Sony finally gets serious about 360 Reality Audio at CES 2021

Two years ago, at CES 2019, Sony unleashed its 360 Reality Audio format (360 RA) to great acclaim from the journalists who experienced a live demo. Since then, Sony has been remarkably conservative in its efforts to make 360 Reality Audio widely available. But today, Sony has announced new products, new partnerships, and some new tools for content creators that could give the struggling immersive audio format the boost it desperately needs.

Speakers built by Sony

It has always been something of a mystery as to why Sony, as a prodigious electronics hardware company, had never released its own 360 RA-capable speakers. Instead, it seemed content to have the $200 Amazon Echo Studio stand as the only device that could stream 360 RA tracks directly while relying on its headphones and earbuds to fill the gap.

Today, Sony has finally announced its first 360 RA speakers, the SRS-RA5000 and SRS-RA3000. The Wi-Fi speakers will be available this spring, though Sony declined to offer any pricing information. Curiously, Sony has opted not to make these network-connected speakers “smart.” They can be controlled by Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant, but only through the use of a device that already has one of these voice assistants built-in.

Sony is also going to start licensing its headphone personalization technologies that enable smartphones and automotive vehicles to play 360 Reality Audio to third-party manufacturers. This should expand the number of ways people can experience 360 RA, but it doesn’t do much to bring new 360 RA speakers or soundbars to the market.

Video gets the 360 RA treatment

If you’ve never heard of 360 Reality Audio before, here’s a quick synopsis: It’s designed to reproduce the experience of being at a live music performance. It does this by placing the listener in a virtual concert venue and then it positions all of the instruments and performers on a soundstage relative to the listener’s position. The result is an airy and open sound that is different from both studio and live concert recordings.

Sony 360 Reality Audio live recording with Zara Larsson
Sony

But that effect can feel a little underwhelming when simply listening to 360 RA tracks, which is why Sony’s announcement that it is launching a new video service with 360 RA is an intriguing move. The service is available through Sony’s Artist Connection app for iOS and Android, and the debut experience will be a live performance by Zara Larsson at 5 p.m. ET on January 11. Sony says it will, along with major music labels and service providers, begin streaming this new video content later this year.

Watching recorded live concerts is a great way to experience your favorite artists, especially during a pandemic, and the addition of the 360 RA format should make these concerts feel even more lifelike.

More 360 RA music

Finally, Sony is making it a little easier for artists and content creators to produce music in the 360 RA format.

At the moment, the only way to hear 360 RA music is via Tidal HiFi, Amazon Music HD, or Deezer, which launched a dedicated Sony 360 RA app in 2019. These services have a very limited catalog of about 4,000 360 RA tracks, which is more of a teaser than a full-fledged experience.

One reason that catalog is so limited might be the extra work involved in making 360 RA content. So Sony and Virtual Sonics, Inc. have developed new software plug-in called the 360 Reality Audio Creative Suite. It’s compatible with popular digital audio workstations (DAW) and will be released at the end of January. The plug-in will presumably make the 360 RA workflow much easier to manage since it will sit inside software tools that creators are already using.

In an effort to encourage more 360 RA creation, Sony and Music.com, with distribution by The Orchard, are launching a Creators’ Program, which makes it possible for creators to produce 360 Reality Audio content using the 360 Reality Audio Creative Suite and then stream their content.

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