Apple devices and music have a long history together. Musicians and other creative types often use Macs, and the iPod was a major step for portable music. Nowadays, the iPhone carries that torch.
Whether you’re an audiophile or just want the highest-quality sound your money can buy, high-resolution audio is intriguing. While building and maintaining a hi-res music collection on your computer is fairly easy, playing it back on your iPhone or iPad isn’t as easy as it could be.
Let’s take a look at the state of hi-res audio on iOS.
What Is Hi-Res Audio?
There’s no standard for hi-res audio, so this term essentially means higher-than-CD-quality audio. It also signifies a lack of lossy compression, like what’s used for MP3 files.
Hi-res audio can come in many different formats like Apple Lossless (also known as ALAC), FLAC, MQA, and DSD, among others. We’ll mainly focus on ALAC and FLAC here.
What Do iOS Devices Support by Default?
You can play some hi-res audio on your iPhone or iPad out of the box—just not all of it. You can play back ALAC files in the Music app, but only up to 24-bit/96kHz. Hi-res audio is typically sold at bit rates of up to 24-bit/192kHz, which won’t play on iOS devices by default.
Despite FLAC support in iOS for several versions now, the Music app won’t play FLAC files either.
There are a few reasons for the 24-bit/96kHz limit. First, this is the highest bit rate supported by the EarPods that ship with iPhones. The second is that iTunes won’t even let you transfer files with higher bit rates to your iPhone.
Let’s start by addressing the issue of hardware. Then we’ll move onto software limitations.
An Ultra-Cheap Piece of Hardware Can Make a Huge Difference
Like them or not, the EarPods that ship with iPhones aren’t the best headphones in the world. The problem with newer iPhones and iPads is that they don’t have headphone jacks to let you plug in your favorite headphones. Bluetooth headphones are an option, but you won’t get all the benefits of hi-res audio over a Bluetooth connection.
Fortunately, there’s a fix for the lack of a headphone jack that also has some surprising benefits. The Lightning to 3.5 mm adapter sold by Apple (one of Apple’s many adapters) is no longer included in the box with a iPhone, but it will let you plug in any headphones you want. Its other benefit is the ability to play back music up to 24-bit/192kHz.
This is because the adapter includes a Digital to Analog Converter (DAC). These take the digital signal coming from your phone and transform it into an analog signal your headphones can use. The specific DAC in the Lightning to 3.5 mm converter is a 24-bit model made by Cirrus Logic that supports audio at bit rates up to 192kHz.
As long as your headphones don’t require a ton of power to drive, this cheap adapter is your ticket to hi-res audio goodness. If you’re looking for a set of headphones to pair with it, we have a list of the best wired headphones you can buy.
Looking for Even Higher Quality? It Won’t Come Cheap
If you have a set of expensive headphones and want even better sound quality, you might want to consider another DAC. There are plenty of options available that work with iOS devices, spanning a wide range of prices.
On the lower end of the price range, you have the FiiO i1 Portable DAC. This likely offers comparable quality to Apple’s adapter, but adds inline controls and a built-in mic.
Moving upward in price, the AudioQuest Dragonfly Black will get you a substantial bump in quality. It comes bundled with a Lightning to USB adapter.
The AudioQuest Dragonfly Red has even better sound quality, and comes bundled with an adapter as well.
If you’re looking for a top-of-the-line solution, audio enthusiasts love the Chord Mojo. That said, it’s extremely pricey and you’ll need a separate adapter or aftermarket cable to connect it to your iPhone.
The main upside to buying an external DAC is sound quality. They aren’t limited to just your iPhone or iPad—you can use most of these with your computer or Android device as well.
On the downside, most of these are cumbersome compared to Apple’s Lightning to 3.5 mm adapter. This is especially true with larger models like the Chord Mojo. If you’re listening at home or at work, this isn’t a big deal, but it could become a problem if you want to listen on the go.
You’ll Also Need the Right Software
We’ve already looked at the limitations of the iOS Music app. Fortunately, you’re not stuck with it. There are plenty of hi-res music player apps for iOS, but here are a few options.
For Music You Own: Vox Music Player
Vox Music Player is one of the most popular music players for iPhone. Not only will it play hi-res ALAC, but it supports FLAC, DSD, and more. Even better, it’s free.
That said, to make use of all its features, you’ll need to sign up for a Vox Premium subscription. This costs $5 per month, $50 per year, or $90 for a two-year subscription. For the price, you get advanced audio settings, the ability to sync music from your Mac to your iPhone, and unlimited access to cloud storage for your music library.
Download: Vox Music Player (Free, subscription available)
For Streaming: Tidal
If you prefer to stream your music rather than own it, Tidal is a higher-fidelity alternative to Spotify. Its $10/month Premium subscription offers audio quality comparable to Spotify or Apple Music. Where it shines is its $20 per month Hi-Fi subscription plan.
The Hi-Fi plan lets you stream all tracks in lossless 16-bit 44.1kHz CD quality, but that’s not the real draw. With a Hi-Fi subscription, you also get access to Tidal Masters. Tidal makes these available in Master Quality Authenticated (MQA) format.
These streams are typically 24-bit/96kHz quality, but the MQA format makes for smaller, easily streamable file sizes. If you like to listen on the go but still want high quality, this is a great option.
Should you decide to sign up for Tidal, we strongly recommend doing so through its website. If you sign up through the App Store, you’ll pay an additional 30 percent for the subscription to cover Apple’s fees. There’s no reason to do this, as you’re not getting anything extra for your money.
Download: Tidal (Subscription required, free trial available)
What About Hi-Res Audio on Your Mac?
Many of the limitations mentioned above aren’t present on macOS. For example, iTunes has no problem playing 192kHz/24-bit ALAC files. That said, a quality DAC and headphone amp will still help you get the best results.
If you don’t use ALAC, you’ll also need an app other than iTunes to listen to your music. Fortunately, there are plenty of options available. For a head start, take a look at our list of the best hi-res music player apps for macOS. And if you’re interested in buying a DAC for hi-res audio, check out our guide for the best ones.