Despite the advent of streaming music services, which have utterly changed the landscape when it comes to accessing music, there haven’t been many changes to how songs are produced. Whether you listen to music through terrestrial FM, digital satellite, MP3, CD, DVD-Audio, or even lossless high-resolution files like FLAC or DSD, the original recording was probably created in stereo, that familiar, two-channel mix of sound that has been with us for decades.
That’s about to change: Dolby Atmos Music is slowly making its way into the mainstream music business, and it makes good ol’ stereo sound like mono AM radio. You may already be aware of Dolby Atmos for movies and TV shows — if not, we have a great explainer and a detailed how-to guide — but Dolby Atmos Music is its own beast. An entirely new way of recording and listening to music, Atmos Music could become a big part of recorded music’s next big leap forward. Here’s everything you need to know.
What is Dolby Atmos Music?
Dolby Atmos Music is music that has been recorded and produced using Dolby’s Atmos 3D audio format. That’s what we call it, but Dolby prefers the term “immersive” over “3D,” and describes Atmos not so much as a format as an “experience.” Semantics aside, Atmos Music is different from traditional stereo music in a few key respects.
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.
How can I listen to Dolby Atmos Music?
As of December 2019, you can stream select songs and albums in Dolby Atmos Music on Amazon Music HD and Tidal HiFi. But there’s a catch. For now, the only way to access these tracks on Amazon Music HD is to buy Amazon’s new $199 Echo Studio, a high-end version of Amazon’s famous voice-enabled smart speaker that features 3D immersive sound capabilities. If you want to listen to Atmos on Tidal HiFi, you’ll need a Dolby Atmos-compatible Android smartphone or tablet. Recent iPhones, even though they’re Atmos-compatible, aren’t yet supported.
Any other device or streaming service combo — even if that device supports Dolby Atmos via Netflix, YouTube, or other services — will not get the Dolby Atmos Music versions of these tracks.
One exception to this state of affairs is live concert videos recorded in Dolby Atmos. For instance, Taylor Swift’s Reputation Stadium Tour on Netflix was recorded in Dolby Atmos. Live performances recorded in Atmos deliver a slightly different listening experience than studio-recorded Atmos. Live performances benefit from Atmos by delivering a more true-to-life concert experience, enhancing the feeling of “being there.”
Currently, there’s no way to buy Atmos Music in digital formats online. Even online stores that cater to hi-res music fans do not sell Atmos Music tracks — although we’ve been able to find two exceptions so far: AcousticSounds.com, which sells a single Dolby Atmos piece of music, which it provides in .mp4 format, and Matt Darey, an EDM artist who sells his albums Wolf and Retrospective, as dedicated Atmos mixes directly to the public. You can buy them in MT2S, MKV, and MP4 formats.
There is, however, another way to get Dolby Atmos Music. Blu-ray discs can be used to play Atmos Music and there have been several albums released in this format. Beatles fans will be happy to know that Abbey Road happens to be one of them. Unfortunately, the selection is still razor-thin, and it’s unlikely Blu-ray disc will be the way most people listen to Atmos Music in the future.
If you have a Blu-ray disc player and a Dolby Atmos-capable receiver or soundbar, you’re good to go.
What about Atmos Music on headphones and mobile devices?
Headphones (with a few notable exceptions like the Razer Tiamat V2) are effectively 2-channel stereo speakers for your head. However, the fact that each ear can only hear one of those channels at a time means that a technique known as binaural audio can be used to simulate 360-degree sound (our brains are remarkably easy to fool). Dolby Atmos takes full advantage of binaural audio and is pretty headphone-friendly. In fact, Dolby Atmos for Headphones is already widely used throughout the Windows 10 and Xbox One gaming worlds as a way to give gamers a more immersive audio experience that helps them place characters, as well as actions like explosions and gunshots, in context so they can react faster and with greater accuracy.
The same binaural effect that makes Atmos for headphones so effective for gaming works with music as well, with the same distinctions we discussed earlier around cinematic Atmos versus Atmos for music.
The challenge, however, is being able to connect your headphones to an Atmos-capable device that also has access to Atmos Music.
Many smartphones are Dolby Atmos-enabled, including recent iPhones running iOS 13 or later. You can find plenty of samples of Dolby Atmos on sites like YouTube, but it can be very hard to find Atmos Music specifically.
Unfortunately, plugging in a set of cans to the headphone output of an Atmos A/V receiver won’t usually work, even if it’s connected to a Blu-ray player. Most Atmos A/V receivers can only process the Atmos signal through connected speakers and only provide a downgraded stereo mix to the headphone jack.
What kind of music is available in Dolby Atmos Music?
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. One industry insider claims there will be 10,000 Atmos Music tracks available in 2020.
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.
Are there any other ways to experience Dolby Atmos Music?
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.
Are there any competitors to Dolby Atmos Music?
Atmos Music’s biggest competition comes from Sony. Its new 360 Reality Audio technology, which gave our staff the chills when it was demoed 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 was added to Tidal shortly thereafter. Sony plans to make the format available on Amazon Music HD and Nugs.net in the future.
As the new kid on the block, it has a long, steep climb ahead of it to catch up to Dolby Atmos on both the recording and playback sides of the equation. But, as the owner of the massive Sony BMG music publishing empire, Sony has a big advantage in pushing its concept of immersive music forward. The next few years will be critical to the success of these competing technologies, and yes, consumers could find themselves caught in another format war.
In the cinematic and home theater space, Dolby’s main rival is DTS, the company behind DTS:X — an object-based surround sound technology that bears a strong similarity to Dolby Atmos. DTS:X can be used for music too, but so far there doesn’t appear to be much in the way of support for it. Most A/V receivers that can decode Dolby Atmos can also decode DTS:X, but again, you’d need music recorded using DTS:X to take advantage of it. Unless record labels jump on the DTS:X bandwagon, as Universal and Warner have with Atmos, the DTS:X music landscape will likely resemble a desert for some time.
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