Dolby Atmos has been a part of movies for over a decade, but it's still early days for Atmos music. Early days more so for consumers than professionals creating music, but early days for both nonetheless. Fortunately, the mainstream is well ahead of audiophiles when it comes to recognizing that Atmos music even exists. I say fortunately because changes to audio technology have a far better chance of succeeding when they come from the mass market, rather than the class market. Have you ever tried rolling a boulder uphill? HiFi companies are great at taking existing technology and making it perform at the highest levels. They aren't so great at getting the mass market to adopt what many consider esoteric ideas. Based on this, and many other factors, I believe we are in a good position.
Audiophiles, myself included, who think XRCD, MFSL, SACD, DVD-Audio, High Resolution PCM, DSD or album releases using any of the other technologies, can be incredible, should run, not walk, to hear a proper Atmos music demonstration. Even the most uninterested listener, who may hear DSD or a great high resolution remaster, and not notice a real difference, will immediately hear the difference and likely understand the power of Atmos music after a proper demo. Just last weekend, my 10 year old daughter had a friend over. Before the friend arrived, my daughter asked if the two of them could listen to Atmos. Shortly after she arrived, they ran upstairs to my listening room asking, "Can we listen to Atmos?" Anyone wondering how to get more of the youth into our wonderful HiFi hobby, has his/her answer right there.
I'm extremely fortunate in that I listen to Atmos music through an amazing, but quite expensive, audio system. Every day I find new albums mixed in Atmos and I pinch myself because listening is such a fantastic experience. I'm very happy that Audiophile Style writer @bobfa has enthusiastically jumped in with both feet, researching Atmos music, testing it on headphones, and working to install a reasonably priced 7.1.4 system in his house. He'll update all of us along the way through a series of articles about his journey.
Speaking of headphones, they are obviously the easiest way to experience Atmos music. An iPhone and a pair of AirPods Pro ($249) will get people up and running. Using such a system is how most people hear Atmos music for the first time and why most people misunderstand Atmos and its benefits. Recently music industry writer and podcaster Bob Lefsetz interviewed Alan Parsons. When discussing Atmos music Bob said the vocals are mixed too low. Given that Dolby doesn't dictate vocal levels for Atmos mixes, there's no reason vocals have to be recessed, and based on my experience, this perception has a lot to do with the headphone system Bob uses.
The headphone experience is only going to get better, a lot better. Current limiting factors are battery and processing power in most headphones and mobile devices. This is evidenced by the amazing ability of products like the Smyth Research Realiser A16, to reproduce up to 16 channels of immersive audio (Atmos, Auro, DTS). The A16 isn't hindered by battery or processing power, and delivers an experience many times better than something like an iPhone and AirPods Pro.
In addition, new driver technology is going to enable larger batteries in smaller spaces and use less power than the drivers used today. Silicon drivers from xMEMS may even enable companies such as Apple to place multiple channels worth of drivers inside a pair of AirPods Max, for an incredible Atmos music experience.
Here are a couple videos showing why I believe the headphone experience is going to get much better.
Smyth Research Realizer A16
This week Apple, Dolby, and Mercedes announced Atmos music capabilities in several Mercedes models. "Dolby Atmos will first be available in the Mercedes‑Maybach S‑Class, the Mercedes-Benz S-Class as well as the EQE, EQE SUV, EQS and EQS SUV." Sure, not the most affordable models, but it's a great start. These models with the optional Burmester high end audio system, will stream Atmos music from Apple. I can't wait to get inside and give one a listen.
Tim Stevens form Ars Technica is a big fan - Why Dolby Atmos in a car is more than a gimmick.
A bit more hidden than the Mercedes announcement, is the Polestar 3's Dolby Atmos music capability. The 3 with optional B&W audio system, will play Atmos music. I talked with a representative from Polestar about this, because the car's Android Auto operating system seems antithetical to Atmos at the moment, and was told the cars are a ways away from being built. A demo sometime late 2023 may be possible.
Current Atmos Music Favorites
I've listened to more music lately, through my Atmos system, than I ever did through my two channel system. Plus, much of the music I'm listening to is music I either tried to like, but didn't, or music I bypassed because I didn't think I'd like it. This includes albums from Frank Zappa and even a Country artist or two. Strange times indeed. Below are some gems from Apple Music.
Because a good Atmos mix provides such a different listening experience that really can't be fairly compared to a stereo mix, I often listen to albums just because they are available in Atmos. The difference isn't like a new remaster or high resolution version, it's an immersive apple to a stereo orange. Take for example Frank Zappa's album Grand Wazoo. I tried my hardest to like Frank Zappa. When his catalog was released in high resolution, I asked friends where to start, and jumped right in. After a week or so, I jumped right out. The music wasn't for me, or so I thought.
Recently the Atmos mix of Grand Wazoo was released to streaming services, before the deluxe edition box set with Blu-ray containing the lossless TrueHD Atmos version, is released. Based on some positive reviews, I decided to give it another spin, solely because it's in Atmos. Wow, this album is fantastic in Atmos. The music and musicianship come through in ways that I couldn't grasp via the stereo version. The album contains some seriously complex compositions, that are very enjoyable and sound great. To me, the stereo version sounds like the music was made complex just to be complex. The Atmos version has such an expanded palette in which to place instruments, that they are all accessible and enable the listener to much better understand what's going on. Squeezing all of this musical mastery into two speakers doesn't do it justice in the least.
The Blu-ray containing a lossless TrueHD Atmos mix of Grand Wazoo and Wake/Jawaka is available as a presale right now. I've ordered one and look forward to receiving it.
Seal's 1991 self-titled album has been a favorite of mine since it was released. The track Crazy was played on the radio more times than I care to remember, but was never one of my top picks on the album. The best track, by far, is called Killer. I can't get enough of the Atmos version of this track. The vocal focus is always in the front, as is the main drum beat. Other sounds emanate from all over the room, in a way that compliments the song tremendously. The side channels are used heavily throughout the track, in an enveloping way and reinforcing the front performance. At about 1:50 into the track, the mix contains percussion in the rear and height channels that expands the soundstage in the neatest way. This is incredibly far from gimmicky, rather it raises the stage and drives home the immersive effect. I've said this over and over, but it bears repeating, an Atmos music mix like this really needs to be experienced to fully understand. One can't imagine a color s/he has never seen.
The War On Drugs album I Don't Live Here Anymore has a much more reserved Atmos mix than that of Seal, but it also serves the music very well. On my favorite track, Living Proof, the main focus is the front, with most content in the left and right channels. The piano however is very much in the side channels throughout the opening couple minutes. This really expands the soundstage in a beautiful way. When the electric guitar kicks in for the lat minute of the song, it's in the side, front, and front height channels quite a bit. The makes the soundstage massive and enveloping from my listening position to the front (floor to ceiling). It's a beautiful song, made even better through technology.
Another band that many of my friends love, and I tried my hardest to like over the years, is Grateful Dead. Sure, I like Touch of Gray, but that song is incredibly accessible. The rest of GD's catalog remained a bit to out-there for me, until American Beauty was released in Atmos. I thought there was never a better time to attempt to get into the band than now. It worked! I love the entire album so much I even listen to the stereo version in the car now. I think the Atmos mix really broke out the individuals and instruments for me, so much so that understand the music and can pick out items and enjoy it as a whole, very easily now.
Grateful Dead has a lot going on in its seemingly simplistic music. The Atmos three dimensional sound palette is perfect for this band because every instrument is much better separated, not always surrounding the listener, but in its own space. On Attics of My Life, things are taking a step further, with supporting vocals coming from the height channels. Each of my four height channels on the ceiling has a vocal track, raining down vocal harmonies. The track still retains focus up front, but the height channels are used so beautifully they could easily be seen as a major focal point on much of the track.
Honorable Mention 1 goes to Talking Heads album Speaking In Tongues. I'm not a fan of the music, but the Atmos mix of Burning Down The House is impossible to ignore. It's brilliant.
Honorable Mention 2 goes to Rhiannon Giddens album Freedom Highway. It's another great Atmos mix that serves the music very well. Nothing too "crazy" but plenty of content to immerse the listener.
Last Note: Podcasts are now available in Atmos. Wondery studio offers Atmos mixes, of some podcasts, through its iOS app. If you haven't heard Wondery's productions, such as Blood Ties, you should know they aren't just a couple guys talking. They are full-on "movies" without video. Very well done, theater of the mind. I installed the app on my Mac Mini (M1) and output the audio through my main Atmos system via Ravenna. So far I've got 5.1 audio working, and I suspect the audio isn't correctly being decoded by the macOS built-in Atmos DD+ decoder. The Atmos mix plays just fine on an iPhone. Again, this is early days.
Jeff Schmidt is the audio engineer who created the Atmos podcast mixes. He has an interesting post on his site about getting into Atmos production and his studio system - Link.
Atmos music has really changed my life. Supplementing my two channel listening with a completely different and immersive option is truly a game changer, in a way that makes all other "game changers" deserved of quotation marks. Atmos music is the real deal that even the most cynical of listeners can easily identify, if not thoroughly enjoy. This really is the music industry's HDTV moment. Everyone who saw HDTV for the first time, after living with standard definition, new immediately that it was something different and special. If that initial experience would've been had on a mobile phone, I'm not so sure the response would've been as enthusiastic. The same can be said for Atmos music. If you can, experience it on a system with loudspeakers or at least an advanced headphone system like the Smyth Realiser A16, it will be unforgettable.
Complete Audio System Details with Measurements - https://audiophile.style/system