While everyone prepares their New Years’ resolutions for 2016, Apple is rumored to offer one of their own: high-resolution audio streaming via Apple Music. A Japanese site broke the rumor, referencing “several insiders familiar with Apple” exhibiting products at the Portable Audio Festival in Japan. In addition, it is also rumored that the next iteration of the iPhone might do away with the headphone jack altogether and use the Lightning port as an audio output. This would allow for a bidirectional digital link with better noise cancellation, improved audio quality (high resolution) and even allow iPhones to do double duty as biometric sensors.
While many are familiar with high definition resolutions for displays, a lot of work has yet to be done in the audio space. The analog headphone jack is capable of delivering CD-quality sound (2 channels at 44,100 samples per second per channel at 16 bits per sample). Many attempts at “better than CD” audio formats have been considered since the CD’s debut in 1982. Apple is seeking to get closer to the studio experience in the form of 24 bit digital analog conversion (DAC), which can get headphones and audio streaming closer to that of professional studio recording.
Audiophiles who generally debate the finer points of audio quality down to the format and sampling could be satisfied if the rumors are true, namely because the competition (and the audio streaming market in general) lacks high-resolution audio streaming offerings. However, some critics, such as Macworld writer Kirk McElhearn, have debunked the rumors of high-resolution audio streaming for Apple devices in general on his blog. “That device only handles audio at 16 bits and up to 48 KHz. So if Apple were planning to start dealing in high-resolution audio (generally considered to have a bit depth of 24 bits, and sample rates higher than 48 KHz), you’d have thought this device would be able to handle such audio,” he said, citing the Apple TV as an example of one of the devices not yet equipped to handle high-resolution audio streaming.
However, McElhearn said that high-resolution audio streaming is still possible for the iTunes Store and Apple Music. “The only way they can do this is if the data doesn’t count against users’ mobile data caps (or static caps too, for those people who don’t have unlimited Internet access). Even then, the ambient noise surrounding listeners when they’re mobile would eliminate any such quality,” he added. Aside from the technical hurdles that come with high-resolution audio streaming, mobile providers would also have to cooperate by relaxing data caps. Data caps are still a rule for many mobile providers despite users’ increasing consumption of data through mobile devices.
With Apple utilizing the Lightning connector port in many of its recent devices, such as their keyboards, mice, track pads, pencils, TV remotes and recent iterations of the iPhone and iPad, it is not out of the question to also use it as an audio output for high-resolution audio. However, since high-resolution audio streaming is still lagging far behind its video counterpart, there is still a lot of work to be done before it can become part of the mainstream music streaming market.