Tech

Could a firmware update bring Apple Music's lossless audio to AirPods?

At launch, Apple Music's lossless files won't be compatible with any AirPods. There's gotta be some plan in the works to fix that... right?

HONG KONG, CHINA - 2020/02/13: Digital wireless headphones, Airpods, seen at the American multinational technology company Apple store in Hong Kong. (Photo by Chukrut Budrul/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)
SOPA Images/LightRocket/Getty Images

Last week Apple killed Spotify’s hi-fi dreams by announcing its entire Music library — more than 75 million tracks — would be available in high-quality lossless streaming at no additional cost. But the news came with a pretty steep caveat: Apple’s own first-party headphones, including the AirPods Pro and the AirPods Max, wouldn’t work with the new high-tier streaming options.

This revelation, which Apple kept very quiet in its announcement, shocked the internet. And for good reason! Why would Apple upgrade its entire music library, make it available to existing subscribers for free, and then not include support for its own headphones?

Because this really doesn’t make any logical sense, we’re holding onto some meager hope that Apple will somehow fix this compatibility issue later on. Apple gurus across the internet have been busy brainstorming ways the tech giant could make this happen — and it’s definitely possible. Definitely maybe possible.

The most prominent theory right now is that Apple will update existing AirPods with a firmware update of some sort, thereby allowing them to effortlessly switch to lossless play. But we also have a sneaking suspicion that Apple might use this incompatibility as a motivator for consumers to upgrade to next-gen AirPods.

Firmware update imminent? — Apple’s high-quality files use ALAC (Apple Lossless Audio Codec), while every iteration of the AirPods — including the $549 AirPods Max — use the more-common AAC (Advanced Audio Coding) format for Bluetooth listening. The AirPods’ inability to play ALAC files seems like extremely poor planning on Apple’s part.

There’s still room for Apple to fix this mistake, though. Or at least we think there is. AirPods do run on upgradable firmware, and though it’s not updated all that often, Apple has used this firmware to fix AirPods problems in the past. Noted Apple analyst Jon Prosser backed up this possibility on a recent episode of Front Page Tech. It’s unclear whether or not Apple would actually be able to provide new codec support via a firmware upgrade — and even if it could, there’s no guarantee that it will.

Or left in the dust? — There’s also a chance Apple will use this incompatibility as a money grab. Because, well, when it comes to Apple, there’s always that possibility.

Rumors of new wireless headphones from Apple have been swirling for a while now, with most respected analysts circling two potential products: a third generation of base-model AirPods and a similar set of truly wireless earbuds with Beats branding. Either of these models could natively support Apple’s lossless files — which would, of course, be a huge motivator for consumers to upgrade to the new headphones, even if they’ve already invested in AirPods.

Apple Music’s big lossless upgrade is mere weeks away at this point, so it’s unlikely we’ll receive clarification before then. Maybe the company will drop some more concrete hints at its virtual WWDC conference next month.