Audio: Listen to this article.
Listening to immersive audio is a lot like drinking tea. Tea drinkers may start with something pedestrian at Starbucks, then purchase a commercial brand such as Bigelow at the grocery store, then get a bit adventurous with something from The Republic of Tea or similar, and before they know it, they're ordering high end pu'er directly from China or organic black tea from Nepal. When it comes to immersive audio, I started listening to pretty conservative mixes that reproduced a concert hall in my listening room. Musicians in the front, ambiance in the back, just like Beethoven visualized it. Then I got adventurous with some George Harrison music, enjoying guitars in the side channels. Now, I'm all-in on immersive mixes from conservative classical recordings to the avant-garde genius of Frank Zappa's music. I wasn't sure I'd get to this point so quickly, or even at all, but now that I'm here, I'm enjoying every minute of the music.
Good immersive mixes pull the music apart into individual elements, away from the unnatural wedging of a 100 piece orchestra into two speakers. A comment I frequently hear from people who've listened to my system is,"I heard things that I've never heard before." Hearing these items has more to do with a mix that's equivalent to an exploded-view drawing/image, than anything else. The fidelity of immersive recordings and stereo recordings can be identical. For example, Morten Lindberg's discrete immersive 7.1.4 DXD and stereo releases. They have the same incredibly high fidelity, but the immersive version provides a view into the recording that enables one to easily identify, place, and enjoy any specific instrument or musician.
For Your Listening Enjoyment
1991 was, in my opinion, the best year of all time for album releases. I previously wrote about it here (link). On March 26, 1991 the band Mr. Big released an album titled Lean Into It. The track titled To be With You shot up the charts and made its way to many mix tapes for years to come. That was the only track I'd heard from the album until Monday January 9, 2023.
Last week Immersive Audio Album announced it had Lean Into It (link) available for purchase / download in lossless TrueHD Atmos for only $15.99. I purchased it on Friday, but didn't get around to listening until I sat down in my listening chair Monday morning, after dropping my daughter off at school. I skipped right to the well-known To Be With You, and was stunned by what I heard. I expected a very tame Atmos mix, heavy on the front left and right channels, with some ambiance in the rears. What I heard immediately put me inside the recording studio. Everyone who has an immersive system must play this track. Before the music even started, I was giggling because it was so realistic.
The drummer, I assume, is the musician counting the band into the track by tapping on something in a 1, 2 .. 1, 2, 3 .. pattern. Even this tapping has incredible reverb that enables the listener to figuratively be inside the studio while the band plays. There is air around this seemingly "unmusical" tapping. As the sound bounces off the rear wall and ceiling of the studio, it's reproduced exactly that way in one's listening room. How can something this simple give me goosebumps? It must be experienced to be understood. This is the realism that us audiophiles have sought for decades.
Once the "real" song starts, the fidelity is much better than anything I remember hearing back in the day. Granted my system is much better than I've ever had, but this sounds nothing like compressed, flat, loud rock. To Be With You starts with the realistic mix, as I mentioned previously, then moves into a completely immersive mix, utilizing all the channels to serve the music and engage the listener. Guitars and vocal in the side and rear channels. Harmonizing vocals raining down on on the listening position from all four height channels. This is the definition of immersive listening.
Listening to the entire album, for the first time, was a treat. In typical immersive fashion, the stellar mix engaged me and showed me this music in a way I didn't expect. I was sucked in right away. I can guarantee if I would've first played this album in stereo, from track 1, I wouldn't have made it through to the end. I would've skipped around a bit and filed it with other 1990s rock that sounds similar. Interesting, but not something I will spend time listening to.
The track titled Road To Ruin epitomizes my immersive experience thus far. It's music I would've skipped in stereo, but is now a favorite. I'm still pinching myself when listening to this album. It's the most pleasant surprise of a young 2023.
Taking this whole "music I'd have never listened to" thing as far as possible, I've been listening to Frank Zappa. I tried getting into Zappa when his albums were released in high resolution last year. An acquired taste slightly begins to describe what I heard. However, I have friends such as Jon Reichbach (Amara, Sonic Studio, StreamSoft/Artist Connection, etc...) who absolutely love Zappa and his musical genius. I kept telling myself there must be something more to it, that I'm struggling to grasp.
I finally received Zappa's albums Waka/Jawaka and The Grand Wazoo in lossless TrueHD Atmos, and ripped them to my music server. I'm in awe. 12 channels immersing me in a creative mix of jazzy Zappa, is over the top cool. On Waka/Jawaka the title track and opening track, Big Swifty are my favorites. They are less "goofy" to me, and sound like musical masterpieces. The Atmos mix, the entire reason I gave these albums a shot in the first place, is as non-conformist as Zappa himself. Listening to the eleven minute Waka Jawaka, with horns all over the place, followed by an electric guitar solo, is something I never imagined I'd like. The track is a little bit like the landing of a Space Shuttle, a controlled crash. There are instruments all over the place, but it's controlled and one can tell there's a rhyme and reason to everything. Listening in Atmos, all the pieces are pulled apart, making it easy to hear them as individual parts or together as a whole performance.
Even better than Waka/Jawaka is Zappa's The Grand Wazoo. I love this album from start to finish. The music is as crazy as trying to follow the band lineup changes Zappa went through while the material for this album was recorded. The liner notes are confusing to all but the most diehard Zappa fans, but I'm very happy all the details are there for a second and third read through.
The Atmos mix on this album is very similar to Waka/Jawaka in that it's adventurous. Adventurous shouldn't be confused with gimmicky in any way. Zappa's voice coming down from the ceiling speakers (Cletus Awreetus-Awrightus) and an immersive keyboard (Eat That Question) seem so very Zappa and appropriate for the music. I would expect nothing less.
The track Blessed Relief is my favorite, with its trippy Mile Davis-like trumpet playing by Sal Marquez, and George Duke's ethereal keyboard. The sound quality and the immersive mix are terrific and engaging. By the end of this eight minute track, I always want more. Magical is a great way to describe the experience.
Speaking of sound quality, this album has dynamic range DR numbers of 14, 14, 14, 13, and 14 on tracks one through five respectively. It's one of those rare albums that I can play with my volume control set to its maximum level, and still be OK for a while. I certainly don't listen much at that level, but this shows that there's a lack of compression for loudness and it's appreciated immensely.
The entire Grand Wazoo album is something to behold, especially for someone like me who has next to no knowledge of Frank Zappa. I love Jazz, Rock, and many other genres. On This album Zappa manages to squeeze several of them into single tracks, and includes stellar musicianship. Such a lovely immersive experience.
Immersive audio was everywhere at CES this year. I really wish I would've went to Vegas for the show. Atmos demos in automobiles seemed to be a hit, and I can see why. Dolby and Imagine Dragons pulled off a live concert in Dolby Atmos as well (info).
I encourage everyone to get their ears on a good Atmos music demo. My musical world has opened up very wide since I installed my system. It's been a blast, and I see nothing but positive signs for the future of immersive music.