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Is lossless audio worth it?

Audiophiles swear by lossless audio, but is it worth having, or just another example of HiFi smoke and mirrors?
By
December 1, 2022
A woman listens to a song on SoundCloud from her smartphone.

If you’ve spent any time in audiophile circles you might have seen people get rather heated about streaming services, lossy files, and data bitrates. Many HiFi enthusiasts will absolutely insist on only listening to lossless file formats like FLAC, or even paying for the highest tiers on certain streaming platforms to ensure high quality (that is, if they’re not relying on physical media). So, let’s take a minute to understand what’s meant by audio data compression, then see which streaming services offer lossless audio, and if they’re really worth it.

Why do we even need data compression?

The methods available for recording audio have come a long way since the first Edison Phonograph Cylinders that held two minutes of noisy, narrow-band audio. Consumer technology has improved, most notably with the introduction of digital audio, first in the form of physical CDs, where every 16-bit sample of the music was encoded at a rate of 44.1kHz, more than enough to account for the entire range of human hearing in excellent clarity.

noise-induced hearing loss: A finger turning up the volume on an iPod Classic (silver).
Data compression was almost essential back when iPods were shipping with 5GB hard drives, but it’s less of a necessity today.

With the advent of the internet, a problem became apparent: full albums pulled from CDs were weighing in around 700 megabytes, a significant amount of data to move around back in the 90s. In 1991 the MP3 standard launched, which successfully managed to shrink an album down to a tenth of the size of a CD copy without significantly harming the quality of the sound for many listeners. Audio data compression (also known as audio data reduction) has gotten even better since then, but this same core concept applies—it’s about shrinking down audio files to more easily transfer and access them on the internet.

However, any data compression applied can still affect the quality of recorded music files. Audio that is stored in a format that doesn’t remove data (effectively making it the same or better than what might be stored on a CD) is called lossless audio. Audio that’s been data compressed, and is missing some of its original information, is known as lossy audio.

Can you hear the difference?

A woman wears the Plantronics BackBeat Fit 6100 workout headphones against an off-white wall.
A large number of people can’t really tell the difference between a lossless audio file and a compressed audio file.

Audio data compression removes unnecessary audio information to achieve a smaller file size without sacrificing perceptual audio quality. Bad data compression can still be apparent, particularly when targeting especially small file sizes or bitrates (usually somewhere around 128kbps is where it starts to become noticeable), but most streaming services should be encoding audio at a high enough bitrate that most listeners won’t be able to tell the difference between what they hear and the raw uncompressed file. You can even test it out for yourself by listening through this test devised by NPR, which allows the listener to attempt to discern which audio sample is fully lossless. A large majority of listeners can’t tell the difference between a well-encoded lossy file and a lossless one.

Streaming services and music compression

Streaming has been the dominant form of music consumption for almost a decade. Since their inception, services like Spotify or Apple Music have primarily used compressed or “lossy” audio files to reduce transmission bandwidth and local storage requirements. However, more and more music services have recently started offering higher priced tiers that enable access to the full uncompressed lossless audio files for artists that support it. In some cases this is in the form of a regular uncompressed WAV or FLAC file, and other times it’s in the form of more questionable formats like MQA (which is actually lossy, despite some claims to the contrary). Compressed, lossy files usually come in MP3, AAC, or Ogg Vorbis formats.

A chart showing music sales figures over time, showing that vinyl has grown over the years, while CD, digital sales have crashed.
Streaming is still currently the top of the music listening world, and unlike CDs many streaming services use compressed audio.

Of all the streaming services on the market right now, Tidal, Apple Music, Deezer and Amazon Music HD offer streaming in uncompressed lossless audio formats. Qobuz also allows you to listen and purchase lossless music. You can see below a comparison between most of the available music streaming services and their different service tiers.

Streaming serviceMax streaming qualityMax desktop quality (kbps)Supported formats
Streaming service
Qobuz
Max streaming quality
24bit/192kHz
Max desktop quality (kbps)
1,411
Supported formats
AIFF, ALAC, FLAC, WAV, WMA Lossless
Streaming service
Amazon Music HD
Max streaming quality
24bit/192kHz
Max desktop quality (kbps)
3,730
Supported formats
FLAC
Streaming service
Tidal HiFi
Max streaming quality
24bit/192kHz
Max desktop quality (kbps)
4,608
Supported formats
AAC, ALAC, FLAC, MQA
Streaming service
Apple Music
Max streaming quality
24bit/192kHz
Max desktop quality (kbps)

Supported formats
AAC
Streaming service
Deezer Premium
Max streaming quality
16bit / 44.1kHz
Max desktop quality (kbps)
1,411
Supported formats
FLAC
Streaming service
Spotify Premium
Max streaming quality
320kbps
Max desktop quality (kbps)
320
Supported formats
AAC, Ogg Vorbis
Streaming service
YouTube Music Premium
Max streaming quality
256kbps
Max desktop quality (kbps)
256
Supported formats
AAC
Streaming service
SoundCloud Go+
Max streaming quality
256kbps
Max desktop quality (kbps)
256
Supported formats
AAC
Streaming service
Slacker Radio
Max streaming quality
320kbps
Max desktop quality (kbps)
320
Supported formats
MP3
Streaming service
Pandora
Max streaming quality
192kbps
Max desktop quality (kbps)
192
Supported formats
AAC
Streaming service
Spotify Free
Max streaming quality
160kbps
Max desktop quality (kbps)
128
Supported formats
AAC
Streaming service
Deezer Free
Max streaming quality
128kbps
Max desktop quality (kbps)

Supported formats
MP3

How does Bluetooth affect my music?

Image of Android Bluetooth codecs including aptX and LDAC
Even higher end Bluetooth audio codecs aren’t tecnically lossless.

If you’re using Bluetooth headphones, you won’t be hearing lossless audio, even when playing uncompressed lossless files. Bluetooth also uses lossy audio codecs to fit the data into the bandwidth that Bluetooth can support. These codecs are often fairly good quality—Sony’s LDAC codec can work at up to 990kbps—but they’re not lossless. New standards are on their way, but until  Qualcomm’s aptX Lossless Bluetooth codec arrives there is no lossless Bluetooth audio. Because of all this it’s important to consider not just if your music files are lossless, but also if the hardware you’re using supports lossless audio.

Is there more to sound quality than lossless files?

A woman listens to a song on SoundCloud from her smartphone.
The way a song is mastered often has a bigger impact on how it sounds than its file size.

The sound quality of a piece of music is dependent on far more than its encoding quality and file format. A large component of how good a song sounds is the mastering process. For many years, most popular recordings employed a significant amount of dynamic range compression (which is different from lossy audio compression), squishing the difference between the loudest and quietest elements of a song—read our feature on the loudness war for more about that. These days, streaming services implement volume normalization based on integrated loudness (a measurement of loudness based on an entire audio file), so there’s no point in making every sound as loud as possible, but you can still listen to tracks from that era—Metallica’s Death Magnetic is a classic example—and the dynamic range range will sound pretty off, regardless of how high your streaming bitrate is.

The mastering process greatly influences the final sound of a song or album. Having a lossless file will do nothing to improve the sound of a song that is poorly mastered. Some album rereleases feature lossless FLAC files, marketed as “audiophile grade” version, but generally they’re also remastered with a wider dynamic range than the original release, which can really improve the sound. Listeners sometimes prefer vinyl records for a similar reason, as vinyl releases often have more dynamic range than CD or digital releases—this is especially true of music produced in the 90s or early 2000s.

Should you spend extra money to get lossless audio

Spotify Premium vs Amazon Music HD on two smartphones laid atop cash.
Lily Katz / SoundGuys
Amazon Music HD is more expensive than Spotify, and doesn’t offer a student rate.

Quite plainly, it’s generally not worth it to pay for higher tiers of streaming services to access lossless audio. The vast majority of people are entirely unable to distinguish the difference between a lossless audio file and a compressed file encoded at a decently high bitrate, even in an ideal environment. Additionally, the audio data compression inherent to Bluetooth will render whatever gains you’re looking for moot over a wireless connection.

However, lossless audio isn’t completely worthless. In a world where you can have the highest quality for a negligible increase in storage space (a matter of several hundred megabytes is much more trivial nowadays), why shouldn’t you? It’s certainly not worth paying for a higher tier just to achieve it, but if you’re able to find lossless files and play them on a setup that can actually take advantage of them, more power to you.

Frequently asked questions about lossless audio

Although the two terms are easy to confuse, they refer to two entirely different things. Audio data compression is what we’ve primarily been talking about throughout this article, it means removing parts of recorded audio that aren’t integral to human perception of that sound in order to save on data. Dynamic range compression in comparison is a process used in recordings which makes the quietest and loudest parts of a sound closer in level to each other. Dynamic range compression is used on virtually every song you hear, and is an essential part of the mixing process, whereas audio data compression is only heard in certain digital delivery methods (and is entirely absent from analog formats like vinyl).