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How to Enable the Optimal Audio Codec for Your Bluetooth Headphones in macOS

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Original poster
Apr 12, 2001
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How good your digital music sounds often comes down to which file format it's encoded in. Be that as it may, every Mac audio setup is only as strong as it's weakest link, and if your Bluetooth connection isn't up to scratch, even the best BT headphones will fail to deliver a decent wireless listening experience.

By design, all Bluetooth devices support the low-power SBC audio compression codec as standard. Fortunately, modern Macs also support AAC (Apple's preferred iTunes codec) and aptX, which Android devices often use. These two codecs offer higher quality audio and generally lower latency than SBC, which is why most third-party wireless headphones on the market support one or the other, and sometimes both.


Yet for whatever reason, despite their AAC/aptX support, some headphones fall back to the bog-standard SBC codec when connected to a Mac. This can lead to a particularly underwhelming audio experience, not to mention latency-related sync issues, which will be a distinct concern if you use your headphones while gaming or watching movies.

Thankfully, it's possible to force macOS to connect to your headphones using one of the two superior codecs. In this article, we'll show you how to do so using Apple's Bluetooth Explorer utility. (And if you're comfortable opening a Terminal window, we've included a couple of commands at the end that do the same thing.)


But first, it's worth checking which codecs your brand of headphones actually supports: Look for codec logos on the box, and make sure to check for references to codecs in the manual and any accompanying/online spec sheets.

Once you've established that your headphones support aptX and/or AAC, you'll want to identify which codec is being activated when you connect the headphones to your Mac. Follow these steps to find out.

How to Identify Which Bluetooth Codec is Active
  1. Establish a Bluetooth connection between your Mac and headphones in the normal manner.
    Play some audio on your Mac so that it's streaming to the headphones.
    Now hold down the Option (Alt) key and click on the Bluetooth symbol in the menu bar. (If you don't see it there, you need to check Show Bluetooth in menu bar in System Preferences -> Bluetooth.)
    Hover your mouse cursor over the headphones in the connection list. You should see the headphones' Active Codec shown in grey.
If your headphones are using AAC or aptX, you don't need to do anything. Without going into the technical details, both standards provide relatively stable wireless connections and - as far as Bluetooth goes - comparably decent sound quality. However, if the codec shown is SBC, you'll probably want to change it. Here's how.

How to Force-Enable aptX and AAC Codecs in macOS

  1. Open a web browser, navigate to Apple's developer downloads page, and download Additional Tools for Xcode 9 [Direct Link] which contains Apple's Bluetooth Explorer utility. Note that to access the page you'll need to register for a free Apple developer account if you don't already have one. Alternatively, use Google to find the Bluetooth Explorer utility hosted elsewhere and skip to step 5, but if you're not downloading from Apple, be sure to screen the file for malware.

    Once downloaded, double-click the Additional Tools dmg file to mount it on your desktop.
    Open the Additional Tools drive and navigate to the Hardware folder.
    Open your Mac's Applications folder in another Finder window or tab.

    Drag Bluetooth Explorer into your Mac's Applications folder and launch the app from there.
    From the Bluetooth Explorer menu bar, select Tools -> Audio Options.
    In the Codecs section, tick the checkboxes alongside Enable AAC and/or Force use of aptX (depending on your issue). Make sure Disable AAC and Disable aptX are left unchecked.

    Click Close to finish.
    Restart your Mac, or reset the Bluetooth module.
When your Mac reboots, you can confirm that the codec change has been applied by following the first series of steps in this article.

Terminal commands for enabling AAC and aptX Codecs

To enable aptX, input the following command, press Enter, and type your user password if prompted:
sudo defaults write bluetoothaudiod "Enable AptX codec" -bool true

Alternatively, to enable AAC, input the following and press Enter:
sudo defaults write bluetoothaudiod "Enable AAC codec" -bool true

To disable either codec via Terminal, simply replace -bool true with -bool false at the end of the command.

Article Link: How to Enable the Optimal Audio Codec for Your Bluetooth Headphones in macOS
 

Jkivistik

macrumors newbie
Mar 22, 2018
1
1
What about iOS? Is there any way to force AAC (or a2dp) on iOS devices? My Sony MDR1000X headphones sometimes default to the lower quality sound and the only way to get back rocking is to reboot the iPad!
 
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Vroem

macrumors member
Nov 9, 2002
56
4
Brussels, Belgium, Europe
What I always wanted to know is: when listening to iTunes music already encoded in AAC, will it pass-through or re-encode in AAC? Because you potentially loose the benefits of good compression if you recompress. This came to my mind when finding out about albums that sound bad because they are recompressed themselves.
 
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Delgibbons

macrumors 6502a
Dec 14, 2016
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fitbunny

macrumors newbie
Mar 22, 2018
2
9
What I always wanted to know is: when listening to iTunes music already encoded in AAC, will it pass-through or re-encode in AAC? Because you potentially loose the benefits of good compression if you recompress. This came to my mind when finding out about albums that sound bad because they are recompressed themselves.
I have read in multiple sources that all audio is reencoded to AAC whether it comes from itunes as AAC or not. However, all the sources say that this reencoding does not cause much of a quality loss because AAC as a codec is transparent even after 100 reencodings. I use beoplay e8 and the sound is the best I have ever listened to with Bluetooth headsets that I have used so far and I have used quite a few aptx headsets by Sennheiser. The only problem with the above tutorial is that the setting are lost when reconnect your beoplay e8. I used sudo and normal user to change the plist instead of using the gui and the settings seem to be saved now. here is the commands that I used:
Code:
defaults write bluetoothaudiod "Enable AAC codec" -bool true

defaults write bluetoothaudiod "AAC Bitrate" 320

sudo defaults write bluetoothaudiod "Enable AAC codec" -bool true

sudo defaults write bluetoothaudiod "AAC Bitrate" 320
 
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honglong1976

macrumors 65816
Jul 12, 2008
1,414
848
UK
iPhones don’t support APTX which blows.
Using Powerbeats 3, AAC is used on Mac OS X and most likely iOS. Using some £17 xiaomi bluetooth earphones, Apt-X is used on the Mac (unsure about iOS).

So, it seems to get the best quality sound on iOS, use Apple bluetooth earphones or those which support AAC.
 
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simonmet

Cancelled
Sep 9, 2012
2,666
3,652
Sydney
Using Powerbeats 3, AAC is used on Mac OS X and most likely iOS. Using some £17 xiaomi bluetooth earphones, Apt-X is used on the Mac (unsure about iOS).

So, it seems to get the best quality sound on iOS, use Apple bluetooth earphones or those which support AAC.

Do the Powerbeats support aptX though? Apple seems to prefer AAC. I’m not sure what the technical differences are but as the author says it’s likely not much and impossible to discern.

To confuse matters, there are also multiple versions of aptX including aptX “high quality” which is supposed to be near or practically lossless.
 
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rumormiller

macrumors regular
Aug 27, 2017
112
117
Thanks for this article, it just confirmed my worst suspicions about macOS/iOS and bluetooth audio to third-party speakers. I have a apt-x speaker and it sounds awesome connected to my LG TV via bluetooth which also supports apt-x. Forcing apt-x on macOS and the speaker sounds really low-fi. Worse still, my Apple TV wouldn't even connect to the bluetooth speaker. Since my Mac/ATV are connected to the LG TV I can avoid their weak bluetooth support.
 
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honglong1976

macrumors 65816
Jul 12, 2008
1,414
848
UK
Do the Powerbeats support aptX though? Apple seems to prefer AAC. I’m not sure what the technical differences are but as the author says it’s likely not much and impossible to discern.

To confuse matters, there are also multiple versions of aptX including aptX “high quality” which is supposed to be near or practically lossless.
No. AAC, APT-x, just another delivery method. All are lossy. I found, garbage headphones, regardless of APT-x, AAC, SBC, sound is bad. Decent headphones, using APT-x, SBC, AAC, you can't tell to be honest.

I use these the most. Supports APT-x on the Mac without any software changes, sounds great and cheap!
https://www.gearbest.com/earbud-headphones/pp_692653.html?lkid=13513516

Have a decent pair of headphones? Try this, Bluetooth headphone amp that supports APT-x
https://www.gearbest.com/headphone-accessories/pp_663674.html?lkid=13513524

I use both so I know they work with Mac OS X (High Sierra) and using a Macbook Pro 2009 model.
 
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timmyh

Contributing Editor
Mar 18, 2016
163
282
Edinburgh, UK
And honestly, I bet you can't even tell the difference.

Even if you can’t hear the difference sonically - and I grant that’s an endless subjective debate - you should at least get a more stable connection generally and less likelihood of sync issues.
 
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honglong1976

macrumors 65816
Jul 12, 2008
1,414
848
UK
Even if you can’t hear the difference sonically - and I grant that’s an endless subjective debate - you should at least get a more stable connection generally and less likelihood of sync issues.
Yes, I agree. Very subjective!

Connection wise, from cheap and nasty bluetooth earphones, Sony over head headphones, Etymotic ETY8 to the Powerbeats 3, from bluetooth 2.0 to 4.2, I have never had connection issues. Sync issues are common. Powerbeats 3 are still slightly out of sync, disappointing considering the magical W1 chip, which I feel does nothing except make the pairing process quicker. Everything else is the same.

The only time I have had zero sync issues was using a pair of TDK headphones using Kleer technology. I sold them because a massive 3.5mm dongle was required.
 
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ignatius345

Suspended
Aug 20, 2015
3,146
4,186
Those are some easy steps every average user will definitely follow
The average user probably doesn't know or give a crap about codecs and won't change a thing until there's a big red "make my sound better" button on their screen.

And that's fine. This obviously isn't written for them, is it?
 
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