I’ve written and said quite a lot about Apple’s quest to impress us with Spatial Audio.
For movies and TV shows, it is absolutely superb. Whenever I use my AirPods Pro or AirPods Max in conjunction with my Apple TV, the head tracking and completely un-headphone-like sound reproduction never fail to amaze me.
I still need convincing that Spatial Audio is going to catch on, though. It’s one of the most confusingly gimmicky yet technically brilliant things Apple has ever done.
It is also terrible when used for music.
I’ve said the same about Dolby Atmos. In fact, that annoyed me even more, simply because it appears to remove all of the dynamics from brilliantly mixed records and reproduce them in a way that would embarrass a school fete PA system.
Then, something happened. And now, I think it’s quite brilliant.
Apple Music in Dubly
Before last week, I’d experienced Apple Music in Dolby Atmos exclusively via AirPods. And I maintain that it sounds dreadful on them.
Some folk have pointed out a few tracks I should try. “This one has been mixed properly for Dolby Atmos and Spatial Audio,” they’ll say. But my reaction is always the same.
Where’s the bass gone? Why does it sound like a completely different song? Why do I need to hear the guitar solo emanating from above my head? Why can’t I hear the kick drum?
Then, it struck me. I have a home theatre system – a good one. I also have an Apple TV 4K connected directly to it. What would this music sound like when played through that system?
So, I gave it a go.
Now, what I experienced has nothing to do with Spatial Audio. It doesn’t even have anything to do with Dolby Atmos. My home theatre system is your bog-standard 5.1; there are no speakers in the ceiling, and we should keep in mind that Spatial Audio is built entirely for headphones. So, what I heard that day was music in traditional Dolby surround sound, nothing more.
My earliest memory of something similar was being treated to Pink Floyd’s Pulse in surround sound by my mate’s dad. You could hear the crowd behind you, and the howl of the plane passing by your ears as it crashed into the stage (Pink Floyd fans will know what I’m referring to). It was amazing.
But this is something else. If you play Dolby Atmos mixed music via an Apple TV 4K through a proper home theatre system, you’re in for a treat.
Firstly, the dynamics are retained. I assume this is largely because the system through which it is being played is routing every available frequency to the correct driver, be it a tweeter, mid-range driver, or the subwoofer. So, the music sounds ‘normal’, which is my biggest gripe with Dolby Atmos stuff on headphones (I suspect Spatial Audio plays a part with the latter, too).
The sound stage is something different entirely, though. These songs have been completely re-mixed in Dolby surround. You’ll hear the engineers having fun with dotted delays that bounce around your head, and room-filling harmonies that have been panned perfectly. It’s tasteful and respectful.
There are, of course, more in-your-face examples, where saxophones suddenly blast from behind your left ear, or middle eight vocals needlessly pan from rear left to rear right.
But it’s interesting. Really interesting. In fact, it totally changes the listening experience if you’re an audio geek like me. Beyond the aforementioned show-off examples, most of the Dolby-enabled tracks on Apple Music have been mixed in a really interesting, creative way.
I don’t know why I didn’t check this out before (and yes, I had been told to do so on numerous occasions by members of my YouTube audience and Discord server).
Why is Apple doing this?
“It sounds like it’s coming from all over the place,” my girlfriend replied when I pointed out that the rock playlist we were making our way through had been mixed in Dolby surround.
If I hadn’t said anything, she’d barely have given it a second thought. This is because she has precisely zero interest in technology and isn’t a humungous geek like I am.
She wasn’t alone, though.
We had some family around at the weekend. Two of them were sitting facing the right-hand side of the soundstage (a dreadful seating choice, but I wasn’t about to point out their error). For kicks, I hit play on the same Spatial Audio playlist that had done such a bad job of impressing my girlfriend the night before. Would they notice, I wondered.
It didn’t take long for someone to pipe up.
“Whoa… What the… What’s going on upstairs?”
Due to their highly inefficient seating position, our family member had heard a guitar part that had been sent to the rear right channel – to them, the left-hand speaker placed in the ceiling ahead of them.
Clearly, they were more confused than impressed, which confirms my suspicions.
Very few people care that Apple Music is capable of this.
I do, and I can see myself digging into a few more of these playlists while sitting in my living room, home theatre system cranked up. I’m enjoying listening out for the mixing decisions, and the fact that, as noted earlier, all dynamics appear to be retained when played back through such a system.
But I can’t work out why Apple is doing this. Don’t get me wrong – I’m glad they are, but the amount of effort that’s going into this Dolby Atmos/Spatial Audio endeavour is staggering.
Take a look at the available playlists – they feature loads of older records that have, clearly, been re-mixed and mastered for this purpose. And new releases are increasingly being stamped with Spatial Audio and Dolby Atmos.
This stuff takes time. It’s yet another stage to work your way through during the production of a record. People need to be paid for that time – expensive people.
Is this simply a labour of love as far as Apple and mix engineers are concerned? I’d love to think it is, but time really is money in the world of music, and I can’t believe that it isn’t linked to some larger play.
I just wish I knew what it was.