Dolby Atmos and Apple’s rewritten audio stack

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Human storytelling is about to become MUCH richer.

I’ve been spending the summer understanding the technology changes coming to consumers soon. Lots of people at lots of companies, from car companies, to audio companies, have told me what is coming. Which made me realize that by Christmas of 2022 we will be seeing a HUGE upgrade in all media quality.

What am I expecting to upgrade? Well, audio is being upgraded right now, so that’s one, and on a high-end audio system you already can experience better music than I did by standing in the front row of more than 150 concerts. When I was last at Preservation Hall in New Orleans Reggie Watts gave a performance three feet from me. Yes, that’s amazing. But what is more amazing is that while only a few people can fit into Preservation Hall, now we have the same audio quality in our homes. Actually better, most of the time, truth be told. 

Soon photos will upgrade. So will video, which is already seeing dramatic changes on the high end. So will VR and AR, which will provide radical new experiences in your homes from multi-party video games to new kinds of virtualized TV screens.

Lately I’ve been telling everyone to pay attention to Dolby. Why? Dolby has been working for years on what Apple is about to bring to market.

In this newsletter I’ll focus on Dolby Atmos and the changes that happened the past few months on Apple Music. 

What impressed me is that Apple totally rewrote its audio stack on all of its devices, and put two AI chips in its headphones to enable Atmos in headphones. Apple’s audio renderer is the best in the business, Sean Olive, head of R&D at Harman, who makes JBL, told me. He should know, he’s one of the few humans who has built a double-blind audio testing lab, among other feats.

I start with music because music has ALWAYS been an important part of storytelling. My son just forced me to watch a “silent” film from more than 100 years ago. It had music! On a “silent” film.

This is why I am trying to get the VR/AR industry to care about the changes going on with Apple Music and its investments in 3D music. With Dolby Atmos you often feel like you are in the front row listening to your favorite music. It surrounds you, just like if you were very close. 

When I grew up I listened to tons of music coming over AM radio (KFRC in San Francisco, amongst others) on a small transistor radio. The quality was worse than today’s iPhone’s speakers (which also just got improved and on my iPhone 13 with iOS 15.1 even has a pretty interesting version of Dolby Atmos which blows away my 13-year-old self). But on Apple’s AirPod Pros or Max headphones you can hear the difference already. Dolby Atmos content is richer, nicer to listen to for long periods of time, and is in 3D around you (yes, we can argue that it’s not the same as on, say, my Sonos gear, but that is missing the point. Dolby Atmos is 3D music AND has way better fidelity to boot. It’s better even on cheap speakers and when you put it on a $4,000 system it’s explosive, and beats most Broadway Plays and concerts for quality).

So, to get you started, this summer I went through tens of thousands of songs on Apple Music, Tidal, and other places, to try to find all available. 

I still remember walking into Tower Records back in 1979 when CDs were just coming out and they only had a few dozen to choose from. Now we have 6,000 songs. Yes, still only a fraction of the millions and millions of songs available, but anyone who doesn’t use 3D music in the future will sound lame. Everything from movies to TV shows to new VR experiences will bet heavy on 3D audio, er, Dolby Atmos, and every week we are seeing major new releases in Atmos and the number is going up exponentially. 

So, here’s a playlist so you can get up to date. Apple has a new device to play all these coming by Christmas, so you’ll want to definitely come back and listen to all these again on that.

The complete list (way bigger than Apple’s own list).I then went through all 6,000 songs, looking for the best examples of Dolby Atmos usage. 

That led to this “innovators” playlist.

Yes, if you aren’t on Apple Music you are an idiot.

It’s way better sounding than Spotify. Better in Apple headphones than Tidal. So, I’m starting this newsletter to cover the changes for people who can afford $250 headphones and up on the Apple ecosystem. If you have an Android phone, good for you. It doesn’t sound as good as Apple’s ecosystem. I don’t write these to cover why to move ecosystems, but from now on this newsletter will cover everything content for Apple users. If you have another device, I really don’t care. You aren’t experiencing the best media out there if you do. Might be harsh to state that but it’s true and the gap will greatly grow next year.

Over on Apple Music you should follow me, so you can see what I’m listening to in real time. You also can see dozens of other Dolby Atmos playlists. Over on my Apple Music Profile you will see playlists of Classical, Jazz, Rock, Country, and many more. All Dolby Atmos.Soon everyone will understand why this is important as we move to a 3D metaverse. 

Either way, I don’t know how often I’ll write these newsletters, but will keep them coming when something big releases. For instance, last week the music from “Hamilton” was released in Dolby Atmos. This recording made me cry as I realized the music on my Sonos system was better than what I experienced in the real play when it visited in San Francisco. When you get a chance to hear this on an amazing Atmos system, it is revelatory. A friend who was in the studio told me that they arranged each track on speakers in a room to argue about where in 3D each performer should be placed in your home. Wonderful to listen to and much better than the same music released a few years ago in 2-channel sound.

Another one that just got released that’s notable is Miles Davis “Sketches of Spain.” On a high-end system you can hear the musicians at the right height and it just is exquisite. My wife and I have listened many times already.

Finally, I will also point to other people who review music and experiences and will bring you the best that I find, like this one in Sound and Vision about another excellent Miles Davis album in Dolby Atmos.