Get to know AptX Lossless, the new technology that promises CD-quality audio over Bluetooth

Get to know AptX Lossless, the new technology that promises CD-quality audio over Bluetooth
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CD-quality music is still the benchmark for decent sound; It’s not quite high res, but it’s significantly better than the lossy, compressed music from Spotify and your old MP3 library. But listening to uncompressed, CD-quality music on a phone can still be difficult when convenience is important. The source material has to be of good enough quality first and foremost, and once it gets to your phone you need to stream it to your headphones without that extra audio quality being compressed away. Easy enough in the age of wired headphones, but a little trickier with wireless earbuds.

Qualcomm’s new standard, AptX Lossless, aims to finally bridge the gap between the fidelity of CD-quality audio and the imperfect compression of Bluetooth. It’s still harder to access than it should be, but after spending an afternoon comparing it to its predecessor, the difference in quality is huge.

The NuraTrue Pro earbuds outside of their case.

NuraTrue Pro charging case.

Since it was first announced over a year ago, it has taken some time for hardware to actually support the new standard to emerge. In June, audio company Nura announced the first pair of earbuds with support for AptX Lossless, but only a handful of smartphones on the market are actually compatible with the new codec. That’s finally starting to change, however, as phones like the Asus Zenfone 9 ship with built-in support for AptX Lossless. Nura provided me with a sample of the phone so I could really put the new earbuds through their paces.

The NuraTrue Pro itself is a fairly typical looking set of true wireless earbuds. They offer 8 hours of charging via the earbuds themselves, an additional 24 hours via the case, and come with four mics on each earbud to handle calls and noise-cancellation. Those mics are also responsible for Nura’s personalized sound technology, which it says is measuring your ears to optimize audio for them. Nura is currently funding the earbuds via a Kickstarter campaign, which says the earbuds are expected to launch in the fourth quarter of this year.

Crucially, Nura’s wireless buds support Qualcomm’s AptX Lossless standard. According to the chip manufacturer, the new Bluetooth technology is capable of transmitting CD-quality audio (16-bit / 44.1 kHz) without any loss of detail (hence “lossless”). That’s in contrast to its previous highest-resolution codec, AptX HD, which is still heavily compressed, although it’s claimed to transmit audio comparable to 24-bit/48kHz or even 24-bit/96kHz .

Despite its lossless branding, AptX Lossless is not fully compression free. There’s still some compression at work here to bring CD-quality audio from 1.4 Mbps to the 1 Mbps bitrate that AptX Lossless can transmit. The difference here, however, is that the compression used should not lead to any data loss and is “bit for bit” exact. “Once it’s decompressed, it’s exactly the same as the original,” says Luke Campbell, CEO of Nura, “Think of a ZIP file. It’s getting smaller, but it’s exactly what it was when it came out.”

For my testing, I used Apple Music’s lossless audio streaming. I’ve verified that all audio quality settings are set to the highest option available and checked the specific audio resolutions listed for each track. In some cases, these tracks were actually higher resolution than the CD-quality audio that AptX Lossless can transmit, but that shouldn’t matter for the purposes of my comparison test.

In theory, the test should be relatively easy, but Qualcomm’s software doesn’t make it particularly easy to see if you’re streaming via AptX Lossless. The new codec is technically an extension of AptX Adaptive, the company’s already existing codec, which dynamically scales the bitrate of your audio depending on your environment. So when I connected the NuraTrue Pro earbuds to the Asus Zenfone 9, a Qualcomm tooltip popped up saying I was connected via “Snapdragon Sound” and “AptX Adaptive” without specifically mentioning lossless. But between Nura’s confirmation that I’m listening in an uncrowded place and Qualcomm’s AptX website specifically mentioning that the device supports AptX Lossless, I’m confident I’m hearing lossless audio.

Neither Qualcomm’s nor Android’s software gives you an easy way to switch between different versions of AptX to run an AB test. Instead, at Campbell’s suggestion, I used the NuraTrue Pro’s multipoint connectivity to directly compare listening through an AptX Lossless-compatible handset (the Asus Zenfone 9) to a regular AptX HD-compatible phone (the Honor 70). With this setup, I was able to losslessly stream Apple Music to both phones and then connect the NuraTrue Pro to each one in turn to see if and what differences in audio quality I could detect.

To my ears, AptX Lossless seemed to have a small but noticeable impact on audio quality. It wasn’t night and day difference (as it turns out, Bluetooth audio compression has gotten really damn good over the past few years), but it was those little differences you love to spot in familiar tracks. A little more clarity here, a little more depth there.

On Eagles’ “Hotel California” (which Apple Music reports was streamed at high-resolution 24-bit/192kHz), the Lossless benefits seemed most evident in the high frequencies. The plucked guitar notes in the song’s intro had more brightness and sparkle when the Bluetooth quality was set to lossless, and every instrument throughout the track felt more present and audible. It never sounded Poorly when listening on the Honor 70, but the Zenfone 9 only had that little extra detail.

That’s not to say the differences were huge, and the quality of the track’s mastering clearly plays a big role. I tried listening to Nirvana’s “Lithium” (24-bit/44.1kHz, a minor increase from CD quality) and it was much harder to tell the difference between the two audio codecs. Perhaps Cobain’s guitar riff and vocals had a little more space around them early on with AptX Lossless enabled, but I doubt I’d be able to tell the difference in a blind test. The differences were a bit more noticeable on a busier trick like Territorial Pissings, which sounded muddy on the non-aptX lossless device, but the difference was minor.

Next, I tried some techno with Vessels’ “Elliptic” (16-bit/44.1kHz, aka CD quality). While the non-AptX lossless handset felt a little overwhelmed by the track’s booming bass, the Zenfone 9 gave it a much more balanced sound, with higher pitches in the mix sounding much more powerful and given more breathing room. It almost felt like AptX Lossless was helping bury the song from a sea of ​​bass.

Finally, I listened to “Maps” by the Yeah Yeah Yeahs (24-bit / 44.1 kHz). Here each of the instruments felt more three-dimensional when streamed via AptX Lossless. They sounded less like parts of a music track and more like physical instruments recorded in a studio.

NuraTrue Pro earbuds, one in the charging box, one outside.

In any case, I would have trouble calling the improvements offered by AptX Lossless transformative. But it felt like it added that little extra detail that I often didn’t realize I was missing. It’s almost like the moment you start streaming a video and it looks ok up until that moment when it’s properly buffered and focused. It didn’t look “bad” before, but once you see it at its highest quality, you become aware of its flaws.

There are always many variables when testing audio equipment, and I don’t want to draw any definitive conclusions about AptX Lossless from the time I’ve spent with the NuraTrue Pro. For example, the codec might have a greater impact on high-end and/or over-ear headphones, or on different songs. But, based on my listening, the impact of AptX Lossless was subtle enough that I personally wouldn’t run out to buy a new pair of audio codec-only based headphones (sorry Nura), and I did definitely would not buy a new phone to get support. Even if given a choice of two pairs of headphones, I would probably choose based on the subjective audio quality rather than the model that has the more advanced audio codec on its spec sheet.

Ideally, AptX Lossless would just become one of those audio features supported by enough smartphones and headphones that you benefit from it without realizing it. But while AptX is widely supported by numerous wireless headphones and Android phones, it’s lacking on iPhones and AirPods. Lossless Bluetooth streaming could be a great upgrade for any audiophile who hates the idea of ​​listening to lossy audio, but its subtle benefits might be harder to sell to mainstream listeners.

Crowdfunding is an inherently chaotic field: companies looking for funding tend to make big promises. According to a 2015 Kickstarter study, about 1 in 10 “successful” products that meet their funding goals don’t deliver rewards. From those who deliver, delays, missed deadlines, or over-promised ideas mean that the products that get done often await disappointment.

The best defense is your best judgment. Ask yourself: Does the product look legitimate? Does the company make outlandish claims? Is there a working prototype? Does the company mention any existing plans to manufacture and ship finished products? Has it previously completed a Kickstarter? And remember: you don’t necessarily buy a product if you support it on a crowdfunding site.

Photography by Jon Porter / The Verand

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