Audio: Listen to this article.
I have been an audiophile since the 1980’s when I first pieced together my first semi serious system once I graduated from law school. Nevertheless, I have always been a fan of multichannel audio as well, mostly experienced through a home theater system. For some reason, home theater seems to have been a hard sell to some audiophiles who prefer to only listen to music the old fashion way, through a 2 channel stereo rig. Some even prefer mono. I can certainly understand the appeal of stereo, as two channel can give a very effective glimpse into the recording venue and create a realistic soundstage. Some of the early multichannel mixes tended to be very gimmicky and off putting to stereo purists. I can recall some of the first multichannel SACDs where the horns would come out of the rear speakers for example. I hated those. But then there would be releases such as Sacred Feast on DMP that were very immersive, placing you right in the church. However, for me, those releases were few and far between. I do recall fondly the Billy Joel Live on Long Island in Beta HiFi which was very good, even in the primitive days of Dolby Surround, with two fronts and two rear channels. When done well, even back then, it added a certain something, at least for me, that two channel either lacked or which required expensive equipment. Such equipment was just too much of a stretch to purchase for someone just starting their career as I was.
I will admit that I was fortunate that once married and settled into suburban life with two kids etc., I was able to have a separate room for two channel and one for home theater. I was able to settle on my 2 channel system fairly early, in terms of shall I say brand loyalty as well as some of the equipment. Other than sending my amp in to be rebuilt which I have written about before and changing DACs as that technology advanced, my 2 channel system has been the same since 1997. Home theater? Not so much as home theater tech improved rather quickly, especially display technology. As my room has two windows, projectors were never an option as I wanted to watch movies and TVs during the day, not just at night. Cost too was always a factor, so I stuck with TVs, from the likes of Sony, Proton, Tera and then Panasonic. Then along came high definition which completely changed the display landscape, both in terms of size and performance. My HT room was always small about 10 feet by 15 feet which somewhat limited the size of the display I could use in the room or mount on the wall. As soon as I could kind of afford it, I purchased a Pioneer Elite Kuro 60” 141 plasma display which had a mind blowing picture back in the Noughties. It certainly did have its drawbacks such as its weight and how much heat it gave off. It could be a tough watch in the summer, sort of like those Krell amps from yesteryear. Fortunately, tech moved on and larger and better displays became available. However, aging issues moved in as I got older and I developed cataracts in both eyes. As a result, I could no longer properly enjoy the picture from my seating position although the sound was still good. I was scheduled to be evaluated for my first cataract surgery at the time Covid hit and shut down that possibility for a long while. Two years later and over a span of four months, I had both eyes done and could now see better than I ever have been. I was even able to see without glasses, which I had been wearing since the 1960’s. The first thing I did, other than buying a cool set of Ray Bans, was to head up to Scarsdale New York to my friend Robert Zohn at Value Electronics to check out the latest OLEDs. While I had for years hankered for an OLED, I was frankly shocked at how much better OLEDs had gotten in a span of six years which is when I last checked them out seriously. Not only did the screen sizes get bigger, the picture quality improved substantially. Even better, the prices dropped appreciably. I quickly ran the purchase past the one person finance committee after I settled on the 83 inch Sony Master Series A90j which I purchased from Robert. Many thanks to my local retailer, Main Line Sound and Vision, who did a stellar install and even as important, carried off that beast of a plasma which I assumed was to be recycled. I never would have been able to dispose of that set on my own.
Once the display was in place, I just had to add Dolby Atmos to the mix. I had heard Atmos demos up at Dolby’s facility in Manhattan when the home version of Atmos was rolled out and was very impressed. In meeting with Chris Connaker when we attended the Schiit/Emotiva Shootout in Austin, he impressed on me in no uncertain terms, that I needed to add Atmos, but not just for movies but for Immersive audio. I had not really thought about immersive audio before, just movies. But the more I looked into immersive audio, I decided that Chris was right, as he sometimes is! The problem was having to go back before the finance committee so soon. Yes, that took some convincing but after a few months and laying a ton of ground work, I prevailed! Remember guys, happy wife, happy life!
While I knew that movie soundtracks could be truly superb, it is amazing how fantastic Atmos Music could be. An audiophile friend of mine suggested that I come over to experience it myself on his new system. I was blown away pure and simple. That experience convinced me that one, I needed Atmos music and two, to pick an Anthem AVR as I was impressed with the sound of his unit compared to others I had heard. Even more, their room correction software appeared to be a cut above the others I had some familiarity with like Audyssey and Dirac. Once that was decided, I had to decide on the speaker configuration, ie 7.1.2 or something else. In consultation with others on this forum and elsewhere, I decided on a 5.1.2 system. I was happy with the speakers and sub I had and decided to add two RSL in ceiling speakers. The Rogers Sound Lab speakers appeared to be well made with a slimmer form factor making in ceiling installs a bit easier. The price was also very reasonable. They are in fact, a great value compared to the competition. That form factor can be very important as one never knows what duct work or worse, water pipes, you will run into when cutting holes in ceiling drywall. As I already had an older Anthem MCA 5 amp, I decided on the Anthem 8k capable MRX 540 AVR just to be future proof. All of the HDMI cabling is 8k certified as well. As I use the 5 pre out channels to drive the front three speakers and the in ceiling speakers I only use the AVR to drive the rears. Thanks to Aaron at Now Listen Hear in Harrisburg for selling me the Anthem and providing excellent service.
Once I installed everything, again with the help of Main Line S & V, it was movie time. Great Atmos mixes such as Blade Runner and Top Gun Maverick on 4K Ultra Blu Ray, were transformative for me in terms of what impact and shear enjoyment Atmos added to the home theater experience. After enjoying films for a couple of weeks, it was time to venture into Atmos Music as the stuff I was able to hear streaming through Apple Music was sublime. In particular I was very impressed with what the Atmos mixes of Samara Joy’s Linger Awhile and John Coltrane’s Blue Train did to the enjoyment of those recordings. I have never heard Blue Train sound this good on any 2 channel system, regardless of price. The entire band was splayed out in front of you left to right, so close that you felt like you could reach out and touch them. Each musician had their own place in space in front of you. It was if you were in the recording space with them. While the two channel mix of that album is great, it has a more distant sound. Sure the sound of the studio is captured, but it is more remote, more like looking through a window from outside rather than being in the room. On the Atmos mix, you still have that sense of space, but the musicians are moved closer to you and spaced about in front of you. Gone is the sense of two speakers producing the sound which is replaced by an integrated sound field independent of speakers that wraps both around you and above you. You are, in other words, in the room. It is really that phenomenal. The same is true of the Samara Joy recording. This is a much better experience than the two channel 24/96 release. The musicians take up the entire space before you, with the piano to the left, the drums in the center and the bass to the left. Samara is positioned a few feet in front of the band, again as it would be in a live venue. Even better, with the seemless integration of the subwoofer, the bass is fuller, tighter, more dynamic without even a hint of bloat.
Don’t get me wrong, not all Atmos mixes are created equal. Some were gimmicky, others sounded thin and really bright and frankly, unlistenable. But when done right, the fidelity and sense of space is much more involving than stereo. The big issue for me with Atmos music is the lack of truly lossless Atmos downloadable music as I prefer to own my music. There are download sites such as Immersive Audio Album that use MKV files. The issue with MKV is that it adds a whole other level of complexity to playback that I did not expect. Silly me, I thought I could download them to a USB stick and play them through my 4K Blu ray player. Nope, sorry, they would not play the files I downloaded. Thankfully, we have resources available such as this website and Chris Connaker in particular to guide your way through the uncharted waters that is Atmos Music playback. At Chris’s suggestion, I purchased the NVIDIA Shield Pro, reformatted an old 1TB hard drive, hooked up the NVIDIA to the Anthem via HDMI and I was off to the races. Chris’s primer here on playing MKV files (link) is a godsend, and enabled an old coot like me to safely navigate these waters. Thank you Chris!
It is amazing what is in these MKV files. There are many mixes besides Atmos, ranging from Stereo to 5.1 and 7.1 DTS Master Audio found on Blu rays. The first album I was able to download was Bob James Feel Like Makin’ Live. This is a live album in the sense that the trio went in the studio and hammered out the tracks as if they were playing in a club. It is a fine album featuring Bob James’ most well known tunes such as Angela and West Chester Lady as well as covers such as Elton John’s Rocket Man and John Coltrane’s Nardis. I have this album in stereo 24/192 and it is very good but the Atmos treatment takes it to a whole other level, adding more of a sense of space and a floor to ceiling sound field. As with the Samara Joy album, the Atmos Mix brings the trio forward in the space and makes them seem larger, more immediate. The keyboards, drums and bass are stretched before you from left to right but more naturally so than the two channel mix. The Atmos Mix is truly demo material for what this format can do for a rather simple recording.
Another Atmos mix that really thrilled me was the Blu ray release of John Williams and the Vienna Philharmonic on DG. The Blu ray features a 1080p video capture of the concert which looks fabulous. It isn’t 4K but it is darn good. It also features a plethora of sound tracks but the clear winner is the Atmos track. This mix places you right in the first few rows of the concert hall in Vienna. The music has an incredible sense of dynamics and space with incredible yet very natural sounding detail. The sound makes John Williams classic films scores come alive, in a way no two channel mix can. The showstopper is The Imperial March from The Empire Strikes back. It brought the house down and gives me chills each and every time I listen. It is that good.
While there is not enough Atmos Music tracks available for download, there are some great physical media releases like Yello’s Point on Pure Audio Blu ray to enjoy. Yello is great fun and features a tremendous use of the Atmos format. Other favs are the Atmos mix on Abbey Road and the Atmos mix on Eric Clapton’s Lady in the Balcony. The Abbey Road mix is like hearing that album for the first time. The Clapton release is available on Ultra HD 4K Blu ray and was shot in 4K and color graded with HDR 10. That is a win win. Great sound AND video!
I know the complexity of adding Atmos can seem daunting. Moe speakers, moe electronics, moe money. Three guys named Moe if you will. However, when done right, Atmos can, in this writer’s opinion, take music playback to another level of engagement that stereo can only aspire to. Even better, you don’t have to spend huge amounts of money on speakers and electronics to get this level of performance. It works it’s magic on even modest setups. The fact that you can easily control for room issues is an even greater added bonus. I have no doubt that Atmos music will remain a rather niche format and a tough sell to many given its complexity but I would implore all music lovers to give this format a try. If you already have a home theater system with height speakers, it is for me, a no brainer. I think you will be very glad you did. I am so thankful for Chris pushing me to try Atmos music. As Chris would say, “Love it”!