Friday, September 17, 2021

Apple Music’s New Spatial Audio Is Dazzling—and Sometimes Dull

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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.

(Full disclosure: I labored as an advertising supervisor at Dolby from 2000 to 2002, however, I’ve no monetary curiosity within the firm or common contact with any of its staff.)

Atmos permits recording engineers so as to add sonic “objects” to traditional 5.1- or 7.1-channel surround-sound productions (which is why folks generally name it “object-based audio”). The objects include a sound—from a voice to an instrument to a sound impact—plus directions on which route the sound ought to come from and whether or not it ought to keep in place or transfer across the listener.

Atmos collects all of these sonic components after which processes them to sound their finest on no matter audio system you’re utilizing—whether or not it’s a surround-sound speaker system, a soundbar, the audio system constructed into an iPad, or a wi-fi speaker such because the Amazon Echo Studio, which makes use of an upward-firing speaker to create atmosphere. Atmos also can course of headphones sound to trick a listener into considering they’re listening to the audio systems throughout them.

The idea is intriguing. Nevertheless, in our expertise testing Atmos, we’ve discovered that the expertise delivers its most sensible results when performed by means of entrance and rear audio system and precise ceiling-mounted overhead audio system; the simulations of overhead sounds that it creates for less complicated techniques are not often 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.

How does Atmos sound?

Wirecutter senior workers author and headphone skilled Lauren Dragan and I listened to the Atmos playlists from Apple Music by means of a couple of completely different sound techniques. Throughout our listening, we switched Atmos on and off by means of the app, and we additionally in contrast the Apple Music Atmos mixes with stereo mixes from Spotify and Qobuz.

It’s essential to notice that Atmos doesn’t have a sound of its personal; like MP3 and CD, it’s only expertise for distributing audio. The sound is set by the choices producers make within the studio mixing course. Consequently, the enchantment of Atmos music can fluctuate tremendously from tune to tune.

Though headphones will in all probability be the most typical method folks hearken to Atmos, we first wished to listen to how Atmos music would sound on the kind of gear it’s sometimes combined for a full surround-sound system. So we related an Apple TV 4K media streamer (presently the one machine that may stream Atmos by means of HDMI) to a Sony STR-ZA5000ES audio/video receiver, utilizing a set of ELAC Debut 2.zero audio systems (the runner-up in our best surround-sound speaker system guide) together with 4 upward-firing ELAC DA42-BK Atmos-enabled audio system, in addition to a Rogersound SW10S subwoofer. I additionally changed the surround-sound system with a Samsung HW-Q900A Atmos-enabled soundbar, which creates a peak impact with two built-in upward-firing audio systems, in order that I might see how the soundbar is in contrast with the total surround-sound system.

Lauren and I agreed that, by means of the total surround-sound system, a number of the Atmos recordings on Apple Music sounded fairly nice. Our favorites have been trendy digital recordings that had sounds whizzing round and above us, creating a thrilling impact that quite a lot of listeners are more likely to take pleasure in, assuming sufficient of them will go to the difficulty and expense to arrange a system to listen to music this fashion. Among the many most charming Atmos music mixes we heard have been Tiësto & Sevenn’s “Growth,” St. Vincent’s “Pay Your Approach in Ache,” and Kanye West’s “Black Skinhead.” We additionally skilled a couple that achieved an uncanny sense of pure atmosphere, akin to saxophonist Wayne Shorter’s “Toddler Eyes,” which sounded as if we have been standing in a big recording studio about 12 ft from the band. I used to be shocked to listen to that these mixes sounded virtually as thrilling and enveloping by means of the Samsung HW-Q900A soundbar, regardless that it was solely simulating the surround-sound and overhead results.

Though some music sounded excellent with Atmos, a lot of the mixes didn’t sound significantly better than they’d have if we had engaged one of many receiver’s built-in surround-sound modes. Many mixes appeared unfocused and overly subtle, typically with the sound of a vocalist unfold out over a big space somewhat than centered in the entrance of us. Even some mixes that originally excited our ears quickly misplaced their enchantment. “Oh, they moved that sound into one of much rear audio systems. Neat,” Lauren deadpanned once I performed “Black Skinhead” for her.

Subsequently, we tried listening to Atmos by means of headphones, together with the AirPods Max, AirPods Professional, and a number of other non-Apple headphones, specifically the HiFiMan Deva, Beyerdynamic T5, and EarFun Free 2. Our favorite Atmos mixes from the surround-sound demo undoubtedly sounded thrilling and enveloping by means of the AirPods Max and AirPods Professional—maybe a bit extra so than with the opposite headphones we tried, however, the enhancement was refined at most. Throughout a protracted canine stroll carrying the AirPods Max headphones, I discovered myself usually preferring to go away Atmos turned on on a regular basis as a result of it at all times made the sound a bit extra spacious, and I often heard a dramatic sense of atmosphere and even a couple of objects seeming to whiz around my head.

However with many tunes, the impact was extra muted, and it was arduous to inform the Atmos mixes from the stereo mixes. The mediocre, unfocused Atmos mixes sounded worse than they did by means of the audio system as a result of the extent of the vocals tended to drop barely relative to the stereo combine, making it tougher for us to understand the vocalists’ expression and tone.

Is Atmos the way forward for music?

Encompass-sound music will not be a brand new concept. In actual fact, music releases combined in {surround} sound debuted 20 years in the past (selling the expertise was a part of my job at Dolby). However, on the time it gained over few followers, besides maybe on music-video discs and in film soundtracks, and after about three years, it had almost vanished. A lot of that could be as a result of the truth that the disc gamers for surround-sound music launched at about $1,000, the discs sometimes price $25 every, the setup was sophisticated, and the then-new iPod stole music followers’ consideration.

Atmos music is completely different in that subscribers to Apple Music or Amazon Music can attempt it at no further cost, it really works with any set of headphones, and for now, not less than that, it has extra help from the music business. Apple hopes that as a result of it has made Atmos the default setting within the Apple Music app, most listeners will use Atmos and are available to anticipate the additional sense of atmosphere it provides.

Judging from our preliminary assessments, we haven’t heard a lot from Atmos spatial audio that we expect will get listeners excited. We hope music producers will study their method round Atmos higher, determining to learn how to make the sound extra compelling whereas protecting the presentation extra constant from the audio system to headphones.

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