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Podcast: Is Spatial Audio The Next Big Thing or Just Another Cash Grab?

Surround sound for music is back. Whether it’s Dolby Atmos Music or Sony 360 Reality Audio, do consumers really want it?

From Apple to Sony, from Dolby to Sonos, content providers and consumer electronics manufacturers are sounding a rallying cry for immersive sound a.k.a. Spatial Audio. 

Do consumers want to hear it? Despite a huge marketing push featuring Apple Music, Dolby Atmos and Sony 360 Reality Audio, we’re not so sure.

Join eCoustics Editor at Large, Chris Boylan and eCoustics Founder, Brian Mitchell for an in-depth discussion of the current state of spatial audio for music. 


Sponsor: Happy listening from our sponsor SVS. Acclaimed for punching well above their class, experience thrilling and immersive sound from SVS speakers, subwoofers, and cables. Join the Sound Revolution today. Click here to visit svsound.com


Show Notes

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20 Comments

20 Comments

  1. ORT

    March 25, 2023 at 1:58 pm

    I like Atmos and DTS, etc. for film, but so far I do not think much of them for music. I like “stereo” and “mono” just fine.

    If those selling this claim that this will allow you to “hear the music as the artist intended you to”, I would say the artist(s) would like you to hear their music “live” and for home listening? On a physical hard copy. Vinyl. CD. Cassette. 8-Track. Reel to Reel.

    To paraphrase the late songstress Olivia Newton-John, “Let’s buy Physical”. I wonder whom I have broffended now?

    ORT

    • Chris Boylan

      March 25, 2023 at 7:07 pm

      Hello, Mosieur ORT,

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I think the actual immersive recordings vary significantly in their intent. Not all artists actually perform live (particularly not the dead ones). For back catalog releases, Dolby Atmos and Sony 360 Reality Audio are a way of bringing these classic tracks back in focus in a new way. Where the artists are no longer living, they frequently bring original engineers and producers back in to be a part of the process. They usually go back to the original multi-channel master tapes and remix them from the ground up in immersive surround. I have actually spotted different vocal takes in multi-channel mixes, that differ from the original stereo mix. So it’s not just a question of adding effects to 2-channel mixes but creating new multi-channel mixes from scratch. The Beatles stuff like “Sgt. Pepper” also went back to the original 4-tracks and was produced and re-imagined in Dolby Atmos by Giles Martin (son of the legendary Sir George Martin, the Beatles’ original producer). They’re doing things in the mix that technology just didn’t support back in the day. And it’s kind of incredible. Fleetwood Mac, The Beatles, Pink Floyd, Ed Sheeran, Rush – there are so many songs that have been re-mixed in Dolby Atmos that are worth checking out on a good system.

      And as for new immersive mixes like Stewart Copeland/Ricky Kej “Divine Tides,” Taylor Swift, Billie Eilish, etc., you have to hear what they’re doing to appreciate it. Again, it’s a new way of the artist being able to present their music, in a manner that is simply more engaging than stereo.

      Unfortunately it’s still not that easy to actually *hear* immersive audio correctly at home. Only Amazon Music Unlimited, Apple Music and Tidal support it, and Amazon Music Dolby Atmos is *only* supported on Sonos products or on Amazon’s one-piece Echo Studio speaker. HEOS doesn’t support Dolby Atmos or 360 Reality Audio at all yet on any services. You can get a limited selection of Dolby Atmos music titles on Blu-ray Disc, but most of the stuff is on Apple Music and Tidal.

      If you have a receiver that supports Dolby Atmos (which of course you do) and a streaming service that supports Dolby Atmos (again, only Apple Music or Tidal with the HiFi tier), on a streaming box that supports Dolby Atmos on these apps (Fire TV Stick, Apple TV 4K), then I’d encourage you to give it a chance – search for some Dolby Atmos content on these music streaming services and let it play on your Atmos speaker system. Apple Music currently has over 60,000 titles in Dolby Atmos, so you should be able to find something you like.

      UPDATED NOTE: if you’re connecting to a receiver and speakers, Dolby Atmos for Apple Music is currently *only* supported on an Apple TV 4K streamer. Roku, FireTV Stick, etc. do NOT support Dolby Atmos via Apple Music. Fire TV doesn’t even have an Apple Music app yet. This may (probably will) change over time. TIDAL is more hardware agnostic with Dolby Atmos-compatible apps on Fire TV, Apple TV and Android TV streaming devices like NVidia Shield.

      And get back to me when you’re done. I’ll wait.

      • ORT

        March 26, 2023 at 5:15 am

        Hail and well met, Chris!

        First off, excellent MIB reference. Huzzah, indeed! Now then…For me to do this I will have to order either fApple Music and get it to work through my 4k Fire Tv Stick (?) or purchase an Amazon Echo Studio speaker. “Sigh”…

        Not really a fan of fApple Music (they wiped out my personal iTunes the LAST time I logged into my account on my now useless Mac Mini. A pox on them for doing that. Oddly enough, I once again have an iPhone as being the handicapable toad that I am, I recently fell HARD down the stairs in our home and broke my Android phone so I went back to fApple. I will give consideration to trying this out if possible via Fire Stick or I will have to buy an Echo Studio speaker as I have a free trial of fApple music. I could use the Echo to play Atmos music through via Amazon’s Music Unlimited UHD Special Spatial Stuff.

        I will give serious consideration to both and let you know which one I will try. Any other thoughts from you on which would be the easier would be most welcome.

        Hmmmmm…I must be one of the named “commentators” who “…have obviously never heard lossless Atmos Music”. Yes. That would be little ol’ toad me. I really can not hear any difference in “lossless” but that does not mean others can not genuinely do so. I have heard Dolby Surround from the (I think) ’90s on CD such as the sound tracks from “Gone With The Wind” or other classic films but they did not sound like “surround” at all.

        I am an audio Philistine.

        I suspect the Atmos will hopefully be more like it is for “Action/Adventure” films, which is to say “good”. I will do as Chris suggest and then inform him here of my choice and take any further advice he may have to offer me. I will approach it open minded.

        Looking at the device on Amazon I do not (yet) see an optical output. That means hooking it to a Toslink input on my Denon is not going to happen and I would have to use the device in a stand alone fashion. Does that meet with your okie-dokie, Chris?

        I have no idea what I would do with this speaker after I use it for my listening test…I could just give it to the first (Non-Woke Humor ALERT!) free-range hobo I encounter or send it back.

        I await your thoughts Chris. If you prefer you can get my direct email from Ian and let me know via that method thus bypassing the off chance that I broffend any one further with my rapier (relax fellow audio enthusiasts, it is a fencing foil, not a carnal crime) like wit.

        I will be in Purgatory for that one. I awaiting your thoughts Chris. Thank you for asking me to try this stuff out. I hope my pauper’s ears and Cashew Guilt influenced honesty does not disappoint.

        ORT The Chaste

        • Chris Boylan

          March 26, 2023 at 5:04 pm

          I would pass on the one-piece Dolby Atmos speakers. I mean how big a soundstage can they really create if they’re only 8 or 10 inches wide? And they do NOT have audio outputs. They are meant to stand on their own.

          If you have a Fire Stick already (made within the last couple of years), TIDAL is actually the way to go. It is currently the only music streaming service that supports Dolby Atmos on a Fire TV stick. The Tidal HiFi tier is $19.99/month. You could try it for a month and then bail or keep it, depending how you feel about it. There is no Apple Music app for Fire TV yet, so if you go with Apple Music, you’d actually need to use an Apple TV 4K streaming stick. Those sell for around $150 – link – https://howl.me/cjpe2zB1n0D

          For Tidal, I find it is much easier to search for Dolby Atmos titles in the TIDAL app on my phone, then add the songs I like to a “Dolby Atmos Favorites” playlist. Then I access the playlist from the Tidal App on FireTV or on an Apple TV 4K streaming box (I have one of each for testing purposes).

          If you do choose to go the Apple Music/Apple TV 4K route, you’d probably be best doing the same – find the Dolby Atmos content on your phone, create a playlist and then play that back in the Apple Music app on the Apple TV streaming box. Doing text searches via a remote control is just awkward.

          Over time, I expect there will be more choices for Dolby Atmos music streaming. It doesn’t make any sense that Amazon Music supports Dolby Atmos music BUT Amazon can’t support Dolby Atmos music in the Amazon Music app on Amazon’s own streaming devices (FireTV Stick, FireTV Cube, etc.). Hopefully Amazon will be able to update its own Music app on Amazon FireTV devices to support Dolby Atmos music. It would be nice if they can do that via an update to just the app, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they added that support in a new version of the actual hardware.

          Anyway… good luck and let us know if you decide to go for it.

          • ORT

            March 26, 2023 at 7:30 pm

            I will pass on Tidal as they still support MQA and I am not buying anything MQA related even for a short time. I will look for Dolby Atmos encoded BluRay music discs as I think that could be some thing that is available now.

            The Amazon juggernaut might come in with Atmos music for their service sooner than one might think. That is another possibility for me. 🙂 Until the next update from either of us or the esteemed readership here, ORT out (of his tiny mind!). 😉

            ORT

      • ORT

        April 15, 2023 at 3:17 pm

        Okay. I have listened to George Harrison’s Magnum Opus, “All Things Must Pass” in Atmos. I simply looked for it via axing “Alexa” to play the 50th Anniversary Edition of the Album from Amazon Music via the Firestick stuck into my Denon AVR-X4300H.

        The Denon immediately recognized the content was encoded in Atmos and played it as such. In fact, I am listening to it again. Right now. Yup.

        It sounds pretty good. Subjectively better than when in “Multi-Channel” Stereo. Am I in the center of flAbbey Road Studios? Pfffft! No and I do not wish to be…

        I am in my home sitting on a couch and enjoying the album. “My Sweet Lord” (how did any court of law stretch like Elastigal to lay leagal claim that this song is a ripoff of “He’s So Fine”?) is wonderful. “Apple Jam” is also pretty nice.

        My pauperish set up is in 9.2 with playback being decodified by my Denon AVR-X4300H. I listened to it until the wee small hours of the morning then took a nap and started listening again as I wrote this.

        Am I listening “critically”? Surely, you jest? Neigh…I…”Baaaaaaah baaaaah”… kiddeth not. I listen to music and this album has been a favorite for over 5 decades now. Ergo, I am more than familiar with it and unlike my ego, familiarity does not build “contempt” but rather, “comfort”.

        I chose this album because it was recorded by Phil “Wall of Pound” Spector and Atmos does well showcasing that in a new way. While the Atmos envelops you in the music it never seals that envelop, licks the stamp and posts the letter. Good.

        Having had Atmos for a few years now for film playback I am used to it and Harrison’s genius is tastefully put on display rather than disparaged by the codec. Atmos encoding just sounds pleasant, albeit in a soothing way.

        I like it just fine. “Like”. Not “love”. I refuse to dumb down “love” as so many midgie-minded folk do by saying things like, “I just LOVE chicken salad sandwiches”! Love is for family, friends and pets. NOT equipment. Not music. People and pets, yes. For those here that will attempt to belittle my words regarding “pets” think for a moment on what my mom taught me:

        The animal that loves us the most and unconditionally at that is the dog. It is fitting then that “dog” spelled backwards is “God”.

        “Love” a piece of soulless equipment? That is the curse of the frAuiophilian typist, i.e., one who is destined to ascribe that which is sometimes agape in its nature to a piece of equipment. Their mouths wide open (another def of “agape” as in a-gape, i.e. open for bidness for these cretins). For the edumacated “agape” means love so pure and simple and in being so simply pure LOVE.

        All we need is LOVE.

        I like what Atmos has presented with “All Things Must Pass” and will seek out other albums I know I enjoy and see if they too sound like the musical version of “chicken and dumplings”. Comfort Music. Indeed.

        Don QuixORTe’

        El Posto Scripto – All spulling errors are mine as I write passably but edit moronically. As Daffy would say, “Just what you’d expect from the little black duck!”

        • ORT

          April 15, 2023 at 10:51 pm

          Now I am listening to George Harrison’s “Dark Horse” in Dolby Atmos.

          So far it is nice but not really an improvement over plain ol’ stereo. “Ding Dong, Ding Dong” is on and it sounds OOooooOOOotay!

          I hope “Far East Man” is some thing to write home about.

          ORT

          • terry

            June 10, 2023 at 1:15 am

            To anybody making any claims about atmos, I suggest you put isolation switchs on your main level speakers and listen to you elevation speakers alone. The majority of pop/rock/country is just surround with no elevation content. You will find some real atmos with elevation in the classical music.

        • ORT

          April 15, 2023 at 11:20 pm

          Okay…I am now listening to Harrison’s “Cloud Nine” in Dolby Atmos and it is nice. Is it revelatory?

          Nope. It is nice. It is not something I would go out of my way to hear but if it is there and is easily found within the Music Services I pay for and use? Why not use it.

          I am familiar with the albums I have tried so far and they all sound really good. I doubt only a shill would go full Mr. Miyagi over any of this but then those beings tend to be over-the-top goofy when it comes to audio. Is this what we can expect from “immersive audio”. Probably. Would I rush out and buy an Atmos AVR so I could hear Atmos music if I did not already own and use one every day for movies?

          I just put on The Traveling Pilsburys Vol. 1 “Handle With Care” in plain ol’ stereophonic sound.

          Sounds great. Would it sound better in Atmos? Maybe. Maybe not. I am not going to fret over it, what I will do is listen to it in Stereophonic Sound and be happy and satisfied.

          frAudiophiles are never satisfied not ev3n in the deepest regions of their pathetic souls. Thank the Lawd I ain’t never no how no way one of them.

          There’s only two Wilburys still with us. Same with the Beatles. Dammit.

          He loves your…Trembling Wilbury…

          ORT O’Fon

          • ORT

            April 17, 2023 at 6:03 pm

            Gad! Some one at Amazon Music must surely be a George Harrison enthusiast! Either that or AI hath made leaps and bounds as I, your ORTness, am listening to yet another superb Harrisongs selection: “Living In the Material World”. In Atmos.

            It is very nice but so too is the Stereo version. Six of one and half a non-baker’s dozen of the other. But back to why Amazon has chosen to follow the obviously superior musical tastes of your humble servant and have so much George Harrison in, dare I say it? DARE! DARE!

            “ORTmos”.

            So hey, Sir Chris of Boylan?! Any thoughts on my thoughts on Atmos/ORTmos? It is nice enough to mine own ears and if it becomes poopular enough it may well stand a chance of becoming more mainlined in to a great many listener’s home systems.

            It is fine in 9.2 which is what I am playing it on even as I write this missive of might.

            ORT O’Fon

  2. Tony Dyson

    March 25, 2023 at 2:51 pm

    Oh dear. Another “Next Big Thing”. I’ve lost count of them. Happily for my wallet, that has led to me being no longer impressed.

    • Chris Boylan

      March 25, 2023 at 7:11 pm

      Tony,

      It is hard not to be jaded at this point. “Am I going to have to buy the Beatles “White Album again?” The good news is that many people have already set up Dolby Atmos-capable systems for movies and video content. So as long as you have an Apple Music or Tidal HiFi subscription, you can explore Dolby Atmos music at home on real speakers with no additional hardware investment. For those who don’t have the hardware yet, A/V receivers with Dolby Atmos support are selling for under $500 these days, and you can get a decent Klipsch 5.1.4 speaker system for around $400. There are even cheaper options out there, too.

  3. Joe Whip

    March 25, 2023 at 4:35 pm

    The two commenters have obviously never heard lossless Atmos Music. When done right, it is incredible. While it may end up a niche thing, for me, it is better than stereo, by a wide margin. You can get fantastic performance out of very modest equipment.

    • Chris Boylan

      March 25, 2023 at 7:13 pm

      Amen, brother. By lossless, I assume you mean Dolby Atmos music titles on Blu-ray delivered via Dolby TrueHD, ya? What’s your favorite title in the format, if you don’t mind my asking?

  4. ORT

    April 20, 2023 at 12:27 am

    Uh…Chris? I am Atmosed-out. It is Daffy might say, okie dokie smokie but not gotta have it wabbit. Joe Whip? Same thing. It is fine. And I have listened albeit NEVER critically because I personally find that a silly thing to do. I just want to hear music not listen for stuff that may or may not be there but if it is there I sure should not have to strain to hear it.

    Any thoughts?

    ORT

    • Chris Boylan

      April 24, 2023 at 6:10 pm

      If listening to music takes effort, then you’re doing it wrong. 🙂 I find music in Dolby Atmos and 360 Reality Audio is more exciting and more involving than listening in 2-channel but I do get that some people may think it’s “overkill.” You should listen to music (and movies) however you want. We’re just trying to educate our readers (and listeners) on what options are out there.

      • ORT

        May 5, 2023 at 2:38 am

        spAmazon Music Unlimited is playing Sinatra, Ella and more (on my Sinatra Station) in Atmos via the Firestick into my Denon AVR. Right now. OoooooooOOOoooOooo…

        If the song is in Atmos, the AVR immediately goes from stereo to multi-channel Atmos and back if the next song is in stereo. All the music regardless of codec or lack thereof sounds excellent, probably because it is real music, played and sung by people of talent instead of the idiots of AutoTune.

        Atmos is fine. Again, not revelatory but fine. And there is nothing wrong with “FINE”. As for Joe “Cool” Whip and his dislike of “commentators”. BFD. I listened to the music and commented accordingly. I rarely get “excited” about listening to music, I just like what I listen to. I an get upset at what I am hearing if it is cRap or Hippity-Hop or Hick-Hop. Then I want it off if it is somehow in my home and if I am in someone’s home and they are listening to that stuff? I politely take my leave. How is that for “commentary” Cool Whip? Pusillanimous plebe or some such broffended individual. In my estimation he reads as a frAudiophile. What a maroon.

        Via Con Huevos, mi amigos y amigas.

        El ORTO Verde

        • Chris Boylan

          May 8, 2023 at 7:18 pm

          Well, thank you, Monsieur ORT for making me take another look at (listen to) Dolby Atmos music on the Fire Stick. Apparently Dolby Atmos now *DOES* work in the Amazon Music app on the Fire Stick! Last time I tested, it did not. But I think there’s something funky going on there. I listened to a few tracks in Dolby Atmos in both TIDAL and Amazon Music and they sounded different (better) in TIDAL than they did in Amazon Music. They are both using Dolby Digital Plus (DD+) as the delivery codec, so it’s not a question of lossy vs. lossless. Also, in Amazon Music, there is a playlist “Best of Dolby Atmos” which has a few Pink Floyd tracks that are supposed to be in Atmos, but they come through in stereo instead. Weird. Gonna take some investigation, for sure.

          If you get a chance, check out Queen “Bohemian Rhapsody,” A-ha “Take On Me” and virtually anything by the EDM artist Deadmau5 in Dolby Atmos (specifically the tracks “Alive” and “Bright Lights”). These are a few of the more effective use cases I’ve heard for multi-channel immersive music. But again, for some weird reason, they sound better (to me) in TIDAL than in Amazon Music.

  5. ORT

    April 25, 2023 at 5:56 pm

    Apparently my humorous intent was lost in writing? I find music in Atmos to be music in Atmos. Different and in a nice way. I do not find it to be overkill nor underdone. I have no clue if it will become the next big thing because quite frankly, the music industry is always looking for something to sell us the White Album again and again and…No harm in that and who can blame them?

    I chose Harrison and found much of his music to be encoded for Atmos. Cool. So I listened. A lot. And no, I did not listen “critically” because I am not a critic and I do not care to strain at anything I want to enjoy. Plus any real difference should be immediately apparent, not hidden in layers of foo-foo, LOL!

    I listen to music through out my day on speakers and via ‘phones. CD and records and via WiFi. I did as you suggested and said what I found true for me. It is nice. It is not overwhelming in any way, be that good or bad. It is not demonstrably “better” but if different is better then better it was. I liked it but as I said I would not have sought it out had you not suggested I look.

    And listen. Is that not what you suggested, that I find and listen to music encoded with Atmos? 🙂

    It is nice and if it (Atmos) comes up on my Denon via the Firestick the AVR will decode and play it that way. Cool.

    ORT

  6. ORT

    May 5, 2023 at 3:45 am

    By the way, Mel “The Velvet Frog” Torme’s “Comin’ Home Baby” sounds pretty nice in Atmos.

    ORT Thee Hipster

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