Why Spatial Audio is the future of the music industry, even if you hate it

Posted:
in General Discussion
It doesn't matter if Spatial Audio with Dolby Atmos is good, because it's already the future of Apple Music and the larger music industry, for better or worse. Let us explain.

Apple Music with Dolby Atmos
Apple Music with Dolby Atmos


Apple announced Spatial Audio as part of Apple Music in May 2021. In less than two years, the company is already celebrating its success as part of a special press release.

In it, Eddy Cue said, "Since launch, the number of monthly Spatial Audio listeners has more than tripled, with more than 80 percent of worldwide subscribers enjoying the experience, while monthly plays in Spatial Audio have grown by over 1,000 percent."

The increase in listeners probably has to do with how much Apple is enabling the audio format across its devices.

Built-in speakers on the iPhone dating back to the XS all automatically support Spatial Audio with Dolby Atmos. AirPods, modern Beats headphones, and even all Bluetooth headphones (that the iPhone knows are headphones).

Wired headphones support the feature too if Spatial Audio is explicitly turned on in the settings, rather than set to "automatic."

Apple is all in on Spatial Audio. So much so that it bundled it with lossless audio and gave it away to subscribers for no additional cost -- despite Apple paying more in royalty fees for those audio formats.

Spatial Audio in the music industry

In July 2021, after Spatial Audio rolled out, Beatles' producer Giles Martin commented on the technology as well as the production and sound of the "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" album.

In the Rolling Stone interview, Martin called out the first Spatial Audio mix as not being quite right. "I'm gonna go back to the theatrical mix and make it into what's called near-field Dolby Atmos, as opposed to the cinema Dolby Atmos."

Overall, despite the changes he thought were needed, Martin came across as optimistic about the new listening experience and its future.

"I think we're right at the beginning of this. And I think what it can do is it can create intimacy with music. You can hear the difference with spatial audio. It may not always be better, but there's a difference."

Nearly two years later, all major label releases on Apple Music have a Spatial Audio mix available. Better yet, older releases continue to be released weekly and highlighted in the app.

Mixing for Dolby Atmos
Mixing for Dolby Atmos


The audio format is growing and expanding, but it has yet to spread as widely as lossless has. Mostly, that's due to the associated costs to produce spatial mixes.

As an example, the Dolby Atmos Production Suite costs $299. The Dolby Atmos Mastering Suite costs around $1,000. There may be other costs depending on the recording setup.

Overall though, the more significant expense comes from building out a Dolby-recommended 7.1.4 monitoring system.

That would be seven surround speakers, one subwoofer, and four overhead speakers. The Production Suite will support up to 22 speakers, however, if someone is so inclined.

Once these costs come down in some way, we should see even wider adaption.

The independent side

As a point, Lyrah is a musical artist who gets more than 250,000 monthly listeners on Spotify and has made the choice not to invest in Spatial Audio yet.

Lyrah and Ciel Eckard-Lee
Lyrah and Ciel Eckard-Lee


She explained, "There are two reasons I don't have my songs mixed in spatial audio. The cost and my audience base mainly being on Spotify, which doesn't offer a spatial listening experience."

"Longterm I'd love to, but because I try to keep my production costs as low as possible, it doesn't make sense right now," she said. "I'd probably invest more in my live show experience before I would a spatial audio listening experience."

Ciel Eckard-Lee, a mixing/mastering engineer and collaborator with Lyrah, added, "Spatial audio can provide an incredibly emotional experience in the right context, but most consumers don't have the playback system to actually be immersed."

"While Apple's headphones do a good job of approximating spatialization, they're not able to fully replicate being within a speaker array, and it mostly seems like a marketing tactic to sell more headphones and differentiate Apple Music," he said.

"I also think that not all kinds of music adapt well to spatial since so much of the mixing and production sounds we've come to love have been developed for stereo," Eckard-Lee said. "With the right listening environment and production, it can be awesome, but what's available to the average consumer hasn't been that compelling so far."

Other spatial audio

Although Apple is certainly pushing the hardest on the Spatial Audio front, it's not the only one.

Amazon Music Unlimited offers a catalog of "thousands" of Spatial Audio songs mastered in Dolby Atmos and Sony 360 Reality Audio. Tidal, as part of its $19.99 a month HiFi Plus tier, offers access to Dolby Atmos and Sony 360 Reality Audio spatial mixes.

As of January 19, 2023, Spotify doesn't offer lossless or spatial audio songs on its streaming service.

Dolby Atmos across other entertainment

Stepping back from Spatial Audio music, the larger picture might be the prevalence of Dolby Atmos in movies and TV shows. Consumers are being trained to associate this Dolby branding with immersive and spatial audio content.

It doesn't really matter that Dolby Atmos for music is not the same thing -- including the detail that cinema releases need to be mixed and mastered at a Dolby Certified studio, while music releases do not.

Dolby Atmos is simply coming to be associated with better audio, even if consumers can't quite articulate what that is.

Spatial Audio is the future of music

We're far enough down this Spatial Audio road that it doesn't look like it'll be abandoned any time soon.

Virtual surround sound
Virtual surround sound


Apple has likely spent a lot of time and money investing in it because it's important for virtual reality where you need to hear sounds in a 360-degree space.

But mostly, it's a differentiator for Apple Music that customers aren't pushing back against.

Anecdotally, Apple Music subscribers seem indifferent to the feature, if anything. It's bundled in their monthly cost and Apple is eating any increased fees associated with licensing these songs.

Lossless audio has been a hard sell because a lot of listeners can distinguish the higher quality past a certain threshold -- and plenty of people don't care enough to try.

Spatial Audio does offer a more practical and potentially tangible marketing angle. That's why it's the future, for Apple, Amazon, Sony, Tidal, Dolby, and a plethora of other companies in the music industry.


Read on AppleInsider
«1

Comments

  • Reply 1 of 36
    You missed the most important part of Spatial Audio.   That being its application in AR/VR.   The user hearing 360 degree sound is essential to the AR/VR experience....
    watto_cobrabeowulfschmidt
  • Reply 2 of 36
    DAalsethDAalseth Posts: 2,836member
    I look at the single BT speaker on my desk that my iP11 drives. Oh well maybe someday.
    watto_cobraJP234baconstang
  • Reply 3 of 36
    emoeller said:
    You missed the most important part of Spatial Audio.   That being its application in AR/VR.   The user hearing 360 degree sound is essential to the AR/VR experience....
    It was only like a sentence long, but re-read under the sub-heading Spacial Audio is the future of music.
    lolliverwatto_cobrabaconstangrezwitstdknox
  • Reply 4 of 36
    I am not getting any difference with Spatial Audio. After a few months I am switching back to Apple Music with it’s still excellent 256kbps AAC which is optimized for Apple products & I have been experiencing since 2015
    watto_cobraslow n easybaconstang
  • Reply 5 of 36
    IMO, it's an overall plus for music listening. And spatial audio mixes will inevitably get remastered down the road just like stereo mixes have been. 
    lolliverwatto_cobra
  • Reply 6 of 36
    cgWerkscgWerks Posts: 2,952member
    AppleInsider said:
    … "While Apple's headphones do a good job of approximating spatialization, they're not able to fully replicate being within a speaker array, and it mostly seems like a marketing tactic to sell more headphones and differentiate Apple Music," he said. …
    This fairly well sums it up in my experience so far. It would be boon to the audio industry if everyone were to try and put ‘Spatial Audio’ systems in to replace their ‘surround sound’ systems, which replaced their ‘stereo systems’ which were often considerably better anyway. Outside audiophiles, the overall quality of listening to music has been on a fairly steady decline, IMO, from the 70s onward, at least in terms of home audio systems. We’ve got lots of lights, bells, and whistles to take the place of quality, though.

    Improvements have primarily come in car stereos and headphones, in terms of the average person having a better experience. I’ve tried Spatial Audio a few times, but find it more annoying than beneficial. I suppose like 3D movies or even real surround sound, there is certain content/context where it is nice, or at least a quick thrill.
    baconstang
  • Reply 7 of 36
    I've come to the conclusion that Apple Music is for people who care about sound quality/technology advancements and Spotify is for kids.
    lolliverwatto_cobratdknox
  • Reply 8 of 36
    I’m not feeling it. Don’t get me wrong, sounds good on MBP enabled with it and other multi-speaker systems but the TWS implementation has SO far to go.

    This reminds me of 3D movies.

    Those stats from Apple are very manipulative. 1 x 1000 is 1000. Just marketing.

    Qualcomm is adding the head-tracking to all its relevant SoC’s this year. It’s definitely a bandwagon. I can still see the wheels coming off.
    cgWerksbaconstanggrandact73
  • Reply 9 of 36
    a poorly engineered recording is just that, poorly engineered. so no effort using spatial audio technology is going to fix that unless the engineer does it right in the first place in the recording studio.

    this goes for “lossless” as well, if the recording is poorly done then you will get poor playback in “lossless” quality.

    unless it is done right at the start, it is just garbage in, garbage out.
    edited January 2023 cgWerksbaconstangmuthuk_vanalingam
  • Reply 10 of 36
    "Lossless audio has been a hard sell because..."

    How about... because neither Apple nor Beats makes headphones or earpods that can playback Apple lossless audio. Even AirPods Max in wired mode can't play lossless. Nor can you tap into lossless audio via the iPhone's Lightning port. Also: the kind of high quality playback systems where you are most likely to hear the differences between lossless and AAC are generally not AirPlay 2 compatible. 
    DAalsethcgWerkslollivermuthuk_vanalingamtdknoxbaconstang
  • Reply 11 of 36
    cgWerkscgWerks Posts: 2,952member
    charlesn said:
    "Lossless audio has been a hard sell because..."

    How about... because neither Apple nor Beats makes headphones or earpods that can playback Apple lossless audio. Even AirPods Max in wired mode can't play lossless. Nor can you tap into lossless audio via the iPhone's Lightning port. Also: the kind of high quality playback systems where you are most likely to hear the differences between lossless and AAC are generally not AirPlay 2 compatible. 
    This ^^^
    Aside from an audiophiles and a few higher-end consumer products, lossless audio is becoming more and more irrelevant. Almost no one could tell the difference anyway, and hearing capabilities aside, the number of systems anyone could tell the difference on is shrinking.
    edited January 2023 baconstang
  • Reply 12 of 36
    cpsrocpsro Posts: 3,212member
    "Lossless audio has been a hard sell because a lot of listeners can distinguish the higher quality past a certain threshold"
    Should be "can't."
    cgWerksbaconstangtdknox
  • Reply 13 of 36
    Mcnaugha2 said:
    I’m not feeling it. Don’t get me wrong, sounds good on MBP enabled with it and other multi-speaker systems but the TWS implementation has SO far to go.

    This reminds me of 3D movies.

    Those stats from Apple are very manipulative. 1 x 1000 is 1000. Just marketing.

    Qualcomm is adding the head-tracking to all its relevant SoC’s this year. It’s definitely a bandwagon. I can still see the wheels coming off.
    I love 3D movies and still watch them. When my current 3D capable TV finally dies I will likely buy a front projector with 3D capability for my basement for this reason. It basically came out too soon in my opinion. They should have come out with 4K first, then come out with 3D after that and it would have been more compelling. They also should have mandated an Active 3D glasses standard at the very beginning so that any glasses would work with any TV. At least it would have stood a better chance and I’m sure it would have lasted longer.
    gregoriusm
  • Reply 14 of 36
    baconstangbaconstang Posts: 1,119member
    For movies, and if you've managed to put together a decent home system, for TV, Atmos is pretty amazing.
    For AR/VR it's pretty essential.
    For listening to popular music in various ways, it will probably be as successful as "Quad" was in the '70's.

    FWIW...I installed dozens of Atmos system at Dolby HQ.  They sound fantastic.
    They are also installed in rooms there to varying degrees of acoustic engineering.
    The price of the speaker systems ran from about $5,000 to over $100,000.  
    A good Atmos system sounds great, but is not a simple matter.

    While I'm here..
    AAC+ encoding sounds fine for most material.  Lossless doesn't help 16/44.1 very much.
    For a step up, 24 bit helps decent recordings. Going from 44.1KHz to 88.2 or 96KHz can improve recordings with lots of HF transients and wide dynamics.
    Both of those things are incumbent on a very nice monitoring system, and good room acoustics.  Or a pricey set of cans.

    BTW...You can successfully compress 24/88 files with ALAC, to keep the file size reasonable.

    edited January 2023 RonnyDaddyrezwitscgWerksgregoriusm
  • Reply 15 of 36
    The few times I’ve experienced it I was stunned at how effective it was. Makes other music or audio seem quite flat by comparison. With AirPods Pro 2 in my ears, I thought the music was coming from my big HomePod stereo pair across the room. Was shocked when I pulled them out of my ears and the sound stopped. 
    darbus69
  • Reply 16 of 36
    AppleZuluAppleZulu Posts: 2,073member
    For movies, and if you've managed to put together a decent home system, for TV, Atmos is pretty amazing.
    For AR/VR it's pretty essential.
    For listening to popular music in various ways, it will probably be as successful as "Quad" was in the '70's.

    FWIW...I installed dozens of Atmos system at Dolby HQ.  They sound fantastic.
    They are also installed in rooms there to varying degrees of acoustic engineering.
    The price of the speaker systems ran from about $5,000 to over $100,000.  
    A good Atmos system sounds great, but is not a simple matter.

    While I'm here..
    AAC+ encoding sounds fine for most material.  Lossless doesn't help 16/44.1 very much.
    For a step up, 24 bit helps decent recordings. Going from 44.1KHz to 88.2 or 96KHz can improve recordings with lots of HF transients and wide dynamics.
    Both of those things are incumbent on a very nice monitoring system, and good room acoustics.  Or a pricey set of cans.
    You can successfully compress 24/88 files with ALAC, to keep the file size reasonable.

    This is wrong. Quad failed in the 70s for the same reason all surround music formats have failed prior to Apple’s spatial audio music venture. 

    All these prior attempts failed because they required specialized equipment to play the content and the content usually cost more than the standard format. The result was too few listeners to warrant the effort and cost of making surround mixes and pressing, packaging and shipping the physical media to stores, and the limited available content inhibited sales of playback gear. Next came the sputtering and download spiral. 

    Even companies like Amazon and Tidal  initially started their forays into streaming spatial audio by following that old failed paradigm. They charged a premium for access to content (with miserably poor UI that actually made it difficult to find said content), and playback was available only on limited gear. 

    Apple’s release of spatial audio came with a customer base of hundreds of millions with playback gear already in their pockets, and it was included in their existing Apple Music subscriptions at no extra charge. In addition to iPhones and AirPods, AppleTVs attached to home theater gear set up for movie surround sound can play back Atmos music, again at no extra charge. 

    So instead of slowly suffocating the format, more and more content is coming out every week, both in new releases and in remixed back catalog materials. Apple once again wasn’t first, but was first to make something not only viable, but highly desired by the public. The others who started with screwed-up business models are now following Apple. In the short time Apple has made spatial audio available, it’s already vastly surpassed every other prior surround format. The conversion to spatial audio looks more like the conversion from mono to stereo, rather than the underwhelming blip that was Quad. 

    For me, the only surprise is that mixing engineers have largely been pretty timid so far, using Atmos only to enhance clarity and presence (which it does very well). Particularly in pop and rock, I’d expect more things to be truly immersive, placing the listener in the middle of a swirling sound stage with instruments and voices coming from in front, to the sides, behind and above, rather than just placing the listener in a great sounding room with the sound stage in front. I expect they’ll loosen up soon. 
    edited January 2023 rezwitsforegoneconclusiongregoriusmtdknox
  • Reply 17 of 36
    I wouldn’t say I “hate” so-called spatial audio, I’d just say that in most cases it’s inappropriate or irrelevant to the way I listen to music. I listen—on headphones at least—because I want to hear the best mix the artist/producer is capable of, and that includes a _fixed sound field_ that plays as intended no matter what the orientation of my head is. If I want to roll around on the ground or turn around to do something else, I should be able to without the entire mix shifting. So I’d put it this way: add whatever gimmicks you want, but _always_ default them off Off, or allow me to switch them off. Not everyone wants to sit completely still to listen to music with the optimal mix.
    baconstangcgWerkskiltedgreen
  • Reply 18 of 36
    AppleZuluAppleZulu Posts: 2,073member
    I wouldn’t say I “hate” so-called spatial audio, I’d just say that in most cases it’s inappropriate or irrelevant to the way I listen to music. I listen—on headphones at least—because I want to hear the best mix the artist/producer is capable of, and that includes a _fixed sound field_ that plays as intended no matter what the orientation of my head is. If I want to roll around on the ground or turn around to do something else, I should be able to without the entire mix shifting. So I’d put it this way: add whatever gimmicks you want, but _always_ default them off Off, or allow me to switch them off. Not everyone wants to sit completely still to listen to music with the optimal mix.
    You can turn off head tracking if you don't like it. Swipe down for the control panel while a spatial audio source is playing. Press and hold the volume slider. The spatial audio control button is bottom right. Spatial audio options are off, fixed, and head tracked. The fixed option keeps the Atmos mix stationary no matter which way you turn. Off sends you back to stereo. Try fixed before you write the whole thing off.
    rezwitscgWerksgregoriusmtdknox
  • Reply 19 of 36
    I love spatial audio. It’s best experienced with a Dolby Atmos surround system though where you can really experience how the sound surrounds and envelopes you and puts you right in the middle of the mix.
    robin huber
  • Reply 20 of 36
    sflagelsflagel Posts: 825member
    I feel like I am the only one who doesn’t get it, but what is the difference between Spatial Audio and Dolby Atmos Audio? 

    And what is the difference on iPhones between the “Automatic” setting and “All”. It seems that “All” plays Spatial Audio on all headphones; while “Automatic” restrict Spatial Audio to AirPods and Beats; why?
Sign In or Register to comment.