24-bit/192 kHz. Similarly, Amazon Music HD’s ‘HD’ tier precisely matches the 44.1kHz of CD, while their ‘Ultra High Definition’ exceeds CD to a comparable extent, matching Apple’s peak of 24-bit, 192 kHz.



                      TIDAL Masters, bringing unprecedented clarity to your ears


At the summit of high resolution audio options, are MQA (Master Quality Authenticated) tracks. This file type is what lay behind TIDAL’s ‘Masters’ offering and pushes far, far above the maximum frequency ranges of rival platforms, rounding out at 352 kHz. Skilfully, MQA files use no more bandwidth than a CD-quality file. “MQA’s proprietary technology, based on pioneering research into human neuroscience, captures every element of a recording’s resolution and timing.” Murdo Mathewson of Ginger Dog Comms who work alongside the MQA team tell us. “This level of detail recreates a natural sound. It enables the listener to position the instruments and performers to build a 3D sonic picture. Only MQA technology does this. By identifying and focusing on the music information within the file, MQA’s unique encoding process enables high-quality music to be ‘folded’ and delivered efficiently and sustainably”


While any of the many high resolution audio options provided by streaming platforms can match or exceed that crucial CD-quality bar, the route to lossless listening isn’t completed by just signing up to one of these HD audio tiers. To actually experience uncompressed audio, you’re going to need gear that plays nice with compression-free audio. You don’t want your setup to subsequently squash and frequency-restrict these files. You’re paying to experience high fidelity music, and listening via Bluetooth headphones – transmitting the files via a lossy codec such as Apple’s AAC – makes that higher tiered subscription an utterly pointless expenditure.

To fully appreciate the beauty of lossless, either a DAC (Digital-to-Analog-Converter) is needed as a stable bridge between your phone and your headphones, or a solid sound system (such as those from Sonos or Bang & Olufsen) which can transmit lossless audio directly from the respective platform. A decent DAC, will convert the digital output of your device’s audio and convert it into an analog sound that can drive a solid pair of audiophile-grade headphones.

But, lossless listening via Bluetooth isn’t completely off the table. High resolution Bluetooth codecs, such as Qualcomm’s aptX Lossless and Sony’s LDAC are providing new ways to experience CD quality-audio on unwired cans. “aptX Lossless technology is a feature of our Snapdragon Sound solution.” Lauren Miller, Senior Global Communications Manager for Qualcomm tells us. “It’s designed to deliver CD Lossless (44.1kHz / 16 Bit) audio quality over Bluetooth by the smart use of two technologies (i.e. aptX Adaptive which is a dynamically scalable audio compression algorithm and also Qualcomm High Speed Link technology which adds extra data bandwidth).”

Lauren explained to us how Bluetooth typically gets compressed around 800kBit per second, but relying on Qualcomm’s High Speed Link, large data can squeeze through via a form of lossless compression. “The data can scaled up to deliver 1.1Mbit/s” Lauren explains, “This allows enough bandwidth to process audio which is mathematically bit-for-bit exact when compared to the original. It’s not that compression isn’t used, it’s just lossless compression.”

While its therefore now entirely possible to stream lossless audio from your smartphone to your wireless headphones, the other major stumbling block is the lag that this large data exchange inflicts. It’s still an issue, yet Qualcomm are working on a solution.

More bespoke containers, such as MQA files also need specifically decoding/rendering by external devices for listeners to hear the benefits. “The TIDAL app (available across all platforms) is an MQA Core Decoder product so it unfolds the music file once to deliver terrific quality.” Murdo explains, “Pair the TIDAL app with an MQA Renderer product to complete the final unfold, providing a fully decoded MQA experience. MQA Renderer products include the likes of the Zorloo Ztella DAC and the ASUS ROG Delta S headset.”


Regardless of whether the benefits of lossless are perceptible – or perceptible enough that you’re willing to fork out extra to your streaming service, it’s likely that as the internet increases in speed, and the arms race of streaming platform yields more fruits, compressed audio will soon be regarded as a thing of the past, and we’ll once again return to the 16-bit, 44.1kHz norm. One company that has already made a notable step into the lossless-as-standard world, is Qobuz. The French streaming service was the very first to offer high resolution audio back in 2013, and is now completely dedicated to providing high quality audio-as standard, dropping its MP3 streaming offering entirely.

“For several years, we have conducted consumer research to understand what features and experiences consumers want from their audio devices. Year on year sound quality is the number 1 purchase driver.” Qualcomm’s Lauren Miller tells us. “Now that many streaming services are offering lossless audio libraries as standard, I think lossless audio will become much more prevalent. I’m excited to see a return to lossless audio quality.”



Murdo agrees, “One of the main challenges is the ongoing education of the mainstream consumer that they can and should expect better than a ‘good enough’ listening experience. Studies show you can listen for longer when the audio quality is higher – it’s less tiring as the brain doesn’t have to work as hard.”

“For 30 years there has a steady downward spiral of accepting poor quality audio due to aggressive coding algorithms” Lauren Miller concludes, “But we had to go through that curve of convenience vs quality. Now there’s light at the end of the quality tunnel.”