Apple Music’s Spatial Audio Is Dazzling—and Typically Uninteresting

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

Despite the fact that Atmos music has been obtainable on the Amazon Music and Tidal streaming companies for a 12 months 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 might get it. Happily, just a few weeks earlier than the coronavirus pandemic hit, I obtained an intensive 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 typically uninteresting—Atmos music can sound.

What’s Atmos spatial audio?

Dolby Atmos expertise can reproduce sound from any and each course—not solely throughout the listener but in addition 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 Corridor (PDF). Dolby created Atmos primarily so as to add sounds coming from audio system 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 commonly 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. A number of applied sciences, together with DTS:X, Auro-3D, and Sony 360 Actuality Audio, compete with Atmos, however none is as prevalent as Atmos, particularly after Apple’s announcement.

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

Atmos permits recording engineers so as to add sonic “objects” to traditional 5.1- or 7.1-channel surround-sound productions (which is why individuals typically name it “object-based audio”). The objects encompass a sound—from a voice to an instrument to a sound impact—plus directions on which course 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 parts 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 may course of headphone sound to trick a listener into considering they’re listening to audio system throughout them.

The idea is intriguing. Nonetheless, in our expertise testing Atmos, we’ve discovered that the expertise delivers its most sensible results when performed by way of entrance and rear audio system and precise ceiling-mounted overhead audio system; the simulations of overhead sounds that it creates for easier 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 bins working tvOS 14.6. Apple’s web site contains detailed directions on the right way 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 all the things 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 an additional funding of money and time, you in all probability gained’t discover most of your favourite music within the format. Nonetheless, Atmos is or will quickly be obtainable for a lot of the digital-audio-workstation software program now used to document and blend music, and we’re seeing numerous buzz about Atmos in music-production publications akin to Combine and Tape Op, so many new albums are more likely to be launched in Atmos.

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

Nonetheless, Atmos works with any headphones, though the sense of envelopment will range 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 power for the app’s processing to entry the head-tracking capabilities within the AirPods Professional and AirPods Max. With this function, the headphones will sense when the listener turns their head and can regulate the sound in order that its course stays constant and doesn’t transfer together with the listener’s head, because it does with typical headphones. Thus, it’s extra like listening to a dwell 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 way of just a few totally different sound techniques. Throughout our listening, we switched Atmos on and off by way of the app, and we additionally in contrast the Apple Music Atmos mixes with stereo mixes from Spotify and Qobuz.

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

Though headphones will in all probability be the most typical manner individuals take heed to Atmos, we first needed to listen to how Atmos music would sound on the kind of gear it’s sometimes blended for: a full surround-sound system. So we related an Apple TV 4K media streamer (at the moment the one system that may stream Atmos by way of HDMI) to a Sony STR-ZA5000ES audio/video receiver, utilizing a set of ELAC Debut 2.0 audio system (the runner-up in our greatest surround-sound speaker system information) together with 4 upward-firing ELAC DA42-BK Atmos-enabled audio system, in addition to a Rogersound SW10S subwoofer (the highest choose in our greatest high-performance subwoofer information). 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 system, in order that I might see how the soundbar in contrast with the total surround-sound system.

Lauren and I agreed that, by way of the total surround-sound system, among 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 an thrilling impact that numerous listeners are more likely to get pleasure from, 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 fascinating 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 just a few 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 toes from the band. I used to be stunned to listen to that these mixes sounded virtually as thrilling and enveloping by way of the Samsung HW-Q900A soundbar, though 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 a lot better than they might 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 moderately than centered in entrance of us. Even some mixes that originally excited our ears quickly misplaced their enchantment. “Oh, they moved that sound into one of many rear audio system. Neat,” Lauren deadpanned once I performed “Black Skinhead” for her.

Subsequent, we tried listening to Atmos by way of headphones, together with the AirPods Max, AirPods Professional, and a number of other non-Apple headphones, particularly the HiFiMan Deva, Beyerdynamic T5, and EarFun Free 2. Our favourite Atmos mixes from the surround-sound demo positively sounded thrilling and enveloping by way of the AirPods Max and AirPods Professional—maybe a bit extra so than with the opposite headphones we tried, however the enchancment was delicate at most. Throughout an extended canine stroll sporting the AirPods Max headphones, I discovered myself usually preferring to depart Atmos turned on on a regular basis as a result of it at all times made the sound a little bit extra spacious, and I often heard a dramatic sense of atmosphere and even just a few objects seeming to whiz round my head.

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

Is Atmos the way forward for music?

Encompass-sound music just isn’t a brand new concept. In actual fact, music releases blended in {surround} sound debuted twenty 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 practically vanished. A lot of that could be because 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 difficult, and the then-new iPod stole music followers’ consideration.

Atmos music is totally different in that subscribers to Apple Music or Amazon Music can strive it at no further cost, it really works with any set of headphones, and for now, at the least, it has extra help from the music trade. 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 presents.

Judging from our preliminary exams, we haven’t heard a lot from Atmos spatial audio that we predict will get listeners excited. We hope music producers will study their manner round Atmos higher, determining the right way to make the sound extra compelling whereas maintaining the presentation extra constant from audio system to headphones.

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