Audio: Listen to this article.
Atmos? We don’t need no stinking Atmos.
From the beginning, I told Chris Connaker that writing about a 12-channel Atmos system would appeal to very few audiophiles. It’s hard enough to afford a highly satisfying two-channel system let alone one that requires additional amplifiers, speakers, dacs, and cables. And how many of us have a room (or the incredibly tolerant wife) to accommodate such a system?
Full disclosure: I have never heard a 12- or 16-channel Atmos system. Chris has invited me to his home to listen and, so far, I haven’t taken him up on his very kind offer. I’m sure that’s my loss.
For those who contend that Atmos is not true-to-the-source, I have to ask, “What is the source?” The flat master, the CD, vinyl, or one of multiple streaming versions? What about first pressings, subsequent pressings, remastered or even upsampled versions? Which of those options is TTTS? The truth is, we don’t care about being true to the source nearly as much as we care to hear the sound we like.
If that weren’t true, there wouldn’t be highly regarded tube amplifiers which introduce several percentage points of distortion into the audio chain. I’ve already mentioned upsampling which, depending on the software and settings used, can create a variety of sonic results. And what about the variety of speakers employing various technologies (horn, ribbon, electrostatic, dynamic cone, etc.) each with different sonic characters and their own following?
Are there bad Atmos recordings? Absolutely and I have some. I also have my share of bad stereo recordings. Atmos is not the issue nearly as much as the care and artistry used in mastering and mixing the final recorded product.
So, if I haven’t heard a full-fledged Atmos system, why am I writing about Atmos?
Because Chris opened my eyes to a very compelling Atmos option which is almost never discussed: Two-channel Atmos. Now you’re probably thinking, “Two-channel Atmos? That makes as much sense as a two-dimensional hologram. What could be the benefit of two-channel Atmos?”
The answer is, most 2-channel Atmos recordings I’ve heard are more analog sounding and have a more appealing soundstage than their traditional stereo counterparts. Against my favorite non-Atmos albums, I keep gravitating to my 2-channel Atmos albums.
Why would this be? For one, Atmos is, by design, to be played not only in 12 or even 16-channel versions but in 2-channels. The two-channel product is not an “edited” version of the traditional Atmos album (as when a multi-channel file is downmixed to two channels by JRiver or similar programs) but pre-determined to meet Atmos standards. The process of creating an Atmos album is detailed here: link.
Second, while Atmos files can be compressed, Apple is enforcing a set of audio quality standards, including requiring the use of uncompressed files, which Tidal and Amazon are likely to uphold. Where among these standards come the improved sound I’m hearing, I don’t know.
What are the downsides of two-channel Atmos?
There are several.
First, while there are sites which host Atmos files, the albums are often priced above that of the average album download and the selection is limited.
Second, you can find additional albums on Bluray discs but you have to carefully search for the Atmos versions, some being part of a deluxe box set which can be quite expensive. Depending on your requirements, the discs might require ripping. And here again, the selection is very limited.
Then there’s the required Dolby decoding software which costs $400.
If your eyes haven’t yet dimmed on the prospect of acquiring two-channel Atmos albums, even the downloaded files require conversion.
As with so many aspects of this wonderful hobby, getting the very best sound is often expensive and time consuming. But I love the journey. When I was a teen, the only way to improve my system was to buy another component. Today, we have so many more options to explore, many of them delivering almost instant gratification such as a new software program or even an adjusted software setting. I’m placing Atmos in that category.
Finally, you might be thinking, “Sure, I’ll just spend $400 on the Dolby decoder, purchase an Atmos album, and learn how to create a 2-channel album all so I can decide whether I like 2-channel Atmos. Nope. Not necessary. Here’s a one-minute clip of the first track of a truly outstanding album (A Shade of Blue by the Tsuyoshi Yamamoto Trio) (download link, please unzip). It’s a 24/48 file in flac uncompressed format. Please download the sample as soon as you can as I’m not sure how long it will be available.
I chose this album for a number of reasons. First, the recording is excellent. Second, as it’s on both Qobuz and Tidal, subscribers will have an opportunity to compare the downloaded file to the streaming versions. Finally, if you like jazz, it doesn’t get much better than this. You will notice the bass is enhanced on the Atmos version. I believe that’s a mastering or mixing choice rather an inherent feature of Atmos. As I’ve mentioned, the aspects to listen for are the way in which the instruments are separated and distinct and even more, the natural sound of the album.
Please audition the uploaded sample and post your opinions, good, bad, or otherwise. I believe many who have criticized Atmos (as the title of this article not so subtly suggests) will change their opinion and will even find the time and expense of acquiring 2-channel Atmos albums to be well worth it.