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You won’t need 17 speakers to appreciate Dolby Atmos in Apple Music

Shortly after Apple’s announcement yesterday that it will be adding lossless music streaming to Apple Music, Twitter was awash with hot takes, mainly in the form of jeers. “Does anyone care about lossless audio files except for the guy I dated in 2008 who made me a CD of FLAC files,” asked Wired senior writer Lauren Goode.

Goode makes a, ahem, good point: Just how big of a deal is lossless audio anyway? The answer is — for the vast majority of folks, who happily listen to Spotify or Apple Music on an inexpensive set of wired or wireless earbuds — not a very big deal at all. In fact, these people probably wouldn’t hear much of a difference even if their headphones could let them hear lossless audio, and the fact is, most wireless headphones simply can’t.

This doesn’t mean that lossless audio (which includes hi-res audio) is some kind of techno snake oil. Far from it. For those with the right gear and a passion for perfect playback, lossless audio is the gold standard for digital music ,and they will seek it out wherever it can be found.

Despite its appeal to the audiophile crowd, let’s set the question of lossless audio aside. The really exciting news is Apple’s support of Dolby Atmos Music.

For years, Dolby’s object-based audio technology — which lets individual sounds, like the whizzing of bullets or the roar of a jet plane, move through a 3D dome around the listener — was the exclusive domain of movies, both in commercial theaters and high-end home theaters.

That same technology can also be used in the production of music, and the results can be pretty spectacular.

But Dolby Atmos Music has faced an uphill battle. Actually hearing music recorded in Dolby Atmos has traditionally required a source of Atmos Music, an audio device capable of playing the Atmos Music tracks, and a compatible speaker system. In other words, it hasn’t exactly been easy to listen to Dolby Atmos Music.

That’s why Apple’s announcement is such a seismic shift. When Atmos Music comes to Apple Music in June, anyone with an iPhone, iPad, or Mac and an Apple Music subscription will be able to listen to Dolby Music tracks using any old set of headphones, whether they’re wired or wireless. The experience will be better on a high-quality set of buds or cans, but even the freebie set of wired earbuds you got on your last flight will work.

Apple Music will effectively give Dolby Atmos Music an audience of more than 72 million listeners, taking what was once an obscure but exciting audio format and thrusting it onto the world stage.

I have no doubt that this is just the beginning for Dolby Atmos Music. Where Apple leads, many others tend to follow and it’s just a matter of time before other streaming services make Atmos Music as easy to listen to as Apple Music. But for now, Apple can claim a sort of exclusivity when it comes to this new, immersive format, something that it can’t say about its addition of lossless audio.

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Simon Cohen
Contributing Editor, A/V
Simon Cohen covers a variety of consumer technologies, but has a special interest in audio and video products, like…
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