Pixel Envy

Written by Nick Heer.

Lossless and Spatial Audio Launch on Apple Music

Becky Roberts, What Hi-Fi?:

Last month, Apple announced that Dolby Atmos-powered spatial audio tracks would soon be coming to its music streaming service alongside CD-quality and hi-res lossless audio for no additional cost and, after a staggered rollout over the course of the day, both features are now live (at least they are for us).

Spatial audio with Dolby Atmos is designed to deliver surround sound and 3D audio via your headphones – to put “multidimensional sound and clarity” between your ears. This experience works with Apple’s AirPods, as well as any headphones. That’s right, Apple Music’s spatial audio tracks will play on all headphones (and here’s how to enable it).

You can enable spatial audio for all headphones by going to Settings, Music, and choosing “Always On” from the Dolby Atmos menu instead of the default “Automatic” setting.

Micah Singleton, of Billboard, interviewed Eddy Cue about the launch of these features:

And the analogy to that is obviously the first time you ever saw HD on television: you knew which one was better because it was obvious. And we’ve been missing that in audio for a long time. There really hasn’t been anything that’s been substantial. We’ll talk about lossless and other things, but ultimately, there’s not enough difference.

[…]

So we went after the labels and are going to the artists and educating them on [Dolby Atmos]. There’s a lot of work to be done because we have, obviously, tens of millions of songs. This is not a simple “take-the-file that you have in stereo, processes through this software application and out comes Dolby Atmos.” This requires somebody who’s a sound engineer, and the artist to sit back and listen, and really make the right calls and what the right things to do are. It’s a process that takes time, but it’s worth it.

I admire Cue’s honesty about lossless audio in this interview. I know that he’s doing so in part to market Apple’s implementation of spatial audio as a differentiator, but it really is a much bigger deal than lossless. I can tell the difference between lossy and lossless audio. If lossless audio was a more expensive Apple Music tier, I would not pay for it; I would, however, pay for spatial audio. It is really good when done well.

I was skeptical of marketing claims like these. There have been a handful of attempts at mixing music in better-than-stereo for decades, and they have all sort of failed.

A handful of records came out in quadrophonic sound in the 1970s, including Miles Davis’ “Bitches Brew” and Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon”. In the 2000s, there was a slew of records re-released in a 5.1 surround sound mix on “super audio” CDs: Fleetwood Mac’s “Rumours”, Nine Inch Nails’ “The Downward Sprial”, and Donald Fagen’s “The Nightfly”, an audiophile favourite.

As of writing, not one of those records is available in Dolby Atmos on Apple Music. I would have assumed that a conversion from surround sound to Dolby Atmos would be easier than converting from stereo, but I guess I guessed wrong.

Spatial audio reminds me more of 3D movies than it does going from SD to HD: when it is used with some finesse, it is terrific, but it can be overdone. Migos’ “Stir Fry” sounds incredible, as does YG’s “Still Brazy” and Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On” — the song; the rest of the album has not yet been mixed in Dolby Atmos, but I cannot wait to hear “Right On” with a more spacious mix.

Other songs take it a little too far. Jay-Z and Kanye West’s “Gotta Have It” is bananas in Dolby Atmos. Lil Wayne’s “Lollipop” almost sounds like a different song entirely, and Disclosure’s “Latch” sounds constrained, like pressure has built up in my ears. Other tracks simply are not mixed very well; I do not think Blink 182’s “What’s My Age Again?” benefits from Atmos.

The genres that seem to gain the most from Dolby Atmos are classical and jazz recordings. This entire performance of Brahms’ Symphony No. 4 and this one of Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 2 are available in Atmos and they will transport you. It is incredible. I recommend them both; try toggling Atmos on and off in Settings to hear the difference.

This first batch of tracks has me excited for more. Maybe this is the year we will finally get the Nine Inch Nails’ “The Fragile” in the surround mix it deserves. I would love to hear Travis Scott’s entire psychedelic catalogue in spatial audio, too.