Why It’s Time for an Apple Music Refresh

Besides my unapologetically voracious consumption of physical media, I spend a lot of my time listening to music digitally by using services offering hi-res listening options, many of which have been detailed in this column. But I hadn’t accessed my longstanding Apple Music account to fill this need — until now. Since May, Apple Music has been serving up a massively upgraded library of lossless and hi-res offerings, which in turn made this the perfect opportunity to dive back into the iMusic ecosystem.

If you haven’t visited Apple Music of late and/or have a lapsed account, now’s the time for a refresh. Apple Music offers a free three-month trial listening period before its monthly $9.99 charge kicks in ($14.99/month for a family plan; $4.99/month for students). Since you’re likely to have an existing Apple ID due to a) past usage of iTunes, b) owning an iPhone with the Apple Music app nestled at the bottom of your homescreen, and/or c) maintaining some other proprietary iDevice, it’s relatively easy to sync Apple Music with your account and stored billing info.

If you have any music files obtained via Apple languishing in iLimbo, you should see them repopulate your Apple Music library — just as I did with multiple-thousands of downloaded tracks I’d purchased from iTunes over the years. I’ve also been able to reconnect with a number of iTunes playlists I had totally forgotten about making, including some I had put together specifically on my second-generation iPad as far back as 2012. (More on those playlists in a bit.)

As I confirmed in an Apple-centric window opened in Google Chrome on my HP laptop, Apple Music was also kind enough to sync those long-ago purchased tunes and playlists for access via my other internet-connected devices, including my iPhone, Roku Ultra (as channeled through my GoldenEar Technology speaker system), and the aforementioned second-gen iPad (wherever the bleep that thing is in my house). However — and this is a key point — if you downloaded your library prior to this new lossless era, you will have to delete the old versions and re-download them from the Apple Music catalog accordingly — which, admittedly, could take a significant amount of time to do, depending on the breadth of your digital music library. (For the purposes of this evaluation, I re-downloaded every song you see cited here, and more.)

According to Apple Music, in addition to AAC, its entire catalog is also encoded using the lossless ALAC format in resolutions ranging from 16-bit/44.1kHz up to 24/192. For truly appreciating anything above 48kHz, you’ll at least need to use an external hardware DAC. If you have an iPhone or iPad, go to Settings > Music > Audio Quality and confirm you’re set to Lossless (24/48) or Hi-Res Lossless (24/192). (Android users can also access Apple Music lossless settings.)

Duly satisfied I had a sizable library of lossless Apple Music at my fingertips regardless of how it was accessed, it was time for some serious listening. I could fill this entire column with my thoughts on the Spatial Audio options alone — but, thankfully, we have a separate feature story just for that purpose. Instead, since I was in the mood to rock out in the heartiest of ways, I started this particular lossless listening session with a number of songs I surprisingly had not yet previously added to my Apple Music library. First up was Foghat’s familiar uberdynamic “Slow Ride” — the full 8-minute barnburning version from September 1975’s Fool for the City that serves up a searing slide-guitar clinic courtesy of the late, great Rod Price.

Next, I went to Apple Music’s Prog Rock Essentials playlist and sampled a smattering of wide-ranging multi-layered epics, including Dutch band Focus’ mostly instrumental masterpiece “Hocus Pocus” (follow the bouncing yodeler!) and German band Amon Düül II’s “A Morning Excuse” (dig the recurrent channel-hopping synth stabs). For a more current offering, I went to Lorde’s recently released third album, Solar Power, and marveled at her layered vocal emoting while being “Stoned at the Nail Salon.”

Finally, I decided to reassess one of my ancient iPad playlists lovingly named “Commute Trax — In Full,” one created specifically for the countless hours I logged commuting between central New Jersey and midtown Manhattan during the first decade-plus of the 2000s — and what an absolute blast it was (the playlist, not the commute). Set to shuffle, it was sheer joy to hear how Adrian Belew’s “Big Electric Cat” roared with a jungle-bred fierceness, how The Pipettes’ “Pull Shapes” blended ’60s girl-group harmonies and string-section accents with modern sensibilities, and the way The American Breed’s “Bend Me Shape Me” reveled in its full stereo separation (vocal harmonies on the left, horn section and percussion accents on the right).

I could go on for hours (actually, I did), but I can definitely say that Apple Music’s lossless upgrade satisfies any lingering lo-res listening concerns I may have had about how a true lossless leader enters the higher-res streaming audio arena. And at just $9.99/month, there's plenty of reason to take a bite from this particular apple music tree.

Mike Mettler, a.k.a. The SoundBard, is the music editor of Sound & Vision.

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