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Apple Music, Amazon add high fidelity free. Spotify's is coming (and maybe soon)

Apple Music will add lossless audio quality for regular members in June. Amazon Music Unlimited did it -- surprise! -- right now. Spotify's move may come soon.

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Amazon Music Unlimited has free high-fidelity streaming, Apple Music will launch next month -- and Spotify's may be imminent. 

Angela Lang/CNET

Apple Music subscribers will find that a big chunk of the catalog sounds better next month, and Amazon Music Unlimited members already have. Spotify, for its part, is on track to add high-fidelity, lossless audio this year -- and that launch, branded HiFi, may be imminent. 

On Monday, Apple said its music services are adding support for high-quality, lossless and spatial audio through Dolby Atmos at no additional cost to its normal subscriptions starting in June. It will offer 20 million lossless audio songs to start, with 75 million available by the end of 2021.

Not to be outdone, Amazon also revealed Monday that it's making its high-quality streaming tier, known as Amazon Music HD, part of a standard Amazon Music Unlimited subscription at no extra cost, starting now. That includes 70 million lossless songs, along with a growing selection of tracks that support Dolby Atmos.

The dual announcements essentially mean Amazon is the first company to offer a $10-a-month high-fidelity streaming music service, with Apple Music rounding the bend next month. Spotify, the world's biggest streaming service by both listeners and subscribers, is planning to launch its HiFi service sometime this year but hasn't specified the timing or the price.

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Spotify's HiFi launch may be imminent. A Spotify-focused Reddit board posted screenshots seeming to show a glitch in Spotify's iOS app that revealed HiFi branding and language explaining the high-fidelity service. Spotify didn't respond to a message comment. 

HiFi was expected to be competitively priced at $20 a month when Spotify announced its plans earlier this year. But Apple's and Amazon's decisions to make lossless quality a standard part of their $10-a-month subscriptions will put immense pressure on Spotify to follow suit if it hopes to stay competitive. 

Apple and Amazon haven't specifically disclosed how many music subscribers they have recently, but Apple Music is widely thought to be the service most closely competing with Spotify for dominance.  

Apple defines songs in lossless audio as sounding the "way the artists created them in the studio." Apple describes spatial audio as giving "artists the opportunity to create immersive audio experiences ... with true multidimensional sound and clarity."

When lossless audio becomes available, Apple Music subscribers can try it out by updating to the latest version of Apple Music and going to Settings, Music, then Audio Quality. You can choose different resolutions for cellular and Wi-Fi connections, or just download the track. The lossless tier starts at CD quality, which uses 16-bit encoding at a 44.1kHz sampling frequency and goes up to 24 bits at 48kHz. It's playable natively on Apple devices. If you use external audio equipment, you choose levels up to 24 bits at 192kHz.

Apple said if you listen to Apple Music through AirPods or Beats headphones with an H1 or W1 chip, or through built-in speakers in the latest versions of iPhone, iPad and Mac, you'll automatically get the Dolby Atmos tracks. Albums that are available in Dolby Atmos will have a badge so you can track them down on the service.

High-quality audio faces real-world limits besides just hardware support, though. Humans generally can't hear pitches above a 20kHz frequency, which thanks to the laws of physics means that sampling frequencies above 44.1kHz don't improve sound quality, experts say.

Amazon said Monday that Amazon Music Unlimited members can now upgrade to Amazon Music HD at no extra cost in the US, UK, Germany, Canada, France, Italy and Spain. Its Amazon Music HD level can stream at CD quality, with a bit depth of 16 bits and a sample rate of 44.1kHz. Customers can also stream more than 7 million songs in a quality above CD -- what Amazon calls Ultra HD -- with a bit depth of 24 bits and a sample rate up to 192 kHz. And for spatial audio, Amazon said it has a growing library of songs remixed in 3D Audio formats such as Dolby Atmos and Sony 360RA.

Amazon Music Unlimited's individual plan is $10 a month, or $8 a month for Prime members on top of their normal Prime payments. Its Family Plan, at $15 a month, and the college-student rate for Amazon Music Unlimited (which is a little complicated) essentially costs $7.50 a month. Previously, Amazon Music HD tier was an additional $5 a month add-on; people currently paying the higher price will see that price drop down in their next billing cycle. 

Apple Music is $10 a month for individuals or $15 a month on a family plan for up to six people, which requires using its feature iCloud Family Sharing. College students can subscribe for $5 a month.

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