Is Lossless Audio Really Worth the Effort and Money?

While you can get lossless audio with a regular streaming plan, there are some hidden costs to enjoying it.
While you can get lossless audio with a regular streaming plan, there are some hidden costs to enjoying it.

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You might be paying for sound you can’t even hear.

Like many others, I’ve been drawn in by the promise of lossless audio – that clear sound that’s meant to capture every detail of a recording, just as the artist intended. But as I’ve looked deeper into high-quality digital music, I’ve found that reality isn’t always as perfect as the promise.

In recent years, lossless audio has become increasingly mainstream, with most major streaming services jumping on board.

Interestingly, Spotify, once a pioneer in music streaming, now lags behind in offering this feature. Yet, there are talks that it’s planning on offering a HiFi option for an extra cost.

This leaves us with a burning question: Is chasing after lossless audio worth it for the average music lover, or just an expensive side trip on the way to better sound?

What is lossless audio?

Let’s start with the basics. Lossless audio is all about preserving every single bit of the original recording. Unlike compressed formats that discard data to save space, lossless keeps everything intact.

Sample of Lossy vs Lossless photo (From: Adobe)
Sample of Lossy vs Lossless photo (From: Adobe)

It’s like comparing a professional photograph to a compressed JPEG. At first glance, they might look the same, but zoom in and you’ll see differences.

Typically, we’re talking about CD-quality sound at 1411kbps (16-bit/44.1kHz) or even higher quality when referring to lossless audio. Yet, some streaming services offer even higher bitrates for an even richer experience.

The promise: Better sound quality

Uncompressed vs Compressed Audio Signal (From: LedgerNote) https://ledgernote.com/columns/mixing-mastering/how-to-master-a-song/
Uncompressed vs Compressed Audio Signal (From: LedgerNote)

The appeal of lossless audio is its potential for “perfect sound.”

Advocates claim you’ll hear clearer highs, fuller mid-tones, and more defined bass.

For them, lossless is supposed to reveal subtle nuances that might be lost in compressed formats. This includes the gentle brushing of fingers on guitar strings, and the intake of breath before a vocal line, which will make you feel closer to your music.

Lossless audio should also provide a broader soundstage, giving each instrument more room to breathe in the mix, at least in theory. Based on this, it’s like upgrading from a small club venue to a grand concert hall. You’ll have more space for the music to unfold and envelop you.

You might also notice less static, especially if it’s something that’s bothered you in lower-quality recordings.

The reality: Hardware limitations and human perception

But here’s where reality comes in. To really enjoy lossless audio, you need the right equipment. And I don’t just mean good headphones (though that’s certainly important).

The cold, hard truth is that if you’re using Bluetooth headphones – even high-end ones – you won’t actually hear lossless audio. Current Bluetooth codecs simply can’t transmit the full lossless signal without some compression.

It’s like trying to pour a gallon of water through a straw – some of it is inevitably going to spill.

While some may do better, all Bluetooth headphones are also susceptible to connection issues.
While some may do better, all Bluetooth headphones are also susceptible to connection issues.
There’s hope on the horizon, though. Qualcomm’s upcoming aptX Lossless Bluetooth technology promises to deliver CD-quality audio wirelessly. While it’s not widely available yet, it could be a game-changer for wireless audio fans.

Even with wired headphones, the differences can be frustratingly subtle.

I’ve participated in blind listening tests, and I’ll admit, distinguishing between a high-quality lossy file (like a 320kbps MP3) and a lossless version of the same track is often an exercise in futility.

It’s like trying to spot the difference between 720p and 1080p video on a small screen.

Sure, with intense concentration in a perfectly quiet room, I can sometimes pick up on slight differences. But in everyday listening? The gap is so small it’s almost impossible to notice.

This might not be true for everyone, though. We all have different hearing health and ability. Still, I’m pretty young (in my 30s), and I’d say my hearing is fine. So, struggling to tell the difference between compressed and lossless was surprising even for me.
DACs and amps are additional costs that not a lot of average music lovers are willing to invest in. (From: Trav Wilson)
DACs and amps are additional costs that not a lot of average music lovers are willing to invest in. (From: Trav Wilson)

Moreover, many devices need extra hardware to get the full benefit of lossless audio.

For example, some setups need an external Digital-to-Analog Converter (DAC) to fully experience studio-quality audio. This adds another layer of complexity and cost to the lossless audio experience.

Unfortunately, it’s not just about the music file – your entire playback chain is only as strong as its weakest link.

Another thing that often gets overlooked is how mastering affects sound quality.

A well-mastered compressed file can sound much better than a poorly mastered lossless one.

It’s important to know the difference between dynamic range compression (which affects the music’s volume range) and data compression (which affects file size).

A lossless file won’t fix a track that’s been squashed by too much dynamic range compression during mastering.

The cost: Data usage and storage concerns

Now, let’s talk about the elephant in the room: data usage. Streaming lossless audio is like turning on a fire hose for your internet connection.

To put this in perspective, here’s the average hourly data consumption when streaming on Apple Music:

Stream QualityFormatRate
High Efficiency (automatic)AAC64kbps to 256kbps depending on connection quality
High QualityAAC256kbps
LosslessALACUp to 24-bit/48 kHz
High-Resolution LosslessALACUp to 24-bit/192 kHz

For those of us without unlimited data plans, this can quickly become a serious concern. It just prevents me from streaming on the go. Not to mention the buffering times you’ll face, especially if your internet connection isn’t great.

There is some good news, though.

Many streaming apps cache songs you’ve played, so if you’re repeating tracks, you won’t use additional data for each play. Plus, most services offer offline listening options, allowing you to download lossless tracks over Wi-Fi for later listening.

Still, there’s another thing to consider: storage.

A full album in lossless quality can take up as much space as dozens of compressed songs. So, if you like to keep a lot of music on your device, you’ll either need to buy more storage or be very picky about what you keep.

Who benefits most from lossless audio?

You may need time, money, and gear to truly appreciate lossless audio.
You may need time, money, and gear to truly appreciate lossless audio.

In my experience, it’s the serious audiophiles with high-end wired setups and time to listen critically in quiet rooms.

If you’ve invested in quality DACs, amplifiers, headphones, or speakers, and you can really sit and focus on the music, lossless can offer a better experience.

There’s another group that might benefit: those who like to make their own high-quality compressed files.

Starting with a lossless source when converting to MP3 or AAC can result in better quality than starting with an already compressed file. So, if you’re building a personal library of high-quality compressed files, lossless sources could be valuable.

Alternatives to consider

For the rest of us, there are good alternatives that I’ve come to appreciate. Many streaming services offer “high” quality options that, while not technically lossless, provide great sound without using so much data.

These formats, like Spotify’s 320kbps Ogg Vorbis streams, offer a great balance of passing-for-casual-listening-quality and practicality for most listeners.

For those looking for an analog option with potentially higher dynamic range, vinyl records have become popular again. While not exactly the same as digital lossless audio, vinyl can offer a rich, warm sound that many music lovers, including me, have come to enjoy.

At the end of the day, the choice to go lossless depends on your situation. If you have the right equipment, an unlimited data plan, and a keen ear, it might be worth trying.

But for most of us, myself included, the benefits don’t quite justify the costs and trade-offs.

My advice? Focus on getting the best headphones you can afford and experiment with the highest quality your current setup can support. You might find that the jump from low to high-quality lossy streaming makes a bigger difference than the leap to lossless.

If you’re curious, try purchasing a single lossless track and compare it to a high-quality lossy version. This can be a cost-effective way to determine if you can hear a difference without committing to a pricier plan.

After all, in the world of audio, personal experience trumps theory every time.

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