Whether we get our music through streaming services, satellite radio, CDs, or vinyl, most of it has been recorded using the time-honored technique of two-channel stereo. But over the past few years, there’s been a growing movement in the recording industry toward so-called spatial audio formats. The most popular of these formats is Dolby Atmos Music, and it can make good ol’ stereo sound like mono AM radio.
But what exactly is Dolby Atmos Music? How is it different than stereo? And what kind of gear do you need to listen to it at home and on the go? We’ve got everything you need to know to get on the Dolby Atmos Music train.
If you’ve been to see a blockbuster action movie in the theaters, you’ve probably already heard what Dolby Atmos can do for movies, with its immersive, three-dimensional sound field. Dolby Atmos Music puts that same technology into the hands of musicians and producers, letting them craft songs that possess a greater sense of space and depth than the traditional stereo recordings we’re used to.
More on Dolby Atmos:
- Dolby Atmos: The future of immersive sound
- How to know if you’re actually getting Dolby Atmos sound
- Why your next soundbar should have Dolby Atmos
Keep the channels open
Modern-day music producers have access to some very sophisticated digital recording equipment that lets them mix music from dozens of separate channels (also called tracks). However, no matter how many channels they start with, if they’re creating a stereo recording, these multiple channels must be combined eventually into just two channels: A left and a right, which corresponds to the two speakers in a stereo environment. Dolby Atmos Music, on the other hand, is a native surround sound technology, with support for up to 128 channels and up to 34 separate speakers in a home theater, including speakers that can direct sound down toward the listener from the ceiling.
That sounds like the kind of thing you’d get in a commercial movie theater, and it is — Dolby Atmos is used for creating highly immersive soundtracks for movies, with sound that feels like it’s coming from in front of you, behind you, both sides, and above. But that same recording technique can be used with music for a similar result: Total sonic immersion.
It would be easy to dismiss Dolby Atmos Music as simply a way to play normal tracks over a surround sound setup. After all, every home theater receiver can take an audio source like vinyl, CD, or streaming media and run it through circuits and software that optimize it for a surround system, like a 7.1 speaker setup. But Atmos Music isn’t a conversion of stereo into multichannel surround — it’s a from-scratch-made recording that utilizes these extra channels in a whole new way.
One of the defining characteristics of both Dolby Atmos for movies and Dolby Atmos Music is that an object (or in the case of music, an instrument or vocal track) can be manipulated in 3D space by the producer independently. For example, when listening to Atmos Music on an Atmos-compatible sound system, you might hear the violins from the front of the room as a symphony begins, but as the music continues over time, those instruments could be gradually shifted in space to feel as though they are coming from all around you. It’s an unprecedented degree of control for producers, and much like the 3D effect in movies, it might feel jarring or even cheesy if it were executed in a ham-fisted way. But by the same token, it can also feel sublime when the spatial options are manipulated by a deft and experienced hand.
Listening to Dolby Atmos Music is possible when you have a source of Dolby Atmos Music and an audio device that is capable of playing this format.
For most people, the easiest way to access Dolby Atmos Music tracks will be to use a music streaming service. As of December 2021, your options are Apple Music, Tidal, and Amazon Music. Apple Music and Amazon Music include Dolby Atmos Music tracks in their standard $10 per month price tiers, while Tidal requires a more expensive $20 per month HiFi Plus subscription.
Unfortunately for Spotify fans, Spotify hasn’t announced any plans to offer Dolby Atmos Music tracks. This may change once Spotify finally launches its promised Hi-Fi lossless music tier.
For audiophiles, the very best Dolby Atmos Music source is Blu-ray discs. Blu-ray discs can be used to play Atmos Music and several albums have been released in this format. Beatles fans will be happy to know that Abbey Road happens to be one of them.
The biggest advantage of Dolby Atmos Music on Blu-ray is that the audio is presented in Dolby TrueHD, a 24-bit high-resolution, lossless audio format, making it the highest possible quality for Atmos.
These include live concert performances as well as special Dolby Atmos versions of music albums, like the 30th Anniversary release of Kick by INXS.
Atmos Music on home theater speakers and soundbars
- From a Dolby Atmos-capable streaming device like the Apple TV 4K or Nvidia Shield TV/Shield TV Pro.
- You’ll need a streaming music app like Apple Music, Tidal, or Amazon Music and a subscription level that gives you access to the Dolby Atmos Music catalogs these services offer.
- Some services like Netflix offer live concert videos in Dolby Atmos, like Taylor Swift’s Reputation Stadium Tour. Again, you’ll need the appropriate subscription level to get access to Dolby Atmos content.
- From a Dolby Atmos-capable Blu-ray player.
- You’ll need Blu-ray discs that include Dolby Atmos audio tracks.
For either of these scenarios, you’ll need to make sure your audio system is receiving its signal from an HDMI connection. Connecting a Blu-ray player to your TV via HDMI and then connecting your TV to your soundbar via optical cable won’t work. For more on Dolby Atmos’s connection requirements, see our explainer: How to know if you’re actually getting Dolby Atmos sound.
Some smart TVs, like LG’s WebOS, support streaming music apps like Apple Music, but they don’t necessarily support Dolby Atmos Music as a format. Be sure to check all of the specifications for your setup.
Atmos Music on wireless speakers
There are currently two wireless speakers that are Dolby Atmos-compatible. Apple’s now-discontinued HomePod, which can play Dolby Atmos tracks from Apple Music, and the Amazon Echo Studio 3D wireless smart speaker, which can do the same thing using Amazon Music.
Atmos Music on smartphones and tablets
Unlike Dolby Atmos Music on soundbars, A/V receivers, or smart speakers, which all require Atmos-compatible gear, an increasing number of smartphones and tablets are Dolby Atmos-compatible and don’t require any additional hardware. Any set of wired or wireless headphones will work, but there are two key caveats:
- Your phone must support spatial audio, or the technology must be embedded in your preferred streaming app.
- Your preferred music service must have a Dolby Atmos catalog, and its app must support streaming in Dolby Atmos on your particular phone.
iPhone 7 and newer models all support spatial audio, as do the following iPads:
- iPad Pro 12.9‑inch (3rd-generation) and later
- iPad Pro 11‑inch
- iPad Air (3rd-generation) and later
- iPad (6th-generation) and later
- iPad mini (5th-generation) and later
Spatial audio support on Android devices is good on a variety of models from Samsung, Motorola, LG, Sony, and Huawei. Google’s Pixel line of phones don’t have native Dolby Atmos support, which means that Apple Music and Tidal can’t deliver Atmos playback on Pixels. Amazon Music is different — Amazon has embedded Dolby Atmos support into its app, making it independent of any given phone’s capabilities — including older iPhones.
Dolby is currently partnered with two major music companies: Universal Music Group and Warner Music Group. Both companies have said they will be releasing new recordings as well as back-catalog classics in the Atmos Music format. The exact number of Atmos Music tracks isn’t something any of the players have shared publicly, though previous commitments peg the size in the thousands.
Warner hasn’t offered a list of its available artists, but Universal has said its Atmos Music contributions will include tracks from Bastille, The Beatles, Billie Eilish, Elton John, Lady Gaga, Luciano Pavarotti, Marvin Gaye, and The Weeknd — to name a few.
Some clubs are beginning to install Dolby Atmos Music systems that give performing DJs the ability to control their music in 3D space around the club. These include Ministry of Sound in London, Sound-Bar in Chicago, and Halcyon in San Francisco.
Atmos Music’s most significant competition comes from Sony. The new 360 Reality Audio format (360RA), which gave our staff the chills during the demo at CES 2019, is also an immersive, object-based audio format for both speakers and headphones. It made its streaming debut on the Deezer music service in October 2019 and arrived on Tidal shortly afterward. You can now find 360RA tracks on Amazon Music and Nugs.net, too.
As the new kid on the block, 360RA has a long, steep climb to catch up to Dolby Atmos no matter what Sony says. 360RA currently falls short on both the recording and playback sides of the equation. Early reviews of Sony’s 360RA speakers, the SRS-RA3000 and SRS-RA5000, suggest that Dolby doesn’t have to worry — not in the short term, at least.
However, as the owner of the massive Sony BMG music publishing empire, Sony has a big advantage in pushing its concept of immersive music forward, so it’s tough to count the newcomer out at this point. The next few years will be critical to the success of these competing technologies. And yes, consumers will most likely find themselves caught in another format war.
Dolby Atmos is different than anything else on the market right now, making it difficult to fully appreciate it without hearing it yourself.
When you’re ready to make the switch from lackluster stereo music to Dolby’s innovative “immersive” system, Dolby’s proprietary tech will take you there. Sony or DTS will catch up eventually, but for now, Dolby’s leading the pack. Honestly, we can’t wait to hear how music will improve next.
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