Apple’s AirPods Max are a remarkable set of wireless headphones. They have superb noise cancellation, their ambient/transparency mode is the best you can get, and despite being one of the heaviest headphones on the market, they’re surprisingly comfortable. But Apple has yet to fix the AirPods Max’s biggest weakness: It’s a $549 set of headphones that only works with compressed, lossy digital audio.
What does this have to do with USB-C? All.
The great digital divide
The problem with the AirPods Max, in a nutshell, is how they handle audio connections. The problem is the fact that even if the The Apple Music streaming service now offers most songs in lossless audio – in some cases at 24-bit/192kHz high-resolution audio – there’s no way to hear the full quality of these tracks without loss on AirPods Max.
If you’re listening wirelessly, via Bluetooth, the headphones rely on the AAC codec. AAC sounds pretty good, all things considered. But it’s still a lossy codec, which means a lot of the information and detail in a CD-quality (or better) recording has to be removed in order to make the audio stream small enough to be transported via Bluetooth.
This isn’t a situation unique to Apple headphones. Until now, all Bluetooth headphones have to use lossy compression, even if they have a very high quality codec like Sony’s LDAC or Qualcomm’s aptX HD.
The difference is that other headphone manufacturers recognize this limitation by offering users a wired connection (sometimes analog, sometimes digital) that allows them to bypass lossy compression by going straight to the source. Want lossless? You need a wired connection.
The AirPods Max also have an optional wired connection, but it has to be the weirdest wired connection in the earphone industry. Instead of channeling analog audio directly into the headphone drivers so you can use an external headphone amp and digital-to-analog converter (DAC) of your choice, and instead of using a direct digital connection so you can To feed the internal headphone amp/DAC with a pure lossless digital signal, Apple used a bizarre hybrid approach.
It’s $35 Apple acknowledged is not ideal when it comes to listening to lossless music, saying “given the analog-to-digital conversion in the cable, the playback will not be completely lossless.”takes an analog signal from your source device, then converts it to a digital signal, before finally converting it back to an analog signal. (And, yes, you read that right – you need to purchase that cable separately.) It’s a process that
USB-C to the rescue?
This illogical state of affairs raises the question of why does it exist in the first place? And what (if anything) can Apple do to fix this? I have a few theories.
First, let’s get rid of some technical stuff.
Apple’s Lightning port cannot send analog signals. We know this because if you want to use an analog headset with any iPhone newer than the iPhone 7, you’ll need a. And if it can’t send analog signals, it follows that it can’t receive them either.
This explains why the Lightning to 3.5mm audio cable performs its analog-to-digital conversion – the signal entering the AirPods Max’s Lightning port must be digital.
Apple might sell a Lightning-to-Lightning cable to deliver that digital signal, but it never chose to, perhaps because you’d need a USB-A and USB-C adapter to use that cable. with other Apple products and that starts to get messy. And Apple stands for simplicity, not clutter.
If there was just one compact, fully reversible connector capable of handling both analog and digital audio signals, the AirPods Max woes would finally be over. Oh wait, there is: it’s called USB-C.
USB-C is incredibly deft. With the right hardware, it can deliver up to 90 watts of power. It can interface Thunderbolt 3/4 devices with up to 40Gbps bandwidth. And, yes, it can handle analog and digital audio.
It’s already used by the Master & Dynamic MW75 and the Bowers & Wilkins PX7 S2 in digital and analog capacities, so it’s not just theory – it works. And if Apple incorporated it into the next AirPods Max, it would give people the best of both wired worlds: analog when people already own a headphone amp/DAC they love, and digital when they just leave the built-in headset. in the circuits do the heavy lifting.
Will Apple add USB-C to the next AirPods Max?
That’s the million dollar question, and I think the answer is yes. But that might not happen as fast as we all would like. Despite rolling over and adding USB-C to its MacBook Air, MacBook Pro, and some iPad models, Apple has resisted switching from its proprietary Lightning connection to USB-C on the iPhone.
Pressure from the European Union makes this change inevitable, but not immediate. Most Apple watchers believe that The iPhone 14, widely expected to be announced in the fall, will still have a Lightning port.
So that makes the iPhone 15 the most likely candidate to get the USB-C port. Assuming Apple’s historic pattern of releasing a new iPhone every fall continues, that means 2023 will be the end of the line for Lightning-equipped iPhones. When that happens, Apple has little reason to continue using its proprietary port on any device, finally paving the way for an AirPods Max with USB-C.
What about lossless audio over wireless?
With the first headphones to use Qualcomm’s aptX Lossless Bluetooth codec now in the wild, we’ve officially entered a new era for portable, wireless sound quality. But if you’re hoping Apple will add aptX Lossless to AirPods Max while waiting for USB-C, I guess you’ll be disappointed.
Apple never licensed any aptX codecs from Qualcomm for the iPhone or any of its AirPods wireless headphones and earphones, and I don’t expect that to change anytime soon. It’s conceivable, however, that Apple will do what Apple likes to do and create a version of its AirPlay wireless technology that supports lossless audio on wireless headphones.
AirPlay 2 currently supports lossless music up to 24-bit/48kHz, but only over Wi-Fi connections, not Bluetooth. A Bluetooth-enabled version of AirPlay would certainly create some interesting opportunities, but if Apple is indeed working on such a strategy, it’s likely further along in its AirPods Max roadmap than USB-C.