It’s rare for me to spend most of my day on the phone with other audio writers, discussing the latest news, but that’s what happened on May 17, the day Apple announced it would add lossless audio and Dolby Atmos to the Apple Music streaming service at no extra charge. Unlike lossless audio,
which merely promises improved sound quality
, Atmos is touted as a revolution in music recording and reproduction. By creating a sense of sonic immersion, with sound appearing to come from around and above the listener rather than from a pair of speakers or a set of headphones,
offers the potential for more realistic simulations of live concerts and for creative effects normally reserved for movie soundtracks.
Even though Atmos music has been available on the
streaming services for a year and a half, it garnered little attention until Apple’s announcement, which left many people wondering what exactly Atmos music is and how they could get it. Fortunately, a few weeks before the coronavirus pandemic hit, I got an extensive Atmos music demo from Dolby in its state-of-the-art Hollywood theater, so I already understood how the technology worked and how dazzling—and sometimes dull—Atmos music can sound.
What is Atmos spatial audio?
Dolby Atmos technology can reproduce sound from any and every direction—not only all around the listener but also overhead. When used effectively, Atmos can make a living room sound like a forest in springtime, a bustling avenue in Manhattan, or
seat G108 at Carnegie Hall (PDF)
. Dolby created Atmos primarily to add sounds coming from speakers in the ceiling, to deliver more convincing simulations of movie sound effects such as rainstorms and airplanes flying overhead. Atmos has been used for movies since 2012 and is often available on Blu-ray soundtracks and through many video-streaming platforms. Now Dolby is promoting Atmos for music production, whether to create a more realistic concert-hall ambience or to dazzle the listener with sounds flying overhead. A few technologies, including
Sony 360 Reality Audio
, compete with Atmos, but none is as prevalent as Atmos, especially after Apple’s announcement.
(Full disclosure: I worked as a marketing manager at Dolby from 2000 to 2002, but I have no financial interest in the company or regular contact with any of its employees.)
Atmos allows recording engineers to add sonic “objects” to conventional 5.1- or 7.1-channel surround-sound productions (which is why people sometimes call it “object-based audio”). The objects consist of a sound—from a voice to an instrument to a sound effect—plus instructions on which direction the sound should come from and whether it should stay in place or move around the listener.
Atmos collects all of those sonic elements and then processes them to sound their best on whatever audio system you’re using—whether it’s a surround-sound speaker system, a soundbar, the speakers built into an iPad, or a wireless speaker such as the Amazon Echo Studio, which uses an upward-firing speaker to create ambience. Atmos can also process headphone sound to trick a listener into thinking they’re hearing speakers all around them.
The concept is intriguing. However, in our experience testing Atmos, we’ve found that the technology delivers its most realistic effects when played through front and rear speakers and actual ceiling-mounted overhead speakers; the simulations of overhead sounds that it creates for simpler systems are rarely as convincing.
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How Apple uses Atmos
Atmos is now supported by most Apple devices, including iPhones and iPads running iOS 14.6, Mac computers running macOS 11.4, and Apple TV 4K streaming boxes running tvOS 14.6. Apple’s website includes
on how to activate Atmos on these devices.
Using the terms “Dolby Atmos” and “spatial audio” interchangeably, the Apple Music app features playlists of spatial audio in various genres, including hip-hop, pop, country, rock, jazz, and classical. You’ll find everything from decades-old classics such as The Rolling Stones’s “Angie” to recent hits from Olivia Rodrigo and The Weeknd. But since Atmos music is relatively new and producing Atmos mixes demands an extra investment of time and money, you probably won’t find most of your favorite music in the format. However, Atmos is or will soon be available for most of the digital-audio-workstation software now used to record and mix music, and we’re seeing a lot of buzz about Atmos in music-production publications such as
, so many new albums are likely to be released in Atmos.
Apple stresses that the Apple Music app’s Atmos feature works best in concert with Apple and
that use Apple’s W1 or H1 chips, including the
Apple AirPods Pro
. According to Apple, because the app knows the identity of these headphones when it’s connected to them, it can optimize the sound for the best Atmos effect.
However, Atmos works with any
headphones, although the sense of envelopment will vary depending on the headphones and on the characteristics of the listener’s hearing. Whether other headphone brands will optimize their headphones for Atmos is anyone’s guess.
This fall, Apple plans to add the ability for the app’s processing to access the head-tracking capabilities in the AirPods Pro and AirPods Max. With this feature, the headphones will sense when the listener turns their head and will adjust the sound so that its direction remains consistent and doesn’t move along with the listener’s head, as it does with conventional headphones. Thus, it’s more like hearing a live performance or a surround-sound system.
How does Atmos sound?
Wirecutter senior staff writer and headphone expert Lauren Dragan and I listened to the Atmos playlists from Apple Music through a few different sound systems. During our listening, we switched Atmos on and off through the app, and we also compared the Apple Music Atmos mixes with stereo mixes from Spotify and Qobuz.
It’s important to note that Atmos doesn’t have a sound of its own; like MP3 and CD, it’s just a technology for distributing audio. The sound is determined by the decisions producers make in the studio mixing process. As a result, the appeal of Atmos music can vary tremendously from tune to tune.
Although headphones will probably be the most common way people listen to Atmos, we first wanted to hear how Atmos music would sound on the type of gear it’s typically mixed for: a full surround-sound system. So we connected an Apple TV 4K media streamer (currently the only device that can stream Atmos through HDMI) to a Sony STR-ZA5000ES audio/video receiver, using a set of ELAC Debut 2.0 speakers (the runner-up in our
best surround-sound speaker system guide
) including four upward-firing ELAC DA42-BK Atmos-enabled speakers, as well as a Rogersound SW10S subwoofer (the top pick in our
best high-performance subwoofer guide
). I also replaced the surround-sound system with a Samsung HW-Q900A Atmos-enabled soundbar, which creates a height effect with two built-in upward-firing speakers, so that I could see how the soundbar compared with the full surround-sound system.
Lauren and I agreed that, through the full surround-sound system, some of the Atmos recordings on Apple Music sounded pretty great. Our favorites were modern electronic recordings that had sounds whizzing around and above us, creating an exciting effect that a lot of listeners are likely to enjoy, assuming enough of them will go to the trouble and expense to set up a system to hear music this way. Among the most captivating Atmos music mixes we heard were Tiësto & Sevenn’s “Boom,” St. Vincent’s “Pay Your Way in Pain,” and Kanye West’s “Black Skinhead.” We also experienced a few that achieved an uncanny sense of natural ambience, such as saxophonist Wayne Shorter’s “Infant Eyes,” which sounded as if we were standing in a large recording studio about 12 feet from the band. I was surprised to hear that these mixes sounded almost as exciting and enveloping through the Samsung HW-Q900A soundbar, even though it was only simulating the surround-sound and overhead effects.
Although some music sounded very good with Atmos, most of the mixes didn’t sound much better than they would have if we had engaged one of the receiver’s built-in surround-sound modes. Many mixes seemed unfocused and overly diffused, often with the sound of a vocalist spread out over a large area rather than centered in front of us. Even some mixes that initially excited our ears soon lost their appeal. “Oh, they moved that sound into one of the rear speakers. Neat,” Lauren deadpanned when I played “Black Skinhead” for her.
Next, we tried listening to Atmos through headphones, including the AirPods Max, AirPods Pro, and several non-Apple headphones, namely the HiFiMan Deva, Beyerdynamic T5, and EarFun Free 2. Our favorite Atmos mixes from the surround-sound demo definitely sounded exciting and enveloping through the AirPods Max and AirPods Pro—perhaps a bit more so than with the other headphones we tried, but the improvement was subtle at most. During a long dog walk wearing the AirPods Max headphones, I found myself generally preferring to leave Atmos turned on all the time because it always made the sound a little more spacious, and I occasionally heard a dramatic sense of ambience and even a few objects seeming to whiz around my head.
But with many tunes, the effect was more muted, and it was hard to tell the Atmos mixes from the stereo mixes. The mediocre, unfocused Atmos mixes sounded worse than they did through the speakers because the level of the vocals tended to drop slightly relative to the stereo mix, making it harder for us to appreciate the vocalists’ expression and tone.
Is Atmos the future of music?
Surround-sound music is not a new idea. In fact, music releases mixed in surround sound debuted two decades ago (promoting the technology was part of my job at Dolby). But at the time it won over few fans, except perhaps on music-video discs and in movie soundtracks, and after about three years, it had nearly vanished. Much of that may be due to the fact that the disc players for surround-sound music launched at about $1,000, the discs typically cost $25 each, the setup was complicated, and the then-new iPod stole music fans’ attention.
Atmos music is different in that subscribers to Apple Music or Amazon Music can try it at no extra charge, it works with any set of headphones, and for now, at least, it has more support from the music industry. Apple hopes that because it has made Atmos the default setting in the Apple Music app, most listeners will use Atmos and come to expect the extra sense of ambience it offers.
Judging from our initial tests, we haven’t heard much from Atmos spatial audio that we think will get listeners excited. We hope music producers will learn their way around Atmos better, figuring out how to make the sound more compelling while keeping the presentation more consistent from speakers to headphones.