Apple Music’s New Spatial Audio Is Stunning—and Occasionally Boring

It’s uncommon for me to spend most of my day on the telephone with different audio writers, discussing the newest information, however, that’s what occurred on Could 17, the day Apple introduced it will add lossless audio and Dolby Atmos to the Apple Music streaming service at no further cost. In contrast to lossless audio, which merely promises improved sound quality, Atmos is touted as a revolution in music recording and replica. By creating a way of sonic immersion, with sound showing to return from round and above the listener somewhat than from a pair of audio systems or a set of headphones, Atmos music provides the potential for extra sensible simulations of residing live shows and for artistic results usually reserved for film soundtracks.

Regardless that Atmos music has been obtainable on the Amazon Music and Tidal streaming providers for a yr and a half, it garnered little consideration till Apple’s announcement, which left many individuals questioning what precisely Atmos music is and the way they may get it. Fortuitously, a couple of weeks earlier than the coronavirus pandemic hit, I acquired an in-depth Atmos music demo from Dolby in its state-of-the-art Hollywood theater, so I already understood how the expertise labored and the way dazzling—and generally boring—Atmos music can sound.

What’s Atmos spatial audio?

Dolby Atmos expertise can reproduce sound from any and each route—not solely throughout the listener but additionally overhead. When used successfully, Atmos could make a lounge sound like a forest in springtime, a bustling avenue in Manhattan, or seat G108 at Carnegie Hall (PDF). Dolby created Atmos primarily so as to add sounds coming from the audio systems within the ceiling, to ship extra convincing simulations of film sound results akin to rainstorms and airplanes flying overhead. Atmos has been used for motion pictures since 2012 and is usually obtainable on Blu-ray soundtracks and thru many video-streaming platforms. Now Dolby is selling Atmos for music manufacturing, whether or not to create a extra sensible concert-hall atmosphere or to dazzle the listener with sounds flying overhead. Just a few applied sciences, together with DTS:X, Auro-3D, and Sony 360 Reality Audio, compete with Atmos, however, none is as prevalent as Atmos, particularly after Apple’s announcement.

Recording engineers can use Atmos to add acoustic “objects” to traditional 5.1- or 7.1-channel surround-sound productions (thus the term “object-based audio”). The objects are made up of a sound—which might be anything from a voice to an instrument to a sound effect—along with instructions for where the sound should originate from and whether it should stay in place or move around the listener.

Whether you’re using a surround-sound speaker system, a soundbar, the speakers built into an iPad, or a wireless speaker like the Amazon Echo Studio, which uses an upward-firing speaker to create ambience, Atmos collects all of those sonic elements and then processes them to sound their best on whatever audio system you’re using. Atmos may also deceive a listener into thinking they’re hearing speakers all around them by processing headphone sound.

It’s a fascinating thought. However, in our testing of Atmos, we discovered that the technology works best when played through front and rear speakers, as well as true ceiling-mounted overhead speakers; the simulations of overhead sounds it generates for lesser systems are rarely as convincing.

How Apple makes use of Atmos

A screenshot of Apple Music playing two songs with Dolby Atmos sound.

Screenshot: Apple

Atmos is now supported by most Apple gadgets, together with iPhones and iPads working iOS 14.6, Mac computer systems working macOS 11.4, and Apple TV 4K streaming containers working tvOS 14.6. Apple’s website consists of detailed instructions on learning how to activate Atmos on these gadgets.

Utilizing the phrases “Dolby Atmos” and “spatial audio” interchangeably, the Apple Music app options playlists of spatial audio in numerous genres, together with hip-hop, pop, nation, rock, jazz, and classical. You’ll discover every part from decades-old classics akin to The Rolling Stones’s “Angie” to current hits from Olivia Rodrigo and The Weeknd. However since Atmos music is comparatively new and producing Atmos mixes calls for additional funding of money and time, you in all probability gained discover most of your favorite music within the format. Nevertheless, Atmos is or will quickly be obtainable for a lot of the digital-audio-workstation software program now used to report and blend music, and we’re seeing quite a lot of buzz about Atmos in music-production publications akin to Mix and Tape Op, so many new albums are more likely to be launched in Atmos.

Apple stresses that the Apple Music app’s Atmos characteristic works finest in live performance with Apple and Beats headphones that use Apple’s W1 or H1 chips, together with the Apple AirPods Pro and AirPods Max. In accordance with Apple, as a result of the app is aware of the identification of those headphones when it’s related to them, it could optimize the sound for the very best Atmos impact.

Nevertheless, Atmos works with any headphones, though the sense of envelopment will fluctuate relying on the headphones and on the traits of the listener’s listening to. Whether or not different headphone manufacturers will optimize their headphones for Atmos is anybody’s guess.

This fall, Apple plans so as to add the flexibility for the app’s processing to enter the head-tracking capabilities within the AirPods Professional and AirPods Max. With this characteristic, the headphones will sense when the listener turns their head and can regulate the sound in order that its route stays constant and doesn’t transfer together with the listener’s head, because it does with standard headphones. Thus, it’s extra like listening to a reside efficiency or a surround-sound system.

What does Atmos sound like to you?

Lauren Dragan, a senior staff writer at Wirecutter and a headphone expert, and I listened to Apple Music’s Atmos playlists on a variety of sound systems. We used the Apple Music app to toggle Atmos on and off, and we compared the Apple Music Atmos mixes against stereo mixes from Spotify and Qobuz during our listening.
It’s crucial to understand that Atmos doesn’t have its own sound; it’s simply a technique for transferring music, similar to MP3 and CD. The sound is determined by the studio mixing decisions made by the producers. As a result, the attractiveness of Atmos music varies greatly from song to song.
Although headphones will most likely be the most popular method to listen to Atmos, we wanted to hear how the music would sound on the type of equipment it’s usually mixed for: a full surround-sound system. So we used a set of ELAC Debut 2.0 speakers (the runner-up in our best surround-sound speaker system guide), including four upward-firing ELAC DA42-BK Atmos-enabled speakers, as well as a Rogersound SW10S subwoofer, to connect an Apple TV 4K media streamer (currently the only device that can stream Atmos through HDMI) to a Sony STR-ZA5000ES audio/video receiver (the top pick in our best high-performance subwoofer guide). I also replaced the surround-sound system with a Samsung HW-Q900A Atmos-enabled soundbar, which features two built-in upward-firing speakers to produce a height effect, so I could compare the soundbar to the entire surround-sound system.
Lauren and I both thought that some of the Atmos tracks on Apple Music sounded fantastic across the complete surround-sound system. Our favorites were current electronic recordings with sounds zipping about and above us, providing an exhilarating experience that many listeners are likely to like if they commit to the difficulty and expense of setting up a system to hear music this way. Tisto & Sevenn’s “Boom,” St. Vincent’s “Pay Your Way in Pain,” and Kanye West’s “Black Skinhead” were among the most captivating Atmos music mixes we heard. We also heard a couple that had an eerie feeling of natural ambience, such as Wayne Shorter’s “Infant Eyes,” which sounded as if we were standing 12 feet away from the band in a vast recording studio. Even though the Samsung HW-Q900A soundbar was simply imitating the surround-sound and overhead effects, these mixes sounded almost as energetic and immersive through it.
Although some music sounded great with Atmos, most of the mixes were no better than they would have been with one of the receiver’s built-in surround-sound modes. Many mixes appeared to be unfocused and diffused, with the sound of a vocalist dispersed across a vast space rather than centered in front of us. Even some mixes that once piqued our interest quickly faded. “Oh, they shifted that sound to one of the rear speakers,” says the narrator. When I played “Black Skinhead” for Lauren, she said, “Neat.”
After that, we tried listening to Atmos with a variety of headphones, including the AirPods Max, AirPods Pro, and a few non-Apple headphones, like the HiFiMan Deva, Beyerdynamic T5, and EarFun Free 2. The AirPods Max and AirPods Pro undoubtedly sounded more exciting and engulfing than the other headphones we tried in the surround-sound demo—perhaps a little more so than the other headphones we tried, but the difference was minor at best. During a lengthy dog walk with the AirPods Max headphones, I found that I preferred to leave Atmos on all the time because it made the sound a little more spacious, and I occasionally heard a dramatic sense of ambiance and even a few items seeming to zip past my head.
However, for many songs, the effect was subdued, and it was difficult to distinguish the Atmos and stereo mixes. Because the level of the vocals tended to decrease slightly relative to the stereo mix, making it harder for us to hear the vocalists’ expression and tone, the subpar, unfocused Atmos mixes sounded worse than they did through the speakers.

Is Dolby Atmos the music of the future?

The concept of surround-sound music is not new. Indeed, music releases in surround sound were first released two decades ago (promoting the technology was part of my job at Dolby). However, it had few devotees at the time, with the exception of music-video discs and movie soundtracks, and it had practically vanished after three years. Much of this could be attributable to the fact that surround-sound disc players cost around $1,000, the discs were often $25 each, the setup was hard, and the then-new iPod drew the attention of music aficionados.
Atmos music is unique in that it is free to trial for Apple Music or Amazon Music members, it works with any set of headphones, and it has more support from the music business for the time being. Because Atmos is now the default setting in the Apple Music app, Apple believes that most listeners will utilize it and come to expect the added feeling of atmosphere it provides.
Based on our preliminary testing, we haven’t heard much from Atmos spatial audio that we believe will excite listeners. We expect that music producers will become more adept at working with Atmos, figuring out how to make the sound more engaging while maintaining a consistent presentation from speakers to headphones.


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