Respect the Music: Apple & Dolby Atmos

In early May, some of in the music press got an advance look at what was coming soon from Apple Music. Apple announced that, following the example of Tidal, Qobuz, and Amazon Music HD, the company would no longer deal in AAC, their improved (but still lossy) MP3 equivalent.

Henceforth, all Apple stereo downloads and streams would be at at least CD resolution; many tracks would be offered in higher resolutions, up to 24/192. Apple estimated that by the end of 2021, 75 million songs would be available at resolutions of 16/44.1 or better.

That's big news, but the Apple people on the call played it down. The improvement wrought by lossless over AAC is small, they suggested, even difficult to hear. Apple had long claimed AAC was "virtually indistinguishable" from CD resolution, so this was nothing new; they were just being consistent with previously stated positions. And they weren't wrong: Today's AAC is far better than '90s-vintage, low-rate MP3 and not far behind CD in terms of sound quality, as rigorous tests have shown. (Which doesn't mean the difference is unimportant.)

Apple was playing down the significance of lossless/hi-rez to play up the company's other big announcement: their embrace of "spatial audio" and Dolby Atmos. The difference in that sound was unmistakable. What's more, Apple would be doing all this for the same $9.95/month they'd been charging all along for just AAC.

Soon after the Apple announcement, Amazon Music HD made its own announcement: It would offer its lossless service at a cost that matched Apple's. Spotify had already announced, in February, that it would be going lossless soon, but as I write this, there has been no further announcement.

As I wrote in the August issue's Industry Update, in one obvious way this is reason for celebration. After 25 years of corrupting music, the music industry, and the aural tastes of young people, MP3-style lossy compression is dead and gone. Good riddance.

So, what is Atmos? Home-theater folks already know; this is for everyone else: It's a surround-sound format created for cinema and adapted for home cinema, video games, and music. It's also rolling out for car audio.

Dolby Atmos can encode up to 128 channels, and it allows for limitless configurations of up to 34 speakers—5.1 or 7.1.4 or whatever—or even headphones. Atmos adds optional height channels—that's the number after the second decimal point—to old-fashioned surround sound.

Apart from the height channels, what makes Dolby Atmos (and similar technologies, 'cause there are a few) different from old-school surround is that in Atmos each channel can be assigned either to a specific speaker or to a virtual object in 3D space, an object that has a location and can move around. In a well-implemented Dolby Atmos system, sounds associated with that object seem to be coming from the object's assigned position.

Dolby Atmos is a very visual sound technology, with an intense focus on spatial effects. As such, it's likely to find its biggest fans in imaging aficionados. But audiophiles are a diverse group: Some care little about music's spatial aspects and instead seek rich, lifelike tone and texture and other virtues. (I want imaging and tone.) Atmos elevates the spatial aspect of recorded music over music's other aspects. There's much that could go wrong—or right.

I've now listened to a few hours of Apple Music's Dolby Atmos, but only on the AirPods Max Apple sent me—so, Bluetooth (footnote 1)—and my Sennheiser HD 650 headphones via my laptop's headphone jack (footnotes 2 & 3). It's true that no perceptive listener could confuse Atmos with stereo in a direct comparison. Listening through headphones, I found that Atmos put more space between instruments, so I could hear each instrument more clearly and the presentation was more relaxed. On many tracks, though, the perspective seemed unnatural: What's that tuba doing on my ceiling? Sometimes on rock songs, the lead vocals were pushed out to the side as if they were just another instrument and rendered quieter and thinner. It's not so different from my early experiences of surround sound or from many early stereo experiments: gimmicks substitute for "sound" production.

That may be a consequence of automated Dolby Atmos production: You'd have to hire a lot of engineers to render into Dolby Atmos as many music tracks as Apple has done without some sort of automated process. I'm confident we can expect better as artists and engineers get more involved.

Prominent music writers have criticized Apple's Atmos demo of Marvin Gaye's "What's Going On," but I enjoyed it. And yet, it would be a travesty if the Atmos version were the only version of this classic track easily available. That, to me, is the key point about Apple Music and Dolby Atmos: It's cool as far as it goes, but the original version must stay in circulation, in pristine form.

Apple Music's embrace of Dolby Atmos offers listeners an interesting alternative to traditional stereo. It also offers hope for long-suffering multichannel music fans: Kal Rubinson will render his verdict as soon as he's had a good listen. But, for the existing music catalog, this alternative perspective must remain just that: alternative. Regardless of what Apple says, the company's big news isn't Atmos but going lossless and hi-rez. New is good, but the vast historical archive of recorded music must be respected.


Footnote 1: Bluetooth, of course, is lossy—which raises another point: Is Apple Music's Dolby Atmos intrinsically lossless or lossy? The most recent documentation I could find suggests that it's encoded via Dolby Digital Plus, which is lossy.

Footnote 2: I also tried with the Sennheisers and the AudioQuest DragonFly Cobalt DAC/headphone amplifier, but of course, the DragonFly doesn't decode Atmos.

Footnote 3: I've also heard Atmos at Dolby HQ here in NYC and at Audio Engineering Society meetings.



COMMENTS
partain's picture

Why not review the different Bluetooth options available ?
The convenience is such that sacrificing some quality might be OK , but how to make an informed decision ?

Jack L's picture

Hi

To occupy precious space here to review lo-fi like Bluetooths?

Give me a break, please.

Jack L

partain's picture

Perhaps if they did the research , you'd know if you're correct ?

PeterG's picture

With all due respect, partain, they've done the research, as have 99%(?) of this site's readers. Bluetooth is simply not comparable in sound to a wired connection. You might visit your local retailer to compare any Bluetooth connection to any price-similar wired connection, it will take only a few minutes

John Atkinson's picture
partain wrote:
Why not review the different Bluetooth options available ?

The "link "lossy" in footnote 1 goes to a measurements report where I compare Bluetooth codecs: see figs.8-14.

None, in my opinion, are suitable for serious music listening, though yes, Bluetooth is convenient.

John Atkinson
Technical Editor, Stereophile

rt66indierock's picture

How many people seriuosly listen to recorded music? Don't most audiophiles listen to their gear?

Jack L's picture

Hi

I am one of the numberless "people SERIOUSLY listen to recorded music",
pal.

I don't know how you define your "recorded music". I define it as any music listening off my audio rig. FYI, my most loved "recorded music" is music off vinyl records which I spend a few hours listening on my days off.

If you don't listen to "recorded music', you listen to live music only ????

Jack L

rt66indierock's picture

I spend about 12 hours last week listening driving. Listening to radio, streaming, and the music I own was another 18 hours. Background in my office was 30 hours. None of that I consider serious listening. I listen for enjoyment unless I have a reason to dig in and focus.

As for the numbers start by convincing me there are 10,000 people in the world with the training and experience able to listen seriously to music with a high-performance audio system in their homes.

smileday's picture

I don't have statistics, but I saw teenagers listening to music "seriously."

Jack L's picture

.

Partman1969's picture

As an avid audiophile, I take pride in rather listening to the music and absence to the sounds produced by “gear”, and yes I spent a lot of money to attain that!

Jack L's picture

HI

Indeed, I wanted my "gear" sonically 'vanished' when the music is on.

I have done it: the music performance is virtually well behind & beyond the back wall of my audio rig with the sky being the limit for the spatial envelopment.

Thanks goodness I've not spent much to achieve such sorta kinda ideal home music entertainment as I believe I know this business enough to get ahead of the game.

Listening is believing

Jack L

Jack L's picture

Hi

Enjoy music is personal. Who cares "how many people" ??

While I am tying to you now (today my dayofff), I am SERIOUSLY listening to the LIVE HD video streaming of DW Classical Music of Beethoven Symphony NO.9 performed by Le Concert des Nations conducted by Jordi Savall.

First time I ever ever enjoy LIVE HD video streaming of such major
music performance !!!!!!! It is soooo real, livelike rendering my humble 700sqft basement audio den a live concert hall !!!!!
The soundstaging is sooo wide, deep & lofty, yet with pinpointing instrumentation precision !!!! The four vocal soloists sound so human in front of me (via my 50" 4KUHD LEDTV).

Breathtaking !! Standing ovation for such good performance from me as well like the audience is doing now on the screen.

Listening is believing

Jack L

PS: I really love this LIVE streaming HD performance : digitally immaculate,IMO despite me being a vinyl music addict.

stereophileuser2020's picture

I wonder what Apple's strategy will be with regard to lossless audio and their high end wireless headphone models in the future.

1. Do nothing. You'll never got lossless audio on their Bluetooth headphones.

2. Wait for the Bluetooth consortium to support lossless audio.

3. Implement their own Bluetooth modification to support lossless audio.

4. Don't use Bluetooth at all. Instead, use something like their own AirPlay technology: lossless audio over Wi-fi.

What do y'all think?

Archimago's picture

I think for the vast majority, Bluetooth is simply about convenience far more than sound quality. Bluetooth AAC, aptX, and LDAC sound pretty good as is.

The "use case" for BT generally is when one is walking around or jogging or on the subway; I don't seen a need or even benefit for lossless in these situations. At home with a good headphone amp, stick with wired playback then for best sound.

Furthermore, given the low bitrate of Bluetooth, keeping the data transfer rate lower might simply help with reliability.

As such, I don't know if there's a significant urgency to achieve a lossless BT audio system going. Not even sure there will be much market demand.

stereophileuser2020's picture

by (1) releasing Bluetooth-only high-end headphones (the Airpods Max) and (2) providing lossless audio streams with Apple Music. The number of Apple fans is big enough to create an urgency.

Jack L's picture

Hi

This is marketing, pal.

It is up to we, the consumers to get sold or not.

Play smart! Even I own common shares of Apple, so what? Do I have to buy & own all Apple products ????

Like nearly everybody on this planet drink coffee, thanks to the world-wide marketing of coffee provided by fast food chains.

I never like coffee. Why? I dislike the bitter taste of the burnt coffee beans. So I go for tea, organic tea. No bitter taste & least caffeine: more healthy.

Be a smart consumer !

Jack L

stereophileuser2020's picture

Can I ask how old you are and what was the highest level of education you reached?

Jack L's picture

Hi

So what's your "vomitorium" to do with being a smart consumer ????

Likewise, what is my addiction to vinyl music to do with my education ???

FYI, I studied electrical engineering with decades involvement in electrical power engineering industries, specialized in UHV power transmission. Such background surely help me a lot in my design/build audio electronics as a DIY hobby.

Again, my engineering background is not a factor of my addiction to vinyl classical music enjoyment.

Not many engineers could be crazy like me to put serious music listening before anything else. Unlike someone here, I don't bother any casual background music yet I do go only for serous classical music enjoyment.

My age? Senior enough to be a grandpa twice.

Listening is believing

Jack L

Partman1969's picture

And even still that urgency will never reward you as much as a good planar and silver cables.

Jack L's picture

Hi

True. I only use pure silver interconnects I design/built for my audio rig many years back now, totally 7 pairs of them: 99.99% pure solid silver conductors. They sound so so much better than non-pure-silver cables, my critical ears tell me so.

Imagine how much money we got to pay for all those 99.99% pure silver cables assuming they were available in the marketplace.

Listening is believing

Jack L

miguelito's picture

It seems to me that Atmos is similar to when Stereo became available: If used properly it could be great, and what the artist intended… (ouch!) I completely agree that originals should remain available though.

Partman1969's picture

I think the future of Bluetooth might include high resolution audio, and with the correct implementation of crosstalk on a high quality headphone amplifier might even come close to a realistic live experience, but if Dolby Atmos is cueing instruments to the ceiling, above the listeners head, it should probably be relegated strictly to cinema theater sound effects for movies. Those effects and high resolution music are an obvious oxymoron.

miguelito's picture

It probably made people ask "Why do we need this gimmick". As long as it is used creatively by the musical producers in a way that aids the music, I don't have a big issue with Atmos - you don't have to put sounds up in the air.

MatthewT's picture

The dollar is the only thing they respect. Meanwhile, I'll keep buying CD's.

Partman1969's picture

On the right machines CD’s still sound good to me!

Sal1950's picture

It's way past time that multich sound takes it's rightful place in High End Audio as the true SOTA in music reproduction. Instead of trashing Kal Rubinson's "In The Round" column, Stereophile should be listening to J. Gordon Holt's advise and pursuing much expanded coverage of all things multichannel. The state of the art in High Fidelity isn't to be found in dragging a rock thru a ditch in a piece of pressed vinyl, that was true about the time the first man stepped on the moon.
Come on Mr Austin, pull Stereophile out of the 1970s and get up to speed with today's best 5.1.4 or better channeled systems.
All else is gaslight. ;)
Sal1950

Partman1969's picture

I and many other audiophiles enjoy theater on some of the best multichannel systems. Those same systems do little justice to the majority of 2 channel (stereo) media, in fact I have come to rely on multiple rooms to satisfy both my theater and music cravings. A live concert still relies on a source be it an artist, band, or orchestra that is in front of the listener relying only on proper room acoustics for acoustic reinforcement. The best home stereo relies on acoustically corrected rooms to give the listener as close to the same experience, relying on left and right to cue instruments and singers to proper location on the stage. The best multichannel recordings wether they be files or SACD are typically for enhanced sound effects that can sound good, such as on some Pink Floyd examples, but far too many are strictly for the boingerizer wow effects that detract from real music.

Sal1950's picture

Firstly we are discussing the SOTA in Music playback and not theater. There's much more to High Fidelity reproduction of music than the old "head in the widow of the hall" idea.
From reproducing the ambiance of the venue, to giving the listener the opportunity to adjust his listening seat in the hall, or even allowing him to go on stage and sit-in with the performers. Listen to some of AIX bluray recordings which offer a variety of listening positions including some amazing binaural headphone mixes.
The idea you need dedicated rooms for 2 and multich is misguided. If you invest the same total amount of money in better quality gear
for a single system you'll be miles ahead for both types of music presentations. If you only want a stereo soundstage the other options of a multich system can be disabled at a push of a button.
Beyond all that the recording engineers of today are moving beyond the old "window" adage and bringing a whole new "ART" of music recording to todays listener. Using the modern tools of 5/7.1, and now Atmos, they are bringing the idea of immersive recordings to a whole new experience in music listening.
Be there, or be square. ;)

Partman1969's picture

My Ayon, Chord equipped stereo system still sounds worlds ahead of my McIntosh theater system for music, but I enjoy both greatly for their intended purpose.

Sal1950's picture

But if you sold off the speakers, etc from your multich rig and got 3 more Ayon's, you'd have a multich rig that sounded "worlds ahead" of your 2 older systems."

The whole is greater than the sum of its parts"

Partman1969's picture

3 more Crossfire SET integrated at 13G a pop and 100lbs each would probably break the bank faster than my back, and I don’t think I could match the finish on my legacy Klipsch LaScallas which are pretty darn awkward to handle as well. The McIntosh theater is new (2years) and sounds great. If I parted her out, where would my wife watch her Days of Our lives?

Sal1950's picture

Get some accurate Benchmark AHB2's at $3k each and your system will sound much better overall.
AKA, The Quietest, Cleanest Audio Amplifier on the Planet.

"Benchmark Media Systems' AHB2 is an extraordinary amplifier. Not only does its performance lie at the limits of what is possible for me to reliably test, it packs high power into a very small package, especially when used in bridged-mono mode. It is truly a high-resolution amplifier."

- John Atkinson, Stereophile

Partman1969's picture

Thanks for the advice.

tnargs's picture

Classic Stereophile editorial, getting the priorities and limitations back to front. As if stereo isn’t “missing anything”, isn’t “losing anything”. Same sad joke they perpetuated on their poor misled (but eagerly lapping it up) readers, about analog being some kind of ultimate for digital to aspire to.

Ah well. Solzhenitsyn wrote that we get the governments we deserve, and I suppose audiophiles get the priesthoods they deserve.

Sal1950's picture

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