While various sources have claimed that Apple Music will stream music at a lower sound quality than its streaming music competitors, they’re likely unfounded. Apple Music, which launched on Monday, has confirmed that Apple Music’s streaming bitrate is 256 kbps — seemingly below Spotify and competitors’ claimed 320 kpbs sound quality. But it’s an apples-to-oranges comparison, as Apple Music will most likely use its typical AAC format as opposed to other streaming services which use the OGG or MP3 format. As many sources agree that the sound quality of 256 kbps AAC files is equivalent (or better) to 320 kpbs MP3, Apple Music will not be skimping on sound quality after all.
Apple traditionally has used its AAC (or Advanced Audio Coding) format in its iTunes Store and related products. This audio encoding format, which is also standard for YouTube, has better sound quality than the MP3 format at similar bit rates. The AAC format is also more efficient, meaning that its files take up less space.
Spotify, on the other hand, uses the Open Source codec Ogg Vorbis, which is comparable to the MP3 format and therefore less efficient — and arguably poorer quality — than AAC files at comparable resolutions. In comparison, Google Play All Access streams music at 320 kbps MP3, Amazon Cloud Player streams music at 256 kbps MP3, and Rdio streams music at 320 kbps AAC. While Jay Z’s Tidal Hi-Fi streams at lossless 1411 kbps FLAC, Tidal Premium offers 320 kbps AAC streaming for its standard tier, as well. All of these music streaming services have a $10 monthly subscription cost, except for Tidal Hi-Fi which costs $20 per month.
The bottom line is that Apple Music will stream music at a comparable, if not better, audio quality than its peers (save for Rdio). Regardless of the variations in audio quality, though, you may not hear any difference. Many listeners cannot even differentiate between uncompressed (or lossless) audio files and compressed (or lossy) audio files in tests.
That likely has a lot to do with the components they’re listening through — a standard smartphone, for instance, offers a digital audio conversion that’s considerably lower quality than a premium DAC (digital audio converter), for instance. And then there’s amplifier quality, speaker/headphone quality, etc. While audio engineers using top-notch gear may prefer to stream their music via Tidal HiFi, it probably won’t make a resounding difference for the casual listener on a common smartphone, PC, or tablet. Instead, whether Apple Music is right for you will most likely come down to the interface, and the overall user experience.
Want to experiment for yourself? Check out this NPR quiz which tests whether you can hear the difference between lossy and lossless audio.