More and more music streaming services like Spotify, Apple Music, and Amazon Music are offering lossless sound quality. But what is behind it and who can actually benefit from it? Get into it.
If you translate the word “Lossless” into German, it means “Lossless”. So it is a lossless audio format in the sense that the music is saved and played as a compressed file, but no quality loss is expected as a result of compression.
For listening to music in the digital age, the MP3 format in particular has prevailed. It was developed by the Fraunhofer Institute in Erlangen and Nuremberg since the 1980s and was intended to help find a digital music format that could fit hard drives and storage media from the 1980s and 1990s. At that time, many commercially available hard drives were so small that the data on a single CD was too large for them.
Mobile phone players such as the iPod led to a boom in compressed music formats.
Photo: © Apple 2019
On a music CD, the music is usually uncompressed, which means that the individual song files are quite large. File sizes of 30 MB for a single song are not uncommon. However, by compressing it into an MP3 file, the memory size can be compressed to about one-tenth of the original size. The 30 MB song becomes a 3 MB MP3 file.
Strong music compression is mainly achieved by deleting a large part of the audio frequencies stored on a CD. These are frequencies that the human ear cannot perceive in any way, but are automatically generated when music is played and recorded. The algorithm calculates the frequencies that can be deleted when an audio file is compressed and the frequencies required.
CD is the standard for lossless formats.
Photo: © Vastram / Adobe Stock 2020
This works fine mostly, but not perfectly. Especially with classical, jazz, or rock music, pressure away from the natural distortions that arise when playing real instruments can also occur. This can cause the song to lose some of its dynamism. So lossy formats like MP3 are fine, but not ideal. For this reason, other digital formats that promise lossless compression have long established themselves among audio originals.
The best lossless audio format is called FLAC (Lossless Audio Codec) and is used, among other things, to compress audio files from music CDs without loss. FLAC is also a compression of the output file, unlike MP3, for example, no data or frequency bands are deleted. Instead, it is compressed by a more efficient arrangement and a set of existing data. When playing a FLAC file with a compatible playback device, the original signal is reconfigured to 100 percent. So there is no quality loss.
With this method, audio files can be compressed to nearly half the size of a CD without any quality loss. The FLAC file of a song is half the size of the CD version and five times the size of an MP3 file.
FLAC is the most popular lossless audio codec.
Photo: © Xiph.Org Foundation 2021
Another lossless compression method is ALAC (Apple Lossless Audio Codec) developed by Apple, which works on a similar principle to FLAC and achieves similarly good compression. However, the formats are not compatible with each other.
When it comes to CD quality, the end of the story hasn’t been reached yet. For absolute audiophiles, there are high-resolution audio formats that contain the full range of data that is recorded when music is recorded in the studio. This is referred to as Hi-Res Audio Quality or Master Studio Quality. Music is played with a sampling depth of 24 bits. The meaning and nonsense of such high-resolution audio material is controversial even among enthusiasts.
Music streaming providers also usually use compressed audio formats to bring millions of songs from their databases to users without consuming a lot of data. For example, Apple Music uses AAC, Amazon Music uses MP3 and Spotify uses a similar compressed format called OGG.
Apple Music has been offering lossless audio widely since June 2021.
Photo: © Apple 2021
While free streaming service providers often stream highly compressed audio files, Spotify Premium at 320kb/s data rate provides the highest possible quality in MP3 format.
However, in the future, it will also be streamed in lossless quality. Apple Music has been streaming more than 75 million songs in CD quality at 1411 kbit/s and 16-bit/44.1 kHz sample rate since June 2021. 20 million songs are also available in Hi-Res quality with 24 bit/192 kHz. The loss offer will be available to subscribers at no additional charge.
Amazon Music Unlimited offers HD quality in FLAC format with 16-bit/44.1kHz currently for more than 70 million songs and seven million additional songs in High Definition (referred to as Ultra HD by Amazon). Here too, Amazon Music Unlimited customers no longer pay additional fees.
Amazon Music HD is a lossless Music Unlimited offering.
Photo: © Amazon 2021
Spotify Premium would also like to make its offer available in high quality this year, but it has not provided any details about the range. Tidal and Quobuz currently charge extra for their collection of HD titles.
The magnitude of the qualitative differences between MP3 and a digital song in a lossless format depends on various factors.
pressure degree: MP3 allows different degrees of compression. The more compressed a song is when converted to an MP3 file, the more audio information will be lost and the higher the potential for quality loss. For example, very good MP3 files rarely display an audible quality loss compared to a FLAC file.
type of music: Some types are compressed better than others. In electronic music, the quality loss is often imperceptible, while in classical, acoustic or rock music, the natural distortions of the instruments are often compressed, which can have a greater or lesser effect on the sound.
Your hearing: Everyone hears differently and with age or through damage from high volume, our hearing ability continues to deteriorate. Many people can no longer hear particularly high frequencies in old age as in their younger years. Many studies have been done over the years on how many people can hear the difference between MP3 quality and lossless formats – with no clear result.
Since the differences between compressed and lossless audio formats are often imperceptible or only poorly perceptible, it is important not to obstruct high-resolution audio signals with hacked technology. Music lovers often listen to FLAC and Co. On high-quality systems with high-quality speakers and headphones to make sure not even the smallest details of the music get lost on the way to the ear.
High quality wired headphones suitable for lossless enjoyment.
BILD: © TURN ON 2020
If you stream your music through your smartphone and listen to it using earphones, you have to make a lot of technical compromises at this point. Sometimes, for example, headphone outputs on smartphones are of poor quality, and the conversion of digital music data into analog signals only works at a sufficient level, but is not able to produce a truly high-resolution audio picture. In most cases, the in-ear headphones themselves are physically incapable of a large enough bandwidth to be able to reproduce completely lost files – especially in the lower frequency range.
Bluetooth earbuds cannot produce lossless sound.
BILD: © TURN ON 2019
Bluetooth speakers and headphones are more problematic, with Bluetooth transmission being a bottleneck here due to bandwidth limitations. Even if the corresponding codecs are supported, there is again a loss due to the transmission path. The exception is the LDAC codec developed by Sony, which is supposed to provide approximately the required transfer rate for lossless audio in CD quality. However, optimal transmission conditions are required for this.
The disadvantages of lossless audio are mainly related to the larger amount of data required for it. Much more storage space is required for locally stored files compared to MP3 files. When streaming, a significantly larger data volume is used – and therefore more power. Thus, lossless formats are less convenient, especially for portable use.
Everyone must answer the question of whether undiminished sound is useful for themselves. In order to truly enjoy the format, most of them will have to invest heavily in quality audio equipment. Anyone who spends time listening to their music and prefers to enjoy it peacefully on a high-quality system can enjoy non-lossy formats – regardless, it has higher sound quality. However, if you don’t hear a difference between CD and good MP3s, you won’t be able to tell any difference with lossless codecs either.
If using the mobile phone with smartphones and earphones, on the other hand, it should be hard to hear a difference in good MP3 quality. More so with bluetooth sending. With streaming solutions in particular, disadvantages such as increased data and power consumption can outweigh the disadvantages.