Can I Use iTunes to Play Hi-Res Music?

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Q I want to check out the world of High-res audio, but being a Mac and iTunes user presents challenges in that arena. I have spent hours researching Hi-Res-friendly computer music playback alternatives, but each seems to have drawbacks (and costs). Is there a way to use iTunes for Hi-Res playback, or do I have to wait for Mother Apple to eventually condescend to selling and supporting Hi-Res music? —Scott Oakley, Phoenix, AZ

A It’s true that the iTunes ecosystem isn’t geared for Hi-Res audio. First, the iTunes store only sells albums and tracks in the compressed AAC format (encoded at 256 kbps). Second, the iTunes application doesn’t support the lossless FLAC format widely used by websites that sell High-res music.

As a result of Apple’s Hi-Res format indifference, many audiophiles have turned to other kinds of music playback software. There are several iTunes alternatives geared towards Hi-res, including JRiver Media Center (PC, Mac), and MediaMonkey (PC). Each of these supports the High-res FLAC format (also DSD, with JRiver) and provides a library interface to browse albums/tracks and organize playlists.

If, like most people, you’re perfectly comfortable using iTunes, there are a number of workaround steps you can take to make Apple’s app more Hi-Res-friendly. The first is  to buy Hi-Res music in the ALAC (Apple Lossless Audio Codec) format, which is offered by sites such as HDtracks as a FLAC alternative. The second—and here’s where the workaround part comes in—is to switch between standard and Hi-Res audio formats using your Mac’s Audio Midi Setup utility. Basically, what you’ll need to do is select the appropriate format and bit rate (e.g., 96kHz/24-bit) for the track you want to play. Then, when you switch to a different format, you’ll need to repeat the process all over.

Of course, having to repeatedly call up a setup utility depending on the file type you are playing is a hassle. That’s why a range of Mac-based iTunes software add-ons such as Audirvana+ ($49), Amarra Hifi ($35), Pure Music 2 ($129) and BitPerfect ($10) have emerged. These programs run alongside iTunes, automatically switching format and bit-rate settings for you as you switch between file types, and they also serve to improve sound quality.

COMMENTS
Tangential's picture

YOU GAVE SO MUCH SPACE TO THINKING ABOUT THEM

pw's picture

High Rez won't be a real thing until Apple gets behind it.. so we wait..

JustinGN's picture

I thought I'd offer a follow-up answer, based on my own experiences!

First, let's take a look at what you (likely) have: a perfectly capable High Resolution audio setup, albeit one that may not give you all the benefits High-Res may offer without extra equipment. Mac sound cards should provide decoding for up to 24-bit, 96kHz digital audio via their headphone jack, but said jack is almost always capable of TOSLINK Optical output of 24/96 as well via the OS (it's perfectly capable of 24/192 in hardware, but Apple hasn't supported it in the OS yet; I need to verify that, though, as I haven't checked El Capitan yet). If you don't mind using the available HDMI output, though, there are mixed reports of 24/192 support over it for LPCM. It's worth noting that, out of the box, no Mac is capable of native DSD output over any of its digital connectors, nor is iTunes capable of decoding it.

iTunes itself isn't *bad* for High-Res music, but it's certainly not the best. iTunes can support up to 24-bit, 192kHz via AIFF and ALAC files, though it's only recently that some sellers have offered ALAC in anything higher than 16-bit, 44.1/48kHz, and most still force FLAC or AIFF for 24-bit audio of any sort. AIFF is basically a WAV file with metadata, and it works well on the iTunes software; no compression, but no loss of fidelity, either. iTunes itself can be configured (at least on Windows) for specific output in both sample and bitrate, and that's what it'll default to for all audio; on the Mac, this should be exclusively controlled under System Preferences, however, since iTunes is heavily integrated with Core Audio there. Unfortunately, this also means that all audio from iTunes will be upsampled to meet those output requirements, which some purists will dislike (personally, I have no issues with it for day-to-day use).

So while the Mac is a bit limited, and iTunes a bit klutzy, it's far from an ideal setup for High Resolution audio playback. That said, it's still a perfectly capable setup, and if you're willing to invest in things like external DACs or software applications that can tap into iTunes' library and metadata, then it's a very nice way to enjoy your music collection. If not, you may want to consider foobar2000 on a Windows install, as that can let you have more granular control over audio output through things like ASIO (beyond the scope of this answer, unfortunately).

There are some additional caveats, by the way:

*AirPlay is restricted to 16-bit, 44.1/48kHz only, regardless of end device capabilities.

*iPods cannot play high resolution tracks at all.

*iOS devices are technically capable of High Resolution audio, but the default Music app is not.

*With the advent of iTunes Match and Apple Music, the AppleTV will attempt to stream the track from Apple's servers instead of accessing your local copies on your iOS device or iTunes library when used via AirPlay. This can significantly degrade audio fidelity, but it's also a convenience feature if your computer is off.

So there you have it! High Resolution is making inroads into the Apple Ecosystem, and Apple technically has broad hardware support for it should they ever choose to adopt it. For now, however, software limits our options within the ecosystem, so you'll need to take care with how you manage your library and enjoy your music. Yes, there are easier and simpler methods of enjoying High Resolution audio, but few as cheap as your existing PC/Mac and iTunes.

mtymous1's picture

...can support up to a 192 kHz sample rate via optical:
https://support.apple.com/en-us/HT202730

(Still plenty of reason to stay away from proprietary hardware profiles that you can't upgrade.)

JustinGN's picture

Oooh! I was basing my answer off the Macs I've administrated the past few years; needless to say, I think my (now former) employer's clients should *probably* consider an upgrade, at least for their music rooms. Nice to see they added 176.4kHz, too! That's usually the finnicky profile missing from a lot of digital connections, I find.

mtymous1's picture

Upgrade indeed... Although for the Mac zombies it means a NEW MACHINE... For most non-Mac desktop fans, it's a simple card. ;-)

mikem's picture

I have my pc/mac audio system running through an external AudioEngine D1 DAC. I have been using iTunes for so many years I know it in my sleep. I also know it is not the best but I really don't want to hit a 'learning curve' again. If I want to listen to audiophile quality music I have my expensive HT for that.

boulderskies's picture

JustinGN - thank you for a detailed response. Very helpful!

deckeda's picture

The most common avenue for computer music playback today is with a USB DAC. Macs support and can send bit-perfect streams up to 24/384 natively, no drivers needed. This includes iTunes, although if you're serious about it you won't use iTunes for long. Roon is the current one to watch.

iDevices can store and playback up to 24/48 PCM within the iTunes ecosystem of syncing. Other apps can side load other files. Onkyo makes one for example, but you'd need to use a USB DAC to gain any sonic benefit; if you play a 24-bit file without one it'll get truncated to 16-bit by the internal DAC.

An aside: for 16-bit audio, any AirPort Express is a handy way to send music to other systems around the house that don't have AirPlay already included, and they have an optical output. But don't use any AppleTV for this. They're still output-limited to 16/48-only and the transcode from 16/44 is just nasty.

shive's picture

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