First of all, what is my goal? It is simply to find ways to make my systems (which include many headphones, cars, and Sonos system) sound better and to help you enjoy your system.
There is a bigger goal I have, which is to get the Spatial Computing industry to care a lot more about audio, since music is a foundation for a lot of storytelling, and a huge amount of the difference of, say, watching the Olympics in person or on TV. Even “silent” films from 100+ years ago have music as part of the story. What is Dolby Atmos and why am I so excited by it (enough to make playlists that have tens of thousands of songs on them, all in Atmos, and to talk with the music industry frequently)?
Neil Young took me into his studio to teach me this “gap” between a real-life performance, what was captured on the master recordings, and what people hear coming from their headphones or speakers. On most equipment the gap is huge. But now consumers are getting systems that greatly close the gap. Or, could, if they are fed music with higher resolutions and with the ability to build surround sound stages that sound closer to real concerts. That’s where Dolby Atmos comes in.
When you go to a real game, the sound is incredible. So far consumers don’t have the equipment, nor the source, to help close that gap. Dolby Atmos closes the gap between a real concert and something you would experience digitally. And closes it in a huge way. It used to be that only wealthy schools could do what my Sonos is now doing.
It gives us several things:
1. It virtualizes speakers. So that sound can be put all around a listener.
2. It turns audio into objects that can be played properly on everything from a $250,000 speaker, to cheap speakers on a modern iPhone.
3. It still includes a stereo render so that the music can play on all equipment, even those that don’t support Atmos (since that’s the vast majority of devices that people listen to music on).
4. More bit depth, so sound is better quality.
Putting audio on things, either real or virtual, will be a big deal. The #1 app on Meta’s (formerly known as Facebook) VR headset, the Quest 2, is Beat Saber. Which uses music. But which sounds like crap because it’s 2D music, not Spatial Audio, like what Dolby Atmos delivers.
I’m not paid/compensated in any way by Sonos, Dolby, Apple, Amazon, or any company I discuss online (if I ever am, I will disclose that).
My qualifications? I’ve collected tens of thousands of Dolby Atmos songs on Apple Music and moved a lot of those over to other services like Tidal and Amazon so that I can compare music services. If you want help with a specific kind of music, drop me a line, and I’ll send you my playlists on Amazon or Tidal. Apple is the best place because Apple has the biggest catalog of Dolby Atmos that I’ve been able to find. Amazon sounds better, even on Apple headphones, due to using newer Dolby Atmos technology than the others, but it has fewer songs, particularly for those of you who like classical music.
Spatial Audio is something I’ve been studying for decades. I’ve been in Virginia Tech’s building for Augmented Reality research which has 1,600 speakers in one room. When I visited they put me in a recorded football game which blew my mind.
Neil Young had me in his studio to understand what his analog masters caught of his performance and how much of that is stripped away by technology delivering music at home. I’ve visited with many audio engineers in many studios. Just so you understand that while I’m not an audio engineer, I do have more education on the topic than most people who aren’t audio engineers and I’ve even met audio engineers who are completely working in stereo and who don’t understand Atmos. The music industry is cleaning those people out and building new studios around the world for Atmos.
What is Dolby Atmos?
Instead of talking about bits and bytes and nerdy stuff, let’s ask ourselves “what is the goal for us to recreate music recordings in our home?”
For me, I have seen hundreds of performances from the front row. Buddy Guy played guitar sitting right next to me for 20 minutes. Reggie Watts performed two feet in front of me in Preservation Hall with the band there. I’ve been to Austin City Limits, Coachella, and many festivals.
My goal has been to recreate this concert experience at home. Most people can’t afford to go to, say, Coachella, to listen to live music. Marshmellow played there to about 30,000 people. A few years later he was on Fortnite performing to 11 million. And it sounds like shit compared to Atmos on my Sonos system. The gap between the performance on Fortnite and what his concert in real life was like is huge.
We can do better.
So, let’s start out with something simple.
A three-piece band. A singer. A drummer. A guitar.
The old way was to record in “stereo.” Two audio channels. And distribute that at 44.1 khz, or worse (Spotify is usually compressed on top of that). That is what is on CD’s (which I first started selling around 1980 in the consumer electronics store I worked at).
In stereo the band is “stuck” mostly between your two speakers with a little that goes outside of that. When we sold audio gear in the 1980s we’d say “this speaker has a wider soundstage.” Because in front of you you could more clearly hear where a flute or clarinet was in, say, a symphony.
Today, with Atmos that soundstage can be all around you. The guitar can be in a specific place in 3D now. That wasn’t the case with stereo. In theory Atmos can move things around differently in the future, too. The Atmos technology has separated where sounds are coming from apart from the sounds themselves.
The process of making Dolby Atmos is different than it used to be. Now a technology team needs to “program” where sound should be around you.
That is impossible to do in just stereo. Audio engineers sometimes even put each performer on a different speaker in their studios and move those physical speakers around to decide where to put each on the computer, which translates to your Sonos as “drums in back, guitar on right, singer in front.”
In my home, with my system, this sounds like my whole room comes alive with audio that extends behind my speakers, over my head, and even behind me if I have the speakers directly to my sides, or a little behind me. Sometimes it even “fakes” sounds behind you where there aren’t any speakers. You can hear this actually on an iPhone 13 Pro or Max phone. Play Dolby Atmos music on such, make sure you see the Dolby Atmos logo (if you don’t there are a couple of places in settings you need to change, and you need to pay for the top tier of music services (particularly important on Amazon Music) to get it. Turn your phone and you’ll notice that sound often appears like it’s coming from next to you or, even, behind you where there are no speakers!
I also noticed in my headphones and in my car that Atmos music has better bass and music clarity when Apple turned on Atmos last year. That’s what got me interested in Atmos. Soon after I had purchased my Arc bar and started talking with musician friends and audio engineers about this.
The reason, the engineers tell me, that Atmos has better bass and audio, is because when the music is sampled it not only has more samples (48 khz vs 44.1) but also has more bit depth (the numbers are longer, which makes for better sound, thanks to more information).
Some of those benefits come from “high resolution” music (music recorded at higher sampling rates than what was used to record CDs) but if you have a full surround sound system you hear it isn’t just that: that the music is fundamentally different than it used to be.
Some purists argue that it isn’t what we should do. That stereo is how “God” made recorded music and we shouldn’t mess with that.
I come from a different place: if we really are going to take audio to the next level we must go way beyond stereo.
I hear another resistance: that there is a better way to do Spatial Audio, particularly in VR, since the platforms that make VR can put sound on any of the virtual polygons that make up what you are seeing in a VR headset. The problem here is that the music industry has decided to go with Dolby Atmos, or a similar technology, 360, from Sony.
So, we need to see VR headset manufacturers really support Dolby Atmos at a deep level and make it so that the virtual box around the listener can be “attached” to the real world, so that we can really recreate a concert experience (I’ve been on stage at concerts where musicians are playing and in real life you can hear what it sounds like between, say, the guitar and drums. You can’t do that at home yet.
What about the future?
The holy grail is to “fool” the listener into thinking she/he is at a concert, where sound is coming from all around you, particularly when you are at something like Coachella. There they have dozens of speakers in front, above, and behind you, and that sound is bouncing off of everything else.
We aren’t there yet.
Now add on augmented reality or virtual reality glasses. They could “lock” the Atmos virtual box to the real world, letting you “walk around” a band. Like you can in a real concert.
It is this goal that has me most excited. If we can put a 3D sensor on your face, along with screens that cover your eyes, and headphones that bring real surround sound, and cover your ears, we can deliver much better audio than headphones can today.
So far we haven’t seen this “holy grail” ship to consumers. I expect that in the next year that will change.
Which is why I’m collecting all the Atmos music I can. When you get one of the devices that I know is being built by Apple, Meta, Tesla, and others, you’ll be able to hear the magic of Atmos.
Until then, start “future proofing” your playlists, by choosing to collect Dolby Atmos. By the end of next year you’ll see that will be much more important than it is today.
Music never sounded so good!
Here are the largest collections of Dolby Atmos music anywhere:
Tidal: https://listen.tidal.com/playlist/6603219c-65cf-4299-87e9-54cad6e729ab (search for “100% Dolby Atmos” to find 50+ other lists).