Audio: Listen to this article.
Ten thousand hours it isn’t, but the time I’ve spent listening to immersive audio over the past couple of years is well over two thousand hours. In addition, I’ve been constantly researching it, getting educated about it, and talking to people creating it. I’ve also spent more money on music in the last couple of years, than in the previous ten years combined. All of this has given me a solid foundation from which I enjoy helping music lovers discover the possibilities of immersive audio.
Based on my first-hand experience, immersive audio is the future. More specifically, Dolby Atmos is the immersive format of the future for music. I hope other formats remain and cater to those of us who love them, as a single music format would stifle innovation, remove consumer choice, and unnecessarily upset many people. For example, Morten Lindberg’s discrete immersive releases in twelve-channel DXD are astounding. They should always be the high-quality bar for which those who care about quality aim. The same goes for straight-up stereo. People have loved it since the late 1950s, and they should be able to continue to love it long into the future.
MQA, on the other hand, publicly stated its goal of replacing all music formats with a single deliverable. I don’t believe that is good for anyone other than MQA. Now that it’s clear MQA won’t replace the different formats and Tidal has begun offering pure PCM FLAC, I hope MQA sticks around. It’s very evident that some people love it. They should be able to enjoy it as they see fit. Live and let listen.
Back to Dolby Atmos and immersive audio, but first, a short detour further back to the 1950s. When the music and audio industries introduced stereo in the late 1950s, the reaction was as human as one can imagine. Some loved it, some hated it, and some shouted about a conspiracy to sell more equipment and the same albums over again. Today, I don’t know many people who would voluntarily go back to mono.
Now that immersive audio is finally here, every marketing agency uses the term immersive for everything under the sun, and immersive music has its share of people who love it and people who hate it. Who could’ve seen this coming? Looking back in time is the surest way to predict the future, so anyone could’ve predicted we’d be in this position. In a way, it’s comforting because we have a good idea of how it will play out and how best to educate everyone so they can make well informed-decisions rather than emotional reactions.
My embrace of immersive audio and Dolby Atmos in all its forms is rooted in education and experience. Others embracing Dolby Atmos are also wisely looking to the future, as audiophiles should be. “Tomorrow I will probably take my F-150 Ford Lightning to the new surf shack where I am working with Niko, my ‘Volume Dealers,’ partner, on making all my old albums in Dolby Atmos / Apple Spatial so the next generation can hear them…” Said Neil Young earlier this year. According to Giles Martin, one of his primary goals for the Atmos mix of The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds was to get younger generations to listen to the album. The Beach Boys “aren’t listened to enough,” and Pet Sounds “has now been lost on a generation.” Said Martin.
I have first-hand experience with the results of Dolby Atmos streaming on a younger generation. My eleven-year-old daughter, far from an audiophile, wants to hear two things when listening to music: Taylor’s Versions and Dolby Atmos versions. Fortunately, Taylor’s Versions are all in Dolby Atmos, so all is right in the world when these albums are playing.
When a new album of interest is released on Apple Music, my daughter asks if she can hear the Atmos version in my listening room. She NEVER asks to listen to a stereo album in my listening room, and, in fact, she only comes up to my space for Atmos and the second bathroom in our 1940s house. When one of her friends slept over, she HAD to bring her upstairs to stream Atmos from Apple Music. They both requested multiple songs, showing excitement when there was an Atmos version and disappointment when stereo sound only emanated from the front two channels.
My daughter has also claimed to hear Atmos in our car, which definitely doesn’t support it, by saying, “Dad, I hear some different stuff in this speaker back here. It must be Atmos.” I delivered the disappointing truth to her, but inside, I reveled in the fact that she noticed details and quality in the music, something about which many mainstream pundits suggest nobody cares.
While I had to break the non-Atmos news to my daughter in the car, for now anyway, I would never tell her, any other music lover, or fellow audiophile that the highest resolution currently available for Atmos streaming is terrible and should cease to exist. In the same way that I remember my first alcoholic beverage and the foolish mistakes made during the ensuing hours, I initially thought Atmos streaming was horrendous because it wasn’t “lossless.” I’d spent less than ten hours listening to it and concluded, from the mountaintop of The Next Track podcast, that Atmos was the worst.
I have a much more educated and experienced view of Atmos in both TrueHD and Dolby Digital Plus forms today. As long as I have been an audiophile (I swear I was born into this in 1975), my goal has always been to reproduce what’s delivered in the best way possible. I’ve sought out the best copies of albums and did my best to play them through my systems as accurately as possible. Sure, I’ve got caught up in criticizing producers, engineers, artists, and dynamically crushed albums, but the bottom line is, as consumers, that’s what we’ve been given, and as audiophiles, we aim to make it as good as we can.
Not listening to the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ album Californication because it’s compressed beyond belief isn’t an option. I could stand on the sidelines and wish for the remastered high-resolution Californication unicorn to appear on streaming services. However, that’s a masochistic fool’s errand that would rob me and many others of pure musical enjoyment. The same goes for Dolby Atmos streaming. Most Atmos releases today are available via Dolby Digital Plus only from streaming services. Not listening to some of the best music in the world (The Beatles, Pearl Jam, etc…) in a completely new way that breathes life and new experiences into classic works of art, isn’t an option. There’s no other way to experience what Atmos delivers. Period.
What is an option, and has been THE option for audiophiles since the beginning of time, is accepting what the mass market selects and perfecting it. Shaking our fists, yelling at clouds, telling kids to get off our lawns, and hoping for something better is another way to go about it, but I’ll go with the much more enjoyable audiophile style of music reproduction. We can’t perfect what’s upstream, but we can perfect playback in our homes, offices, cars, and headphones. Using this approach has delivered countless hours of musical enjoyment to people worldwide.
Circling back to history, without going too far back, one can see the evolution of high-resolution stereo as the path for high-resolution immersive audio. Innovation, competition, and earnings will likely ensure a repeat of this evolutionary process. When high resolution stereo music was released, “nobody” knew how to play it, and it was available from a couple of small labels such as AIX Records and 2L. Simultaneously, many of us were streaming music from Mog because its 320 kbps MP3 bit rate was higher than Spotify. Plus, we could even offline 320 kbps MP3s on our mobiles. Wow, what a time to be alive.
During the ensuing years, many of us audiophiles continually asked for CD-quality streaming and dreamt of high-resolution streaming. It wasn’t long before we received everything we asked and dreamt about. Remember when detractors said Apple would never release CD-quality stereo music because “nobody cares about it,” let alone high resolution? (Apple offers both now). The nobody cares about “XYZ” argument is always popular when companies push “ABC.” What CEO in her right mind will say she’s releasing a second-class product even though everyone wants the first-class product? Innovation, competition, and earnings drive movement and, hopefully, progress.
High-resolution immersive streaming has already been demonstrated; high-resolution immersive downloads are already available from some of the same places that pioneered high-resolution stereo downloads. In addition, Blu-ray Discs with TrueHD Atmos mixes are now being separated from expensive boxed sets and sold individually (Dark Side of the Moon), along with those such as the Super Deluxe Edition Surround Series of individual Blu-ray Discs.
Embrace and perfect what is now and what is the known future while striving for something better. However, before moving an inch in any direction, get experienced. Don’t take what I say as the gospel. Do the homework, talk to people, and most importantly, spend a lot of time listening to Dolby Atmos on a system comparable to one’s two-channel system or the same two-channel system one already has. Yes, a single Dolby Atmos album from Apple Music can be decoded and played on systems from two-channels through sixteen-channels, using a Mac. I don’t have a low-fi processor in my system and neither should anyone else. A Mac straight to a high end DAC works very well. Those trying it for the first time should have the volume knob at the ready because the added dynamic range of most Atmos albums usually requires a bump in volume.
TrueHD Atmos is the best, but we shouldn’t fall into the claptrap that there’s a purity test for the music we enjoy. That’s a losing proposition and a slippery slope that would have us sitting on our hands rather than browsing for great music that was recorded with less than stellar skills, dynamically compressed, or, god forbid, stamped into a piece of PVC so we can drag a needle over it to produce sound. Uniting behind great music, perfecting what we, as music-loving audiophiles, are offered from record labels, and enjoying the hell out of this wonderful hobby is what it’s all about for me. I hope many of you feel the same.