My Apple Music Desktop Streaming Setup for Hi-Res/Lossless
I’m what you might call a beginner audiophile. I love sound, listening, music, but an unable or unwilling to spend multiple thousands on the experience. In this post I will describe my current compromise, which involves some great mid-range studio monitors, Apple Music, a high-punching DAC, and a shit load of cables.
That said, getting high resolution music out of Apple is easy. Doing it optimally is hard. First I’ll tell you what I use, then I’ll tell you why it had to be that way out of the 4 different ways I could have done it.
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- Source: Apple Music on iPhone
- DAC: ifi Zen Dac v2
- Amp/Monitors: Adam t5v
- Headphones: Beyerdynamic DT770 Pro 250ohm.
Why Apple Music?
Using Tidal as a source would have made my life a little easier in some ways, although I would still have some of the problems and might well have ended up at the same end solution (keep reading). But I decided early on that as an Apple one customer (their monster subscription that includes most of their services), I was going to make Apple Music Lossless work.
What do I use as a source device for Apple Music?
I had five options from which to source the audio:
- an old, unused MacBook Pro from 2013
- my current MacBook Pro M1 (used for work/productivity)
- a 2018 11″ iPad Pro (also used daily for content consumption)
- an unused iPhone 6
- my current iPhone 11
Using my current MacBook was OK for a bit, as I could connect the DAC to the LG monitor’s USB hub, allowing for simple connectivity. However, I soon realised that doing this was inconvenient as I was prevented from unplugging the MacBook and taking it to the couch.
I then considered using my old MacBook, having it setup as a dedicated music source This would have been ideal, were it not for a major problem with Apple Music on MacOS: the painful lack of bitperfect playback.
If you are not outputting your music from your Mac as bitperfect (sample rate matched) audio to your dac, your Mac will be doing upsampling for your DAC, and this doesn’t sound nearly as good as bitperfect music (washed out, low-impact).
Why Macs sucks as a source for Apple Music
There are programs to help you do this, but none work with Apple’s streaming library. Yes – none. There is no way to stream from Apple Music and have your selected audio output alter the same rate automatically to match the incoming stream. Let me know if you find one, but as far as I can see this is a huge opportunity for some smart developer. There is a bitperfect app which works, but only for music you added to your library yourself, not even downloaded files from Apple Music will be matched. And if you set Apple Music to output at Lossless, rather than High Res Lossless, tracks can be either 44.1 or 48khz – so many will still be resampled. Argh.
If I wasn’t already invested in Apple Music with saved albums and playlists, and a non-optional monthy fee, I could have used Tidal, which conveniently DOES allow bitperfect audio by taking complete control of an audio device. This is ideal, but that’s $25/monthly that’s hard to explain.
Using an iPad for bitperfect Apple Music
This is the way to go, if you have an iPad you don’t use. iOS apps automatically use the audio out exclusively. You don’t need to do a thing to get bitperfect Apple Music other than plug in your headphones or DAC and start playing tracks.
However, this means your iPad needs to stay on one spot. I like using my iPad around the house for news and youtube – having it sit in one place would be great for music but bad for everything else. It seems like too much of a waste to have an 800 device go unused just because the MacBook can’t do one simple thing. Argh!
Older iPhones can’t do Apple Music lossless.
Hmm I thought, what about that old iPhone 6 in the drawer? It turns out though, that everything older than iPhone 7 (or iPad mini 4) can’t update to iOS 14, the minimum version that supports lossless in Apple Music. I briefly investigated jailbreaking and forcing it to update, but it seems to be harder than I remember (or I am now older than the last time I did that!).
That left me with one remaining option to consider: my current iPhone. The more I thought about it, the more it made sense. When I’m at home it’s usually sitting in one spot, unused. I can make and receive calls and messages from my MacBook or iPad thanks to one of the things Apple is currently doing right.
I did need to buy a lighting to USB 3 camera adapter though, in order to connect the dac. I already had a power brick for the DAC so it wouldn’t destroy the iPhone’s battery.
The only issue is that it’s a little weird to pickup and use the iPhone with the dongle hanging out of it, especially as the stock USB cord that comes with the ifi Zen Dac is SO SHORT. I plan to solve this with one of those standup docs for iPhone, and then we should be truly good to go.
There are problems, such as the iPhone being VERY unformfortable to pickup in the above situation. If I could rotate the screen upside down I would at least to be able to use it without twisting the wires excessively. Unfortunately simple standing docks aren’t sold by Apple and are hard to get by third parties now.
Things Apple needs to fix with the Music App
- Allow Apple Music to take exclusive control of an Audio device, and output bit-perfect audio, like Logic Pro (also their software) does. This would allow a Mac to act as headless audio streamer, and put older apple devices to good use!
- Allow Apple Music on MacOS and iOS device be controlled by other MacOS and iOS devices (as you can for devices like Homepods and Airplay endpoints).
- The above two changes mean that any lossless capable Apple device could be used as a bitperfect lossless streamer.
I know Apple thinks that other companies are catering for the high end of audio, and that they don’t need to cater for us. However the above two changes would effectively save us each thousands and thousands on devices or subscriptions. I’m guessing most serious music/audio fans in the Apple ecosystem have Apple Music subscriptions alongside their Tidal, Qobuz etc…
Apple vs Tidal on iOS for Lossless
And Apple Music lossless does sound really good if output bitperfect. I wasn’t able to discern a difference between that and Tidal Masters and Apple High Res or even lossless (44.1). Previously I had preferred Tidal, but that was not testing bitperfect against bitperfect.