Apple Music Spatial Audio is finally the future of music
Music mixed in stereo stretches left and right to use both ears, but music in Apple’s Spatial Audio with Dolby Atmos adds more dimension to the songs. As with everything in audio, it’s much easier to “get it” just by listening to it. In this case, however, fully grasping it comes when you stop listening to it. Because Spatial Audio makes music more natural and immersive, it’s less about entering the world of Oz, where everything becomes colorful in an instant, and it’s more about never wanting to leave this world for return to a colorless and flat world.
Spatial Audio creates depth and space for music to breathe and be arranged in potentially new ways. Initially, this technology is demonstrated not only by the shift between left and right, but by the sound having additional front and rear dimensions to surround you even better. To take full advantage of its benefits, hit play on a Dolby Atmos song and then, while that’s happening, head to iPhone settings and under music turn off Dolby Atmos to return to stereo listening. The singer and all instruments instantly become stiff, flat, and too close. A stereo mix now almost feels like looking through a window glass where the artist is pressing his face against her, trying to get unnaturally close to you.
Some Spatial Audio songs with Dolby Atmos may be more subtle, but stereo mixes look contrasting. This new technology is a step forward for music, even if you don’t really notice it at first. Plus, it empowers music creators to go further into the future with the way their music is mixed and presented to listeners.
The music has already been mixed in surround sound, this is nothing new. (Quadraphonic, anyone?) Surround music has not been widely adopted for many reasons, including people needing a multi-channel speaker setup with the song mixed in the new format – a situation complete with chicken and egg. But, with Apple leveraging its massively popular streaming service and headphones, Spatial Audio, multidimensional music, is finally the future of music listening.
Video spatial audio versus musical spatial audio
Note that this is not the first time that Apple uses the term Spatial Audio. Originally, it was only used to talk about virtual surround sound while watching shows and movies using AirPods Pro and AirPods Max. Now Dolby Atmos appears for Spatial Audio songs in Apple Music on the Now Playing screen.
Spatial Audio for shows and movies is all about recreating the surround sound mix in your headphones virtually. But because the headphones are not always fixed in their place. as the speakers can be in your home, Spatial Audio for Video adapts and spins with your head, so everything is always aligned to make sense of your brain.
When launching, Spatial audio with Dolby Atmos doesn’t track the head, but this improvement will arrive in iOS 15 later in fall 2021.
Convenient, everyday use of Dolby Atmos songs
I have spent a lot of time listening to Spatial Audio songs on all kinds of devices. I have used AirPods Pro, but also listened to a Sonos Arc soundbar through Apple TV 4K. I listened on Grado GW100 headphones and a pair of AirPods Max, in addition to other different devices, to get a feel for how Spatial Audio performed in various situations.
Sometimes the spatial sound was more obvious, and sometimes it was less. Listening to AirPods Max alone in the house produced more noticeable results, but I could still hear it, on the go, while running errands. There are differences in the way these spacious songs sound, as you might expect. Some tracks take more advantage of multi-channel capabilities than others. Mixing songs is a unique process that can vary even within the same album. Probably there will be more uniformity of sound depth over time.
More obvious is that not all songs have Dolby Atmos. In fact, most don’t at the moment, but new ones are added daily. Right now there are many popular titles like “Sour” by Olivia Rodrigo, Ariana Grande’s album catalog and music by Taylor Swift. There are also older tracks. I rediscovered “Golden Hour” by Kacy Musgraves in 2018; it sounds spectacular with more sonic depth.
The blow against Spatial Audio is that it’s gimmicky. Placing instruments more freely in 3D space seems unnecessary to some. I’ve seen comments that it looks like more reverb has been added to the songs. I largely disagree with this assessment, but I feel I am skeptical of the way the music has been mixed for decades.
One of the most interesting tracks available at launch is “I Want You Back” by Jackson 5. Its original mix is very heavily mixed in stereo. (Who am I to criticize a classic?) But, in my opinion, it’s turned too much one way or the other in some places. The Dolby Atmos version, however, has a sense of space, but in a more natural way, without the extremes.
I think it’s good to be skeptical about music production. Personally, I’m quite skeptical of high-resolution lossless music that stretches to the upper limits of what humans can hear. I think the finer pixel-level detail of a lot of music is lost on the average listener, who typically uses low-end headphones in loud spaces. But, here after awhile with this, I think Spatial Audio is more of a different beast than just adding more bits. I think it presents a more practical way of listening and can be enjoyed by most people.
At this point, the benefits of listening this way are fantastic, with no downside to having Dolby Atmos songs turned on all the time. If you don’t notice the sound differences now, I think you’ll start to notice it with new music releases in the future. In comparison, I see it similar to 5.1 home theater audio. Just because a lot of people watch movies on TVs using the small built-in metallic sound speakers doesn’t mean movies shouldn’t always have surround sound available.
Analogies to home theater surround sound aren’t perfect, but it’s a technology that’s easy to think of as a gimmick if you’re not using it, don’t have the right speaker setup, or feel just not its impact. But are there currently any movies without 5.1 surround sound available? It is a benchmark for most video content produced.
Spatial Audio with Dolby Atmos is coming to Apple Music for Android and will work with all kinds of wired and wireless headphones. If you really hate it you can turn it off, but I recommend most people to turn it on and give it a try.
Listening on a pair of AirPods Max is a really great, albeit expensive, way to experience this new music technology. At $ 549, it’s hard to recommend anyone to buy a pair of these in-ear headphones, but they sound really good. With a large driver in each ear cup, the headphones provide a wide soundstage for any song, so they’re uniquely placed to show off Dolby Atmos songs.
High-end headphones that wrap around your ears are probably the best way to take full advantage of all the atmospheric detail featured in Dolby Atmos. AirPods Max is Apple’s solution to do this. They feature all the automatic setups and intricacies of other AirPods. Active noise cancellation is powerful and efficient, and their audio pass-through feature, which lets you hear others while wearing headphones, is superb. And, despite everything, at the end of the day, it’s hard to say you need it to fully grasp Spatial Audio in any way.
Is Apple Music Space Audio Worth It?
Simply put, Spatial Audio with Dolby Atmos is the future of music listening. There are very few barriers to trying it. All Apple Music subscribers get it as part of their subscription. It works quite universally among listening devices. It’s pretty good now and will improve tremendously in the near future as the music industry embraces it. Hopefully, it won’t be too long before this is a standard common to all music streaming services, Spotify included. If so, music fans around the world will benefit from Apple pushing that rock up the hill right now.
Here are some of my favorite songs using Spatial Audio with Dolby Atmos at launch:
Listen on Apple Music.
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