Audio: Listen to this article.
I was reading the wiki entry on the development of stereophonic sound and found it to be very interesting as well as informative. The entry can be found here. I didn’t realize that the early forays into the development of stereophonic sound were in the very early 1930’s both in the UK with Alan Blumlein and the US at Bell Labs. Mr. Blumlein was inspired by watching films at the cinema in mono and found the fact that dialogue did not follow the actors across the screen to be disconcerting. An actor could be on one side of the screen whilst their voice sounded like it was coming from someplace else. The idea of panning the sound came from this experience. Tests were done in the US and the UK mostly involving film and the world renown Philadelphia Orchestra. Films were developed and released in stereophonic sound but did not seem to catch on and films reverted back to mono until the 1960’s with the advent of Dolby stereo. It took many years later for multichannel sound to hit the theaters and later home theaters. The advent of multichannel sound clearly enhances the cinematic experience yet it took decades to develop and take over the industry. Can you imagine going to the movies today and experiencing the latest blockbuster in just stereo or god forbid, mono? Of course not. A similar trajectory took place with audio. We’re we’re stuck with mono until the late 1950’s even though stereo technology was available. I know there are mono devotees out there, but I am sorry, stereo provides a much better listening experience than mono. Sure, there was greater expense, another speaker, a new receiver, new cartridges etc. but it eventually took off and mono eventually died out.
I was thinking, were would we be today had the neigh-sayers won out and we were still listening to mono at home or stereo in the theater? What if this great new technology was developed and went ignored with the record labels refusing to put out stereo version of albums? Thankfully this did not happen. But, could this happen with what I feel is the greatest advancement in music reproduction in the home, Dolby Atmos and in particular, Atmos Music?
I hear the same arguments being made regarding Atmos that were made with stereo. Gee, stereo is great, it is good enough, it provides depth, soundstaging etc. With Atmos we need even more speakers than with a 5.1 home theater set up, we need a new receiver or processor that can process the data stream over, God forbid, HDMI, with its ever changing standards. Unless you have heard great Atmos mixes, you can rightly ask “Where’s the Beef?” I loved those old Wendy’s commercials! Sure, some Atmos mixes can be gimmicky. But so can stereo. Remember the early ping pong stereo albums with vocals in one channel and music in the other with nothing in between? Do not judge a format or system by the worst it can do but by the best it is capable of. Atmos is a new format for music. It will take time for recording engineers and mixers and mastering engineers to get up to snuff, to develop best practices. This was also true with the advent of stereo. Guess what, we learned and as music lovers, we were all the better for it. The same will be true with Atmos.
While you may need more speakers and receivers to get the very best out of Atmos, they aren’t needed to experience a real improvement with the listening experience. Atmos can be a wonderful experience with Apple’s Air Pods. I am sure may readers here are using Air Pods right now, so no new equipment needed. Likewise with Home Theater. Each year, better and better sound bars are being released that can give you a glimpse into what Atmos can do and still provide a significant improvement over the sounds coming from your TV.
So, what is the real impediment to Atmos music really catching on if it is not the equipment? The lack of content, pure and simple. We need more physical media releases on Blu ray, from the folks at Pure Audio for example. Better pricing as well. As great as having DSOTM mixed in Atmos, having to pay upwards of $300 to get the 50th Anniversary box set just for the Blu ray is absurd. Stop tethering the Blu ray mixes to a box set. Offer them as separates. The labels are leaving money on the table by doing so. Also, stop with the Apple Music exclusives. A couple of weeks ago I was listening to two great recordings of the Oscar Peterson Trio, We Get Requests and Night Train, mixed in Atmos. Those mixes were superb, offering a musical experience leaps and bounds better than the stereo mixes. As great as those mixes sounded, I couldn’t help but wonder what they sounded like in lossless TrueHD Atmos. Offer those Atmos versions as downloads so we can find out. Please!
A buddy and I did a listening test of DSOTM using the lossless version from the Blu-ray and the lossy version on Apple Music. While the Apple Music version was quite good, the Blu-ray version was clearly better, with an overall better sense of space and separation of instruments and dynamics. A more immersive and natural sounding experience overall. I bet the same will be the case with those superb Oscar Peterson Trio recordings, and all the other lossy Atmos mixes on Apple Music. But until they are offered for sale, we may never get to find out. Doing so will not even increase the cost to the labels as they had to go to the expense to create the lossless mix to create the lossy versions offered on Apple Music.
I would also implore the download sites to demand that the labels offer Atmos mixes for sale. I am looking at you HDTracks. You do offer some traditional 5.1 and 5.0 mixes. Why not Atmos? Same for NativeDSD who even offers Auro 3D. Ask your labels to supply Atmos as well.
So, in short, let’s go record labels. Lead the way. Pull us kicking and screaming into the 21st Century audio world. Offer lossless downloadable and physical media versions of our beloved recordings in Atmos. It will be a win win for everyone. And, do it now, times’ a wasting.
Editor's Note: The 20,000 Hertz podcast recently released a related episode abotu the transition from mono to stereo and immersive audio. Listen below.
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