When Will Apple Start Selling Lossless Files on the iTunes Store?

Update: I posted this article in January, 2014. Recently, there are new rumors around the possibility that Apple would be selling high-resolution audio files in the iTunes Store. Notwithstanding the fact that high-resolution music is a marketing ploy, I consider it highly unlikely that Apple will sell such files in the near future. This rumor isn’t new; it’s been around since early 2011. Apple requests high-resolution files from record labels in order to correctly create Mastered for iTunes files. Apple’s portable devices simply don’t have enough storage to hold many high-resolution files. However, I do think that Apple will soon begin selling lossless files. Here’s what I wrote a few months ago, with some slight changes to bring the article up to date.

A while ago, I posted an article discussing Why iTunes Doesn’t Support FLAC Files. I’ve gotten a lot of feedback, both in comments to the article and in emails, from people wondering when Apple will start selling lossless files on the iTunes Store. (These are music files that are the exact equivalent as music on CDs, and Apple could use the format that they developed, Apple Lossless, to provide this quality.)

I think Apple will eventually do this, but that they’re in no hurry to do so. The quality of the AAC files that Apple sells (at 256 kbps) is certainly “good enough” for most uses. If you do the kind of test I discuss here, it’s unlikely that you’ll hear a difference. And unless you have very good audio equipment, then you most certainly won’t.

Nevertheless, many music fans (though certainly a minority) want lossless music files. And, just as Apple has pushed its “Mastered for iTunes” files – which, interestingly, are not always better quality than regular AAC files – they could use the sale of lossless files as a marketing tool.

If so, I think they would do so in a way similar to the way they sell video. Currently, you can choose between SD and HD videos for most movies and TV shows you get on the iTunes Store (older shows and movies in SD only don’t offer that choice). And, when you choose HD, you can choose from two qualities. As you can see below, you can choose from levels of HD quality.


I can imagine that iTunes would offer the option to download lossless or lossy files, perhaps with a premium for the former, as they do for HD video (though they have to keep the price below that of CDs, which, of course, are lossless and easy to import into an iTunes library). And there would most likely be an upgrade option for music you’ve already purchased, as they did when they moved from 128 kbps files to 256 kbps.

But I also think that you would have the option of downloading lossy files as well, notably to use with iTunes Match on iOS devices. Because lossless files are much larger, using them would fill up an iOS device very quickly. You can convert lossless files to lossy versions when syncing to an iOS device, but if you download music directly onto an iOS device, you don’t have this option.

While the market is small, the marketing value is large; if Apple were to offer lossless files, they’d be the first major music retailer to do so. (Many labels that sell their music directly offer lossless files, but no large music retailer does.) I can foresee Apple doing this in the next year or two, after they’ve worn out the Mastered for iTunes campaign.

26 thoughts on “When Will Apple Start Selling Lossless Files on the iTunes Store?

  1. The lack of CD quality downloads is why I don’t buy music from iTunes. There are plenty of smaller sites that do (both individual label sites and other specialty sites) and I’m happy to give them my business.

    • I only once bought an Album from Apple, and I most likely will never do it again. If Apple will finally sell lossless files, it will be too late for me, I’m buying now (classical) CDs and rip them myself, because I’m not satified with the lossy music available today from Apple. Too bad, but that’s it.

  2. Great article and you are looking at this realistically, i.e. the market for lossless is small. I would love to see it offered by Apple. The Mastered for Itunes comment is entirely accurate, since it really is dependent on the quality of the digital master that the recording engineer supplies to Apple. (check out Bob Katz, iTunes Music: Mastering High Resolution Audio Delivery).
    In the meantime, I ask myself, ‘Self, do I really want to manage a 75mb lossless recording of ‘Happy Together’ in my music collection?’ Or, would I rather have a pristine, lossless recording of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring? Generally, the later question wins over for me, and I will purchase the CD (used, if I can find it on Amazon), and then import the AIFF (or lossless file) into iTunes. It then goes into my ‘Audiophile’ playlist. I have purchased FLAC recordings, but the process of converting them to iTunes, and the limited selection is an issue for me.
    You’re right, if there was a ‘switch’ we could flip to get a lossless recording on iTunes, would be the best solution.

    • «I have purchased FLAC recordings, but the process of converting them to iTunes, and the limited selection is an issue for me.»

      Using an app like XLD to make the conversion from FLAC to ALAC is pretty fast and straightforward. Converting a whole album (16 bit, 44.1 kHz) is a sub-minute affair…

    • It is ironic that we have Apple selling 256 kbps mp3s when CDs are 1411kbps and Steve Jobs was an audiophile with very, very expensive audio equipment. Can’t see him playing iTunes on his system.

      We have places like HDTracks selling Hi Rez audio downloads that are usually much better than Cds. Cds are 16 bit 44.1 kHz. HD tracks sells 24 bit 96kHz and in some cases 88 kHz and or 192kHz downloads. Do they sound better? Check for yourself on their website. Yes the cost is higher as is the quality. All of this is 2 channel as well.

      Super Audio Cds are (2.8mHz) hybrid 2 , 3 and 6 channels depending on source (these hybrids play in Cd players) and DVD Audio (24/96) which is surround and played in DVD audio players only for best quality.

      If, like me, you like classical, and Jazz higher quality is preferred. Heck, I like the best quality available regardless.

      Another irony is that Amazon and iTunes have some recordings that noticeably came from someones turntable on vinyl with sometimes very poor quality.

      It is a mixed bag that is available. Apple would provide a wonderful service if they allowed lossless downloads albeit for a higher price. Imagine paying almost a much for a 256 as a 1411. That is precisely what Apple has done in some cases. Convenience has trumped quality and common sense. Sad that the masses seem content with the lowest common denominator when it comes to music. Your ears deserve better.

      • They’re not MP3s, they’re AAC files, which are considered to be better at the same bit rate.

        It’s not ironic; it’s a question of bandwidth. You couldn’t have started by selling lossless files when no one could download them.

        • I agree about the bandwidth. Yes, I just noticed that the purchased downloads are AACs. Thanks for pointing that out.
          There is the option of importing your CD collection into iTunes. I am able to hear occasional quality differences between AACs on the store from same artist and song.
          Which labels offer lossless? Sony/CBS/RCA, Capitol/EMI, MCA? I would definitely like to check that out.
          Great article. I heartily support your cause.

          • Ed. Other labels with cd or better quality downloads
            Hyperion, 2L, gimell to name 3 that I’ve purchased from. There was a thread, perhaps on this blog from a year or so ago that listed a lengthy number of CD quality download sites.

    • The good news for those buying lossless online is that more sites are now offering ALAC (Apple Lossless) as an option. This eliminates the step of running the FLAC files thru XLD to convert to ALAC – though this isn’t much of a bother. Just drag the files onto the XLD icon in the dock and XLD does the rest – coverts to ALAC and imports into iTunes.

  3. As noted in another thread, this is something I’ve always wanted, but…am caring less about, rapidly. ABX testing really is a great cure for what I *think* I know.

    Having said that, cds still sound better on my system, but they sound better than *everything* else – from lossy aac files to uncompressed aiff files. So the obvious conclusion is that there’s something not related to the inherent quality of the file that affects what I’m hearing. I wonder how many people who don’t like music bought through iTunes are really bumping up against some other limit in their stereo?

    • Are you playing CDs and digital files through the same system? In other words, have you compared CDs played through your computer to CDs played through your CD player? Because if you have a good CD player with a good DAC, and you’re computer just outputs music to a stereo using its own DAC, there will be a difference.

      • Macbook ——>cheap “HiFiMan” external USB DAC. Like you, my first guess is the DAC’s the issue.

  4. With Apple selling movies that are 4 GB compressed downloads, Apple is capable of selling Lossless Files of Music – where each song is easily 1/50th the size of a compressed movie.

    The question is: will music companies want this to happen? Obviously, music as MP3s are already widely pirated. But at least they are not the original bits of music. A Lossless file has all the original data in the music. Losing this currently unacceptable to music companies.

    The other question is: will consumers want lossless files? Consumers by and large use their smartphones and MP3 players for listening to music. These are limited by expensive flash storage. There is not much room in most people’s phones and MP3 players to store much lossless music. Thus, the biggest limit is consumer storage capacity. Consumers will not buy Lossless files since such files are highly inconvenient.

    • Never underestimate the power of asking people to pay more for better quality.

      As for record companies… people are already mass pirating the FLAC’s (usually made from the CD release) anyway. They should embrace this with open arms, as a “better thing” for music consumers to buy into, over what streaming services can offer to their customers (streaming unlikely to be done in lossless formats) at a high loss in value (they pay labels/artists much lower money); thus they should sell it as a point of **differentiation**.

  5. Bullshit!
    There is no problem with capacity of your storage for ALAC files.
    Why? – Because. Because one film is about 4-5 GB, but 4-5GB is about 10 ALAC audio albums.
    And now ask yourself – how many albums you have in your audio library? 20, 50, 100?
    Ok, lets ±100. 100 albums – about ~50 GB! 50GB = 10 films (1080p) in your video library.
    In my own video library 200+ films and its weight about 1.5TB.

    MORALITY: There is no problem with 50 or 100 or 200GB space for my lossless music through my Lavry DAC. But if you just want listen to music on your iOS (iPhone, iPad, etc.), then there is no meaning – will be is an .m4a with mp3-bitrate or m4a with lossless-bitrate, you will hear no difference anyway, cause their’s DACs are shit (compared with ±normal DACs).

    P.s.: sorry for my English language.

  6. FYI, CD Baby offers 16/44.1 FLAC as a download option at no extra charge. Band camp allows artists to sell tracks as 24-bit FLAC. There is a difference, there are audible artifacts even at 256kbps, and it gets worse if you ever need to transcode from one lossy format to another, for example, from AAC to mp3. It’s always better to begin with a full bandwidth or losslessly compressed format and convert that to whatever other format you might need for other purposes. I keep my library in Apple Lossless and FLAC, and I have 80gb iPod filled with Apple Lossless files. When I want to load my 4gb iPod Nano, I have iTunes do the automatic conversion to AAC. The automatic conversion is a wonderful thing!

    I would like very much to have the option to download from the iTunes store in a lossless format. I would shop there much more often if they offered lossless tracks.

    Excellent article. Happy holidays!

    • Ditto. (having the option). I’d be all over it, too. And I listen to music for a living!

      Offering people CHOICE of lossless or lossy would at least seem reasonable in 2015. Storage and bandwidth are non-issues. All iDevices support ALAC, at least to 16 bit/48kHz.

      Realize also that all you have to do to reduce the resolution of your music is apply further digital signal processing, such as digital volume control or EQ in iTunes, or further conversions to AAC or MP3. That’s where already-lossy audio will really come undone.

      By the way, try asking the ARTISTS what they think of having their music heard only in lossless formats.
      Come on Apple – it’s time for choice. And we have the technology.

      – a Mastered for iTunes accredited mastering engineer.

        • But the bandwidth is there for many, and by not offering choice there is no choice for them. Those with limited bandwidths are not worse off, and their situation will likely improve over time.
          See also my point about the artists’ point of view with their work. And the all too-easily cumulative losses from re-processing already lossy downloads.
          Art lovers don’t go to art galleries forced to view or buy only jpg copies of paintings.

          • I still think Apple won’t jump into this soon as there’s no benefit for mobile users.

            As for art galleries, that’s not a good comparison. You’re talking about originals, and if people can’t afford them, they just buy post cards. :-)

            I do agree with you, however, about further processing. I’ve found many tracks – pre Mastered for iTunes – that sounded very bad with Sound Check turned on. This was more common with MP3s than AAC files, but it was noticeable on many solo piano tracks. I haven’t used Sound Check in ages, so I don’t know if MfiT tracks are also affected. I think I’ll try that today…

            • Another example then: I don’t own a 4K TV. But I still appreciate the benefit of it and need for it for those with such screens.

              And I’ve not yet once heard of anyone complain of having quality options on YouTube or Vimeo.

              For those wanting only 128kbps AAC music on an iDevice, that’s still totally possible from higher quality lossless files. But the reverse isn’t true.

  7. Clearly a marketing gimic getting better quality music files? Not really. Try saving the same audio file in differeent format and listen to the difference. What is the point in buying really expensive headphones if the source is crap? None. Really.

  8. I predict that Apple will not allow lossless downloads from the iTunes store anytime soon. Public opinion has forced Apple to lose the fight of DRM-encoded media, however selling proprietary file types ‘locks’ some users into their ecosystem (specifically those who care about audio quality and the problems caused by transcoding lossy files). If Apple were to release lossless versions of iTunes store purchases, consumers would then be able to transcode (lossless to lossless) and switch their media managers (and in turn, their mobile operating systems) without any loss of sound quality.

    I, for one, am currently happy with my large iTunes library, however I have roughly 9.4 GB of music (out of 130 GB) that keeps me ‘locked’ in the Apple ecosystem. If I were to ever choose to leave, I would have to purchase replacements in MP3 format, or, God forbid, lose that music.

    • Wait, what? Proprietary file types? AAC? This is not proprietary in any way, and you can convert it to any other format you want.

      • AAC is a a lossy encoding standard developed to replace MP3 by providing higher fidelity audio compression. It was adopted by Apple for the iTunes and iPod in 2003. At the time, the proprietary Fairplay DRM system prevented sharing of iTunes purchases. I misspoked when I referred to the current offerings of the iTunes store as ‘proprietary file types’ because although this codec is an open standard. (Unprotected files are sold as m4a or ‘Purchased AAC audio files’ encoded with the AAC codec but stored within the m4a container.

        Kirk, the key to my complaint is that these files are sold as lossy. You say that they can be converted to ‘any other format you want’. Although, at face value this may seem true, to those of us that care about audio quality, this is not exactly true. The best way to explain this would probably be an analogy.

        Consider lossless audio comparable to color photography – it contains a full color spectrum and lets you ‘see’ (think:listen) everything in complete detail. When you convert a lossless audio source to a lossy file, you retain the ‘jist’ of the picture, however you lose much of the detail. In our analogy, lossless audio could be compared to converting a color photograph to a black and white photograph or a photograph filtered significantly through digital editing (think of some of the over-filtered pictures seen on Instagram these days).

        If I have a collection of black and white photographs, it would not be possible to convert these photographs back to color and then apply instagram filters. The color version (i.e. lossless) is not available to restore those precious details in our picture.

        Likewise, when converting files from AAC to mp3 (or between any lossy formats), important spectral information is lost in the process and the end result is a file that sounds worse than the original lossy file.

        For this reason, unless Apple provided lossless versions of the music I have purchased from them, I am ‘locked’ in their product ecosystem because I would rather maintain the audio quality of my music than have the freedom to move to another music ecosystem.

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