What is Spatial Audio and Dolby Atmos for Music (and why should you care)?

Sonos Era 300 speaker with Spatial Audio
The recently-announced Sonos Era 300 speaker features Spatial Audio technology.

Spatial Audio and Dolby Atmos have been in the news a lot recently, with new speakers, headphones and other gadgets designed to play audio in this new, more immersive format. But, what is it, how does it work, how can you listen to it, and why does it matter?

What Is Dolby Atmos for Music?

Technically, Dolby Atmos is just the next extension of surround sound. Where surround sound was five or seven speakers surrounding you, plus a subwoofer for bass, Dolby Atmos for Music also adds in upwards firing speakers (or, in a studio situation, in-ceiling speakers) to make sound come from above you.

When you see someone write about sound systems, they’ll often use terms like 2.1, 5.1, etc. The first number refers to the number of speakers at roughly the height of your ear, and the second number is the number of subwoofers, which are used for the deep bass tones. In Dolby Atmos, it’s often listed as 9.2.4 or 9.2.6. That third number is the number of upward-firing or in-ceiling speakers.

What is Spatial Audio?

Apple’s Spatial Audio builds on Dolby Atmos to add a directional element – not only are the instruments coming from left, right, behind and above, but they know where you are and stay in their place. So, if your iPad is playing a music video in Spatial and you turn your head, all the instruments stay where they are and shift in your ears as though it’s playing out loud. Spatial also builds on the object-based audio of Atmos to be a touch more immersive.

Why does that matter?

In some ways, it would not be hyperbole to say that this is the most important dimensional change to come to recorded music since stereoscopic sound was introduced in the mid-1900s.

When music first started being recorded and played back in the late 1800s, everything was mono: all the sound came from one audio channel, one speaker, going in one direction. It was a stunning innovation at the time, and there are still some cheaper headphones and sound systems that use mono audio, but it sounds one-dimensional. Some of the details get lost, and there aren’t as many things an artist can do with a song in mono beyond playing with the volume in the mix.

Stereoscopic sound was invented in the 1930s, firstly for film so that the voices could align with the actors on the screen, rather than just all coming from one side. Then, in 1958, it became something available for music fans to use in the home. There weren’t many records made for it yet then, and it was very expensive, but with time, it became the dominant standard. It’s hard to imagine music without stereo sound.

Spatial Audio on Apple Music
There aren’t many ways to listen to Spatial Audio yet, but Apple and Sonos are championing the technology.

Most stereo music for headphones is mixed to make it sound as though the music is coming from the middle of your head, but musicians and audio producers frequently use it as a tool to give music a sense of space and place. You could have the guitar coming more from one side and the bass more on the other on a live album to give you the feeling that you’re standing in front of the band.

My favourite example of a song that makes the most of stereo is “Wilderness” by Sleater-Kinney from their album The Woods. There, the stereo tuning is used to disorient the listener. You can hear that extra dimension in songs that use those effects, and the directionality is almost used as another instrument to further bring you into the art or the emotion of the song.

The next generation of music

Spatial and Dolby Atmos Music is another dimension. It takes music into 3D using ‘object-based’ audio. What that means is that instead of picking a direction, music producers and masterers can take an object – like a drum fill or the sound of a crowd – and have it travel around the room (or your head, if you’re on headphones). A sound can travel around all 9.2.6 of the speakers to give you a more fluid sense of movement.

It’s still an incredibly new technology, so musicians and producers are learning how best to implement it. But I recently had the opportunity to see a panel of some of the best music producers in the world talk about the future of Spatial Audio, and their excitement was infectious.

As people gain more access to Dolby Atmos and Spatial Audio, and more music is made for it, the full potential of the format will come into view. Right now, artists have barely scratched the surface of what’s possible, and that’s something music fans should be very excited about.

What is Spatial Audio used for?

Not every song is going to be mixed for Spatial, and nor should it be. There are still songs being mixed in mono. Same as how not every song needs drums, not every song needs object-based mixing.

However, there is currently a huge amount of music mixed for Spatial Audio. At that music event I mentioned, Giles Martin (son of famous Beatles producer George Martin) spoke about remixing The Beatles’ albums in Spatial, and how he discovered new details because each instrument and section of each song had more space to breathe. He could assign each band member a spot in the virtual room, and then place their instruments there.

AirPods Max spatial audio
Apple’s AirPods Max are currently one of the few ways to get the full Spatial Audio experience. More support is coming, however.

Much like how most stereo songs place the audio in the centre of your head, most Spatial Audio mixes will surround you with sound in a way that feels natural. A good example is Finneas’ “A Concert Six Months From Now”, which uses a gentle Spatial effect to put you in an echoey room with the musicians. Spatial is present, and it adds an extra dimension to the song, but you don’t notice unless you’re looking for it. You just feel more immersed.

Same with “About Damn Time” by Lizzo, which has good separation of the objects and instruments, so you can almost “see” where everything is in the “room”. For an Australian example, Meg Mac’s album Matter Of Time is mixed in Spatial, and that extra dimension is palpable, even if you can’t put your finger on why.

How can I listen to Spatial Audio?

Currently, there aren’t a lot of ways to listen to Spatial Audio out loud. There are soundbars tuned for Dolby Atmos, but they’re more for movies than music.

The only way to get the full Apple Spatial Audio effect is with AirPods Pro, AirPods Max, and other Apple and Beats headphones with W1 and H1 chips. They have the full directionality element as well as tuning that simulates object-based audio.

For Dolby Atmos for Music, there are heaps of gaming headsets designed for Atmos from brands like Rig, Corsair, HyperX, and Bang and Olufsen. For regular music listening high-end Sony headphones, LG Tone Free buds and higher-end Skullcandy headphones are all decent options.

To listen out loud, there are really only two speakers: The first is Apple HomePod, which is the most affordable option at $479. The second is the Sonos Era 300, which retails for $749.

It’s likely that there will be many more coming soon.

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