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Apple Music subscriptions kill ALAC playback on iOS
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NewsPoster
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Aug 14, 2015, 08:40 AM
 
While many of us were looking forward to the launch of Apple Music, it has been far from a smooth launch. Making the biggest headlines, of course, has been the woes of experienced by Jim Dalrymple. We've also highlighted issues with shared iTunes libraries, and other library corruption issues. I recently wrote about the way Apple Music works with DRM and handles ALAC files, and in that piece we promised to get back to you when we heard from Apple about how Apple Music handles your own ALAC music files -- and now we have an answer.

Apple originally launched iTunes with music files converted from original CD recordings into AAC 128kbps files. While appropriate for the average bandwidth of the day, and certainly better than some of the files you'd find on Napster or Limewire at the time, it is a particularly "lossy" format and universally considered inferior to CDs.

Apple later launched DRM-free iTunes Plus files on its iTunes store, which are 256kbps AAC files, in 2007. This is what it continues to sell to customers today. Although still a "lossy" format, it is widely acknowledged as striking a good balance between better fidelity and file size. In fact, various double-blind studies, most people can't tell the difference between AAC files encoded at 256kbps bit rate and the original lossless CD recording.

However, audiophiles will tell you that they can tell the difference between 256kbps AAC files the original CD recording. As someone who records my own music using GarageBand and Logic, I can tell you there is most certainly a noticeable difference in quality, particularly apparent when listening through high-quality headphones. In fact, Apple itself developed ALAC (Apple Lossless Audio Codec) which cleverly reduces the file size of an original CD recording (around 650MB) to about half the space (roughly 300MB) without degrading sound quality (incredibly, despite being only half the file size, ALAC is bit-for-bit identical as the original CD recording).

Over a period a few years ago, I started re-ripping my CD collection in ALAC, and ever since then all my new CD purchases get ripped straight into ALAC as well. I still make a point of buying the original CD recordings of new albums I really like, both usually as a fan of the artist, but also to ensure that I get to listen to it in all its glory.

However, we can now confirm that activating an Apple Music subscription kills ALAC playback on your iPhone. How so? When you activate an Apple Music subscription, you lose access to your local library and local syncing capabilities. Instead, your local library is matched with songs in the Apple Music library. As Apple explains in its support documentation (https://support.apple.com/en-au/HT204925), where your ALAC files are matched with the Apple Music library, these will be swapped out in the cloud for AAC 256kbps files.

Where your files aren't matched, they are converted locally on your Mac into AAC 256kbps files, and uploaded to Apple's server -- and that's that. No more ALAC on your iPhone, despite your iPhone's ability to play ALAC files in all their glory. For many, this won't be an issue. For some, like me, it's a big issue.

If I don't like 256kbps AAC files as much as ALAC files, why would I want to subscribe to Apple Music, some of you might ask. The answer is this -- there are many, many albums out there that I would love to listen to in full and legally, but which I might never be able to listen to without a subscription service like Apple Music. With Apple Music, I can listen to all the albums that I want to listen to (on the assumption that artists and labels have made them similarly available on Apple Music as they are for purchase on the iTunes store).

In some cases, when I have listened to them in full, then I might commit to still buying the physical CD so I can also rip it in ALAC, particularly if I find I really enjoy the album. In other cases, I might not want to buy the album, but I can still listen to it in a format that (AAC 256kbps) that is still quite acceptable, but not my preferred format.

So where does that leave lossless audio lovers on the iPhone? One thing is certain, the way that Apple is currently serving up Apple Music as part of a single app integrated with the old Music app, you cannot both be a subscriber to Apple Music and still enjoy your ALAC files on your iPhone through the iCloud Music Library.

You could cancel your Apple Music subscription, which re-enables the ability to manually sync your ALAC files back to your iPhone. However, this then leaves you in a position where you now have a broken Music app, where only parts of it are still fully functional -- as the rest rely on an active Apple Music subscription, which is hardly desirable. Further, as I have pointed out previously, I absolutely loathe what Apple has done with the new Music app UI, which was forced on its designers by the decision not push forward with it as a standalone app, as the Beats Music app was originally.

With things as they presently stand with Apple Music, I have reverted to carrying my iPod Classic around with me in addition to my iPhone. I am now also subscribing to Tidal lossless music service, as I find its music playback interface somewhat better than the Music app in iOS. I am still no fan of Tidal's mini-player, an approach that Apple has adopted in the new Music app, but unlike the ultrathin version that Apple has implemented, it at least does not have several tabs sitting directly under it that you can inadvertently hit, as is the case with Apple's Music app. Further, even if I am not a fan of its overall UI and features, it still has the music I like to listen to and its full functionality is available to me.



I have long wanted Apple to launch a music subscription service. Unfortunately, the way that it has been implemented by Apple has resulted in driving me away from Apple to another service that I might never have even considered subscribing to at all. Not only that, but the Music app which was so central to my daily iPhone use has been relegated out of my sight as I now use Tidal and my iPod Classic.

The irony is that with Apple Music, Apple has tried to make its ecosystem "stickier" but it has had the completely opposite effect on me.

-Sanjiv Sathiah
( Last edited by NewsPoster; Aug 14, 2015 at 11:32 AM. )
     
benj
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Aug 14, 2015, 09:15 AM
 
Yeah, I'm having trouble with MATCH and it's ability (or inability ) to match some songs properly- I keep finding "unplayable" Mp3's which have filename corruption - look for those albums that are Partially Matched (Why is that??) if you find mv4, or mp4 within your AAC matched music - it may be unplayable until you change the name (and add the recognizable metadata). I think Apple is overreaching with music technology and NOT giving the consumer the control they need to "own" their music.
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noibs
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Aug 14, 2015, 09:50 AM
 
I'm in the same position as the author of this piece. My fear is accidentally enabling Apple Music without intending to. I wish I could put myself on a list where to enable Apple Music would require something like five factor authentication.
     
iBricking.com
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Aug 14, 2015, 10:29 AM
 
I'm nitpicking here out of frustration that journalists today (especially political journalists) cannot or will not distinguish between opinion and fact.

256kbps AAC is not "considered" a lossy format, it IS a lossy format by definition in data- and signal-processing science, because, as you say, the decompressed file is not "bit-for-bit identical as the original CD recording."
     
Charles Martin
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Aug 14, 2015, 11:31 AM
 
iBricking: you're right, I missed that on the proofreading. My fault. I'll fix it.
Charles Martin
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DiabloConQueso
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Aug 14, 2015, 12:16 PM
 
If we're going full-on pedant here, then even a standard, run-of-the-mill CD is not lossless when compared to the original recording!
     
iBricking.com
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Aug 14, 2015, 12:31 PM
 
Now that you mention it, DiabloConQueso, the original recording is not lossless when compared to the sound which was recorded!

Charles Martin, I sincerely hope I did not offend you.
     
Sanjiv Sathiah
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Aug 14, 2015, 01:09 PM
 
@DiabloConQueso, you are distorting the truth here. "Lossless" as referred to in this article is absolutely correct. The CD was for many years the industry standard when it came to audio quality and audio codecs that compress CDs, while preserving their audio quality are called lossless. Further, CDs are an uncompressed format - period. They were designed to capture audio in a way that encompassed the full spectrum of human hearing.

As for the difference between 24-bit WAV, AIFF and DSD formats versus 16-bit CD recordings, you are getting into a even more hotly debated topic than the difference in quality between 256kbps AAC files and the CD-quality compression formats like ALAC and FLAC.

@iBricking, while you are quite correct in your original assertion, I used the word "considered" to help couch the concept for the average reader who is not as well versed as you.

But, all this aside, I do not want this thread to dwell on some esoteric debate about audio quality. Can we please get back to its main point, which is that an Apple Music subscription means you can no longer listen to ALAC files on an iOS, because of the system architecture that Apple has implemented.

Thanks for reading.
( Last edited by Sanjiv Sathiah; Aug 15, 2015 at 06:02 AM. )
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Charles Martin
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Aug 14, 2015, 02:06 PM
 
iBricking: not at all, we welcome corrections.

As for ALAC fans, I'd suggest using the built-in feedback option to let Apple know that you'd like that support returned. The iCloud Music Library or iTunes Match should simply give users the option of "skipping" the replacement/uploading of ALAC files, or making the 256kbit versions available for streaming only so they don't replace ALAC files on a device.
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Sanjiv Sathiah
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Aug 15, 2015, 06:13 AM
 
That is certainly one possible way forward, Chas. I would prefer to be able to locally sync my ALAC files, while still having access to a cloud-based music streaming service, even it if must be integrated in one jack-off-all-trades, master-of-none Music app. Still, a separate Music app and a separate Apple Music app would be a much better overall approach that would clearly define each experience and would allow for much better UI and control schemes.

As for getting this feedback to Apple, readers may recall that I wrote to Apple CEO Tim Cook about Apple Music and the new Music app for iOS. I was put in contact with an Apple Executive PR liaison and have communicated this issue as one of several major concerns I have had with Apple Music since its launch.

Nonetheless, if you truly care about your user experience, I certainly encourage others to provide their feedback to Apple on this issue, and any other. Apple does read each piece of feedback users supply and does strive to provide an unsurpassed customer experience by making it easy for customers to supply feedback and then acting on it where possible.
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hfvienna
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Aug 16, 2015, 11:18 AM
 
I know its a bit complicated Sanjiv , but studying the possibilities of Apple Music and thinking a bit about Music Industry in background as an important part of the possible solution I think Apple has done it right - even I am definitely an audiophile and agree that 256kbps AAC is not the perfekt world. Portable use or multi location use limited to 256kbps is an OK compromise in terms of quality and size of files and streaming bandwidth necessary for flawless playback. If you really want ALAC all the way at all places, you still can make a copy of your iTunes media to a 4TB portable hard-drive. But intense tests on the quality of streaming in apple music and playback of AAC files have convinced me that Apple is offering more quality than other services in a better easier to handle way, even its a bit complicated to distinguish between my music , itunes store files, apple music files and apple music streaming and existing infrastructures do not yet allow uncompressed 96kHz/24 bit all the way through .
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chimaera
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Aug 16, 2015, 12:32 PM
 
hfvienna, this is not a music industry problem, it's much simpler. The customer owns the iPhone and the Mac where iTunes resides. The customer owns the ALEC music files in question. Apple is removing customer property and replacing it with leashed Apple-owned files. Without customer consent of course.

The posters above have been polite about it, but this is close to shoplifting. Regardless of technical convenience, Apple should not be nicking stuff from us.
     
Sanjiv Sathiah
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Aug 16, 2015, 08:40 PM
 
@hfvienna Apple going the 256kbps way is not a problem in and of itself. The fact that you effectively have to read the fine print to work that out before "upgrading" to the new music app to learn that it kills any ALAC playback when on the go is a big problem. I would like to be able to make decisions about how I want to listen to MY OWN music collection - not have them made for me by Cupertino.
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ccrider
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Aug 26, 2015, 02:36 PM
 
One way to get around carrying another device is to use an app like Evermusic or Cloud Music. Create a symbolic link to your iTunes Music folder in Dropbox or other cloud service and have all your AACs, ALAC, etc available to you at all times and updated as you update your iTunes with new music.

Or you could use something like ONKYO HF and load it directly to your device (even 24/192 stuff!!)

I agree that it's complete BS that they dropped support of ALAC with AppleMusic but maybe enough people will bitch about it and they'll reenable it. Maybe this fall with the added ability to store 100k songs?
     
   
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