You might have heard about Spatial Audio and though to yourself, ‘I don’t need to worry about that,’ thinking does anyone aside from Apple offer spatial audio? The truth is, spatial audio is here and it’s already gaining wide use among several big brands.
Do you remember how people were listening to music 10 years ago? Spotify wasn’t available yet in many parts of the world. High-fidelity music streaming was still quite new leaving most audiophiles listening to their tunes in MP3 320 kbps or even lossless FLAC formats. On the hardware side, 3.5mm jacks were still standard across smartphones and headphone manufacturers mostly put effort into implementing quality drivers along with good design and comfort for an immersive listening experience. Surround sound technologies were around too but the marketing clearly aimed them towards movie lovers and gamers. Reviewers would always tell you to get those fancy 7.1-channel headsets for heavy gaming and “casual listening.”
Spatial Audio and streaming music
Fast-forward to today and we have a fairly different landscape. Streaming services are now an important metric for gauging music sales and you have plenty of services to choose from with music quality being part of the advertising. Internet connections are faster now so higher quality music streams are feasible. One of the buzzwords you’ll often see is “spatial audio” and isn’t just a feature found on hardware like headphones and speakers but also streaming services as well! Yes, getting a good listening experience from a wide selection of music tracks now involves picking the right hardware AND streaming service. At least that’s what some companies like Apple, Sony, and Amazon want to tell you. But should customers care about spatial audio and similar surround sound technologies for music? Let’s dive into the technology!
What is Spatial Audio?
Spatial audio is an audio technology that a single device utilizes such as a speaker or pair of headphones but simulates a surround sound environment. The surround sound effect creates an illusion where you think the sound is coming from different directions. Listeners who may not have ever witnessed a real surround sound setup may experience heightened immersion.
Which companies use Spatial Audio?
Because work needs to be done on the hardware and audio track sides to achieve a convincing surround sound effect, the current landscape of spatial audio sound is a bit fragmented. Companies who have both the hardware and streaming library obviously benefit because at least you can enjoy the sound at the quality the brand has intended. Other companies have to leverage their unique strengths and partner their way in to fill the gaps. Here are some of the most popular implementations of spatial audio technology.
If you had a hand in building a home theater system recently, you should recognize the iconic Dolby Atmos logo. Dolby Atmos is basically an upgraded version of a surround sound speaker setup with either ceiling speakers or upward speakers. Both types of speakers try to create an effect where you can hear the sound coming from above when relevant movie or game scenes occur.
Dolby Atmos has evolved significantly and currently plays a huge role in spatial audio technologies. Today, you can find speakers, headphones, and even smartphones and tablets with Dolby Atmos baked in. It’s easy to view that feature as another marketing gimmick especially since smartphones and tablets barely have loud enough speakers for trained ears to notice the effect but if you compare with the mobile devices of yesteryear, you can easily notice the improvements. At present, Dolby is licensing their Dolby Atmos technology to several popular streaming services including Apple Music, Tidal, and Amazon Music.
Apple Spatial Audio
Apple launched Spatial Audio for their Apple Music streaming back in June 2021. Apple’s implementation combines lossless audio quality with Dolby Atmos. Apple recommends listening to Apple Music with their AirPods, Beats, and HomePod accessories as they are specially tuned for Apple Spatial Audio and come with a few exclusive features as well depending on the devices you have. Pairing an AirPods 3rd gen, Beats Fit Pro, AirPods Pro, or AirPods Max with an iOS device running 15.1 or later gives you access to the dynamic head tracking feature which automatically adapts the music to your head movements.
Using something else that doesn’t have an Apple logo? You can still connect your Dolby Atmos-supported devices and get the Dolby Atmos effect on the supported Apple Music tracks by switching the Dolby Atmos setting to “Always On” on the Music section of the Settings app on your iOS device.
Sony 360 Reality Audio
Sony Music Group is a juggernaut in the music industry owning a massive portfolio of albums under some big record labels. The company has developed its own spatial audio format called Sony 360 Reality Audio to compete with Dolby Atmos and it takes a rather unique approach to making sound more immersive. This technology uses a concept called object-based audio where audio tracks gain some extra metadata containing the placement of the recording microphone in a three-dimensional sound field. This allows elements such as instruments to have distinct values allowing tracks to sound livelier regardless of the audio device you are using for listening.
To get the best effect out of this audio format, you should calibrate your device using the Sony Headphones Connect app. One of the key steps involves taking a picture of your ear as the technology takes that into account for optimizing playback. Sony also certifies some devices for 360 Reality Audio playback including many of their own products so it certainly helps owning a pair of Sony headphones. Several Amazon Echo products also have a special chip enabling Sony 360 Reality Audio support. Amazon Music, Deezer, and Tidal are the major services with 360 Reality Format tracks. These services have dedicated playlists containing tracks with the format so you can discover for yourself how improved these tracks sound.
Sonos Spatial Audio
Sonos has also started introducing speakers that can playback spatial audio; such as the Era 300.
What’s ahead for Spatial Audio?
The state of the music industry isn’t just what it used to be. One can say that it’s more chaotic than ever due to all the different paid streaming services you might have to subscribe too, especially if you are looking for specific genres or artists. Spatial audio is just another way for these services to reel you in and the different approaches make music in general more fragmented than ever. Still, I find this development encouraging as you no longer need a pair of $500 headphones to get a pretty decent audio experience. Spatial audio is a wonderful invention and there are newer technologies to look forward to such as Google’s Project Caviar which hopes to open up the spatial audio format by doing away with licensing fees. If that takes off, we can expect even more tracks to have spatial audio versions and fiercer competition amongst the big players which is always good for everyone!