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Dolby Atmos is great for movies, but wait till you hear what it does for music

CES is one of the biggest, coolest, and most lavish trade shows in existence. New innovations are pioneered, new leaders crowned, and the world’s most exciting tech is so close it’s palpable. But for a journalist on the ground at the show, it can be exhausting, stressful, and above all, dirty. Cram 180,000 gawkers (and all the ills that come with them) into a glorified gymnasium, and you’ve got a recipe for a biohazard.

Right now, though, I’ve got a smile on my face 10 miles wide. That’s because I’m lounging in a back ballroom at the opulent Wynn casino listening to Dolby Atmos Music. Set before me are multiple classic tracks remixed using the company’s 3D audio format that hopes to upend stereo music. What’s more, they’re being played not on a smart speaker or virtually over headphones, but on a real, high-end Atmos sound system courtesy of Focal. And it’s glorious.

Dolby Atmos Music demo.

From my seat on the crushed leather couch at Dolby’s booth, I hear Prince’s vocals soar all around me on When Doves Cry, fall into the center of The Weeknd and Daft Punk’s Feel it Coming, and even discover a new, immersive spin on Kenny Rogers’ The Gambler.

But the peak of the experience is, without a doubt, Rocket Man. Slide guitars bow overhead like ribbons of jet-stream in the ceiling. Background vocals swell around me like the aurora borealis. And attendees at Dolby’s off-site event scurry into the room like moths to a sonic flame.

As the starlit classic continues to expand toward the chorus, spiraling outward with each new instrumental element, I suddenly realize something rather revelatory: Dolby Atmos is more poignant, more creative, and more impactful for music than it is for film. 3D music is (or at least should be) the future of the art form.

The next musical age?

It makes sense when you think about it. Don’t get me wrong, movies are brilliantly immersive in Atmos when the action scenes climax. Sitting in a theater while spaceships strafe overheard or explosions resonate from behind is always exhilarating. But the majority of most any movie — even most action-packed eye candy — is dialogue. We’re listening to the actors tell their story. And dialogue, perpetually placed front and center, doesn’t give much opportunity for creative license.

I’m lost in a swirl of Atmos Music bliss. And life is good

Music, though — especially richly produced music — doesn’t bow to such restrictions. Yes, vocals are often a key element to most pop music we hear, and are also usually front and center. But virtually every song recorded is made up of multiple (often dozens) of instrumental elements all constantly in flux. And we’re just now starting to fully realize what can happen when those elements are unleashed in a hemispheric sound stage.

The more creative the artist and content, the more intriguing the possibilities become. For example, Dolby told me that Beck’s new Atmos Music track, Seventh Heaven, utilized Dolby’s Atmos Music format in a rather unorthodox way, mixing the vocals at the back of the surround mix, the drums up front, and swirling guitars all around. Atmos Music, and its contemporaries like Sony’s new 360 Reality Audio, offer a whole new canvas on which to paint.

A long road ahead

Somewhat surprisingly in the age of 3D sound formats, my CES 2020 demo remains a rare treat at the moment. Despite the fact that Dolby Atmos sound systems are everywhere nowadays, thanks in no small part to a wide array of relatively affordable soundbars, the emerging musical format is hard to tap into. While those with Atmos setups at home can source it from a few odd videos on Blu-ray, the only way to stream it right now is over Amazon’s Echo Studio smart speaker. And while that’s a fun start, it’s no substitute for the big show.

Amazon Echo Studio speaker.
John Velasco / Digital Trends

That said, Atmos Music is on the move on multiple fronts. Two of the big four labels, including Universal and Warner Music, have committed to mixing (and remixing) music using Atmos Music technology.

And though progress has seemed to move at a glacial pace compared to Atmos Music’s cinematic counterpart, Dolby’s SVP of Consumer Entertainment, Giles Baker, tells me that along with those label partnerships, the format has been overwhelmingly embraced by some of music’s biggest names.

Engineers like Giles Martin (Abbey Road engineer and son of George Martin) and Greg Penny, who works with Elton John, have jumped feet forward into the format. Dolby says big-name artists, including Lizzo, Coldplay, and many others are singing the format’s praises thanks to the freedom it gives them to express their art form. When you can do virtually anything with your recordings, it changes everything.

Yet, while the excitement may be growing, the hurdles are still many. Each song must be mixed (or remixed) using methods that have yet to be adopted in professional studios en masse. Format wars between Dolby, Sony, and others will likely stifle the pace of adoption.

And most notably, there’s that nagging lack of a convenient way for wider audiences to receive the music and play it back. While smaller services like Amazon Music and Tidal have gotten on board, the two biggest players in the U.S., Spotify and Apple, haven’t shown any signs of joining the 3D-music party. That is perhaps the biggest speed bump that needs to be overcome before 3D music goes mainstream.

Still, right now those all seem like faraway doubts for another day. I’m lost in a swirl of Atmos Music bliss. And life is good.

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