My immersive audio system is fully installed and for the last several days, I've been listening for nearly 10 hours per day. It has been a transcendent audio experience to say the least. It's something that I hope everyone who loves music can experience sooner rather than later. By experience, I mean on a real immersive 7.1.4 or similar audio system. Sure, headphones are "capable" of playing immersive audio, as is an Atmos sound bar, but there's no substitute for the real thing. Much more on system setup and sound quality coming soon.
In addition to being elated with immersive audio, I'm very happy to see much enthusiasm for the topic by members of the Audiophile Style community. Some are reasonably skeptical, while others are full steam ahead. The best part for me is that everyone appears to be interested in the who, what, when, where, why, and how of immersive audio. I love educating people on how to squeeze more enjoyment out of our wonderful hobby. It's what I did when I started the site back in November, 2007 and it's what I continue to do today.
When I started digging into immersive audio, I really had no idea if people would come along for the journey. However, I'm not one of those guys who can give the people what they want, because they want it. By that I mean, I have to write for myself, about what interests me and what makes me excited, and I hope that others enjoy what I do and that it's helpful to them. The great part about this immersive audio journey is that my enthusiasm for it has only increased with every passing day, and I hope that translates into what I write and moves others to see and hear what I see and hear.
I don't consider myself an expert on anything, but I eat, sleep, and breathe this stuff, researching, talking to people in the industry (HiFi and Music), and rolling my sleeves up, getting my hands dirty with it to get personal experience. Here are some thoughts on immersive audio, with respect to our own world of high fidelity.
One - Classical
I've listened to more classical music in the last week, than I have in the last several years combined. The sole reason is immersive audio. The music hasn't changed, but the presentation has. There is no better genre for immersive audio than classical music. One reason is that no genre has dedicated venues such as the Berliner Philharmonie and the Wiener Musikverein, which play such a large role in the sound of the performance. Immersive audio has the ability to place the listener in any seat in the house, to hear the musicians, the attack, sustain, decay, release, and the reverberations of the space exactly as they sounded during the performance. Call me crazy, but I have no interest in hearing the reverberations and bad echos from a Pearl Jam show at Target Center in Minneapolis.
One example of immersive audio recreating a concert venue impeccably, can be heard on the album John Williams, The Berlin Concert. The second track, titled Olympic Fanfare and Theme, has a little venue noise before the track starts. It's only about 2 seconds before the track, but it's enough venue information to give the listener really good placement cues. Once the music starts, and one can hear all the music and reverb, it's fantastic, but even the tiny two second clip is good enough to create the ultimate illusion. This is similar in a way to playing an album recorded on tape. When one hits play, tape his is often present before the music starts. With immersive audio, the venue is often present when there is no music playing.
Last night, I opened the Berlin Philharmonic's app on AppleTV, to see the following message.
What a pleasant surprise. I knew this was in the works, but thought it may have slipped through the cracks given the length of time it took to release it. I started watching a concert, clicked on the little gear icon to select the audio presentation, and saw Immersive Audio (Dolby Atmos) as an option. What surprised me most, was that my ten year old daughter, who wasn't paying much attention to what I was doing, asked if we could listen to the concert in Atmos in my listening room! What a shock! Immersive audio has piqued her interest.
I know this is one small anecdotal story, but my experience listening to classical and my daughter's interest in something from the Berlin Philharmonic, are two things that have not happened until now. This is good for music, musicians, storied venues, and consumers among many others.
Also note, Deutsche Grammophon is leading the charge into immersive audio, with tons of releases in Atmos. I wish more titles were released on Blu-ray so I could rip the lossless TrueHD content, but I'll take the best version I can get over nothing. Every new DG release I see is available in high resolution stereo and Dolby Atmos on Apple Music. It's fantastic to see DG embrace immersive audio. My wallet is much thinner because of all the Blu-ray Discs I've ordered lately, but in the grand scheme of high end audio, the price is peanuts. Well worth it.
A couple lossless TrueHD Atmos albums I've been listening to lately:
Herbert von Karajan - Ludwig Van Beethoven: 9 Symphonies
Herbert von Karajan - Sibelius Complete Recordings on Deutsche Grammophon
Two - Who, What, When, Where
Let's take these out of the traditional order, and start with the "WHAT."
What. Immersive Audio has a loose definition because of the range of devices on which it can be played. From headphones, to soundbars, to discrete 12 channel systems, it can be played on all of them. However, based on my research I'd say that immersive audio is any music that has discrete height information embedded into the recording. It's distinctly separate from the playback hardware or software. Atmos music and Auro 3D have height channels embedded into the recordings, whereas traditional 5.1 7.1, and DTS MA HD don't. The height channels really matter for an immersive experience.
Spatial Audio is Apple's addition to Dolby Atmos and is only employed when listening to Atmos music while using specific Apple headphones. Spatial Audio enables listeners to use head tracking that leaves the music stationary even when one's head turns.
When. Atmos is nothing new, but Atmos music is fairly new. Apple really kicked things into high gear for consumers in 2021 when it announced support for Atmos music.
Where. Immersive audio isn't everywhere yet, but Apple Music somewhat forced Tidal and Amazon to follow. Dolby and Dirac also announced a partnership to bring Atmos music to cars, this past week. The discrete channels are usually present in cars and Dirac is very good with DSP, so I call this a win.
P.S. The content exists, why not offer it to consumers? Qobuz, are you listening :~)
Who. "Everyone" is either releasing immersive audio, mixing immersive audio, or waiting in line to do both. According to Dolby, in 2020 there were 30 studios equipped to mix in Atmos. Now there are almost 600. That's a 1,900% increase. Many mixing studios have months long waiting lists to re-mix A List content for Dolby Atmos.
A quick look at Apple Music's Spatial Audio page shows a glimpse at the high number and quality of Atmos releases. By quality I don't mean sound quality, but A List artists and albums rather than another Scottish Nose Whistle album, us audiophiles are accustomed to. Every week more Atmos music releases come out, by more current and legacy artists. Pearl Jam had its debut album Ten, its fourth album No Code, and its latest album Gigaton remixed for Atmos. This is one example among many that shows immersive audio is real this time.
Note: After listening to No Code on my immersive system, it's the only way I want to listen to it going forward. Much more on this coming soon.
I encourage everyone to browse the Atmos releases here.
With respect to who is listening to immersive audio and the popular questions surrounding who will actually install an immersive system, let's take a step back. The mass market already has many solutions for this in the form of headphones, soundbars, and packaged systems capable of reproducing immersive audio. Not the height of living, but the install base is gigantic. Then we come to those of us who have spent more on cables than cars, installed special ground rods outside, taken over complete sections of our houses in pursuit of our passion, and the list goes on forever. It's funny to hear these same people, tell me that an immersive system is a bridge too far for people. To that I say, where there's a will, there's a way. If the end result is the ultimate sonic illusion, I think we should stop thinking about who will actually do this and start thinking about how to do it.
Three - Why
As people with brains, we want to know why immersive audio is being released. We believe it will give us a view into the future viability of the format and it will tell us more about it than all the other items. The "WHY" is the foundation, and a solid foundation is absolutely necessary.
Audiophiles wondering about the drivers of immersive audio may think it would be best if the developers were altruistic audiophiles themselves, who saw this as a pursuit for the ultimate in sound quality. However, we've been down this road before and we know it's a dead end. It's better to have the mainstream driving immersive audio for whatever reason, because then it isn't a niche looking for marketshare or trying to stay afloat financially. Once something is mass market, the high end can perfect it and make it as good as possible. For example, listen to some of what Morten Lindberg from the 2L label is producing in immersive formats. It's insanely good. The formats of Atmos and Auro 3D are a done deal, and the music is already being perfected. It's time for more hardware manufacturers to get on board.
Driving the immersive audio push are a number of companies with quarterly numbers to hit and products to sell. I see Apple and virtual reality as a major driver of immersive audio. I also see the record labels smiling because immersive formats, for the most part, have never been released via a purchase model (physical or download). They now have Crown Jewels in their vaults again and can charge a monthly fee for access.
Change is also a driver of immersive audio. We've had mono, stereo, and many attempts at succeeding formats. For the most part, I believe change is good. It can take things to a new level or make one realize just how much one likes the existing version. In other words, don't fix what isn't broken. However, change doesn't always mean the existing solution is replaced. Supplementing stereo with immersive audio is a change we should all embrace.
No matter the reasons for immersive audio, a gigantic benefit for audiophiles is that we get to enjoy it and we don't have to push it upon the masses.
I completely understand the more skeptical audiophiles among us. We've been promised the birth of a new audio world in the not to distant past, and have seen countless next-best-things come and go. The reasons why any product exists can help ease ease one's hesitation and accelerate its adoption. That I get. Especially when we're talking about audio components that cost more than we'd like to admit.
On the other hand, what does it take to convince people that a format is real enough to embrace it? For some of us, it only takes a favorite recording that sounds spectacular. I know people who purchased analog tape rigs in the last couple years because Acoustic Sounds released a handful of tapes they like. For others, it's impossible to convince them that anything other than stereo is worth the time and money. Fortunately, it isn't my job or goal to convince anyone that immersive audio is the present and future, and that they should dive in head first. I'm just trying to relay my experience, my enjoyment, share what I know and what I see about immersive audio, much like I did with computer audio over a decade ago.
I certainly think immersive audio is the present and future of the mainstream, and that the high end has the ability to take it to amazingly new heights. To the hesitant among us, I'll quote Jewel Kilcher, "Everything's temporary given enough time."
Four - How
I'm going to save the "HOW" for another article, where I'll detail exactly how I'm getting amazing sound in my listening room, by supplementing my two channel system with an immersive system. Please notice that I said supplement, not replace. I'm still a card-carrying, knuckle-dragging audiophile who loves two channel stereo. It's what I grew up listening to and it's impossible to get it out of me, no matter how great immersive audio sounds.
I will say that my immersive system is among the most unique in the world, and capable of stunning sound. I'm using custom 65,000 tap convolution filters from Accurate Sound, and have the ability to upsample to DSD256 with HQPlayer. All Wilson Audio speakers with Constellation and Mytek amplification, Merging Technologies digital, and Transparent Audio cabling throughout. Here's an updated system list (LINK).
I can't wait to write about it all for everyone, in detail. The problem is that I have to stop listening long enough, to compose the articles :~)