Apple Music Spatial Audio Is the Future of Music, Finally

Music mixed in stereo spans left and right to make use of our two ears, but music in Apple's Spatial Audio with Dolby Atmos adds more dimension to songs. As with anything in audio, it's much easier to "get it" by just listening to it. In this case, however, fully grasping it comes when you stop listening to it. Because Spatial Audio makes music sound more natural and immersive, it's less about stepping into the world of Oz, where everything becomes colorful in an instant, and it's more about never wanting to step out of this world back into a colorless, flat one.

Apple Music app advertising Spatial Audio
Apple Music is heavily advertising Spatial Audio inside its apps to promote the new feature available to all subscribers. APPLE

Spatial Audio creates depth and room for the music to breathe and be arranged in potentially new ways. Initially, this technology is demonstrated by not just shifting between left and right but by the sound's having the extra front and rear dimensions to surround you even better. To fully experience its benefits, press play on a Dolby Atmos song and then, while it's going, head to the iPhone's settings and, under music, turn off Dolby Atmos to go back to listening in stereo. The singer and all the instruments instantly become rigid, flat and too close. A stereo mix now almost feels like looking through a glass window where the artist is pressing their face against it, trying to get unnaturally close to you.

Some Spatial Audio with Dolby Atmos songs can be subtler, but stereo mixes feel stark in contrast. This new technology is a step forward for music, even if you don't really notice it at first. Plus, it enables music creators to go farther in the future with how their music is mixed and presented to listeners.

Music has been mixed in surround sound before—that's not new. (Quadraphonic, anyone?) Surround sound music wasn't widely adopted for a lot of reasons, including people needing to have a multichannel speaker setup with the song being mixed in the new format—a complete chicken and egg situation. But, with Apple leveraging its streaming service and massively popular headphone devices, Spatial Audio, multidimensional music, is the future of music listening—finally.

Video Spatial Audio Versus Music Spatial Audio

It should be noted that this is not the first time Apple has used the term Spatial Audio. Originally, it was only used to talk about virtual surround sound while watching shows and movies using AirPods Pro and AirPods Max. Now Dolby Atmos is appearing for Spatial Audio songs in Apple Music on the now playing screen.

Spatial Audio for shows and movies is about recreating the surround sound mix, virtually, in your headphones. But because headphones are not always fixed in their placement. like speakers might be in your house, Spatial Audio for video adapts and rotates with your head, so everything is always aligned to make sense to your brain.

At launch, Spatial Audio with Dolby Atmos doesn't do head tracking, but that enhancement is coming in iOS 15 later in the fall of 2021.

Practical, Everyday Use of Dolby Atmos Songs

I spent a good deal of time listening to Spatial Audio songs across all kinds of devices. I used AirPods Pro, but I also listened on a Sonos Arc soundbar through Apple TV 4K. I listened on Grado GW100 headphones and a pair of AirPods Max, in addition to other different devices to get a sense of how Spatial Audio performs in a variety of situations.

Sometimes the spatial sound was more obvious, and sometimes it was less. Listening on AirPods Max alone in the house produced more noticeable results, but I could still hear it out, on the go, while running errands. There are differences in how those spacious songs sound, as you would expect. Some tracks take more advantage of the multichannel abilities more than others. Mixing songs is a unique process that can vary even within a single album. Likely, there will be more uniformity of sound depth as time goes on.

Apple Music app advertising Spatial Audio
While the catalog of music available in Spatial Audio at launch is limited, there are still plenty of newer albums to stream, including some of the ones above. APPLE

More obvious is that not all songs have Dolby Atmos available. In fact, most don't at the moment, but new ones are being added daily. Right now there are plenty of popular titles like Olivia Rodrigo's "Sour," Ariana Grande's catalog of albums and Taylor Swift's music. There are older tracks, too. I rediscovered Kacy Musgraves' "Golden Hour" from 2018; it sounds spectacular with more sonic depth.

The knock against Spatial Audio is that it's gimmicky. Placing instruments more freely in a 3D space seems pointless to some people. I've seen comments mentioning it just sounds like more reverb has been added to the songs. I largely disagree with that assessment, but I get the sentiment of being skeptical about messing with how music has been mixed for decades.

One of the more interesting tracks available at launch is the Jackson 5's "I Want You Back." Its original mix is very heavily stereo mixed. (Who am I to critique a classic?) But, in my opinion, it's panned too hard in one direction or another in some spots. The Dolby Atmos version, however, has a sense of space, but in a more natural way, without the extremes.

I think it's OK to be skeptical of music production. I'm personally fairly skeptical of high-resolution lossless music that extends to the upper reaches of what humans can hear. I think the finer, pixel-level details of a lot of music are lost on the average listener, who typically uses low-end headphones in noisy spaces. But, here, after some time with it, I think Spatial Audio is more a different beast as opposed to just adding in more bits. I think it presents a more practical way to listen and can be enjoyed by most people.

Apple Music app advertising Spatial Audio
Apple is providing several guided talks inside the Apple Music app to discuss different aspects around Spatial Audio with Dolby Atmos. APPLE

To that point, the upsides of listening this way are fantastic with no real downsides to having Dolby Atmos songs enabled all the time. If you don't notice the sound differences now, I think you will begin to notice with newer music releases in the future. In comparison, I see this similar to 5.1 home theater audio. Just because a lot of people watch movies on TVs using the small, built-in, tinny-sounding speakers doesn't mean that movies shouldn't still have surround sound available.

The analogies to home theater surround sound aren't perfect, but it's a technology easy to write off as gimmicky if you don't use it, don't have the right speaker setup or just don't feel its impact. But are there any movies now being made without 5.1 surround sound audio available? It's a baseline for most produced video content.

Spatial Audio with Dolby Atmos is coming to Apple Music for Android and will work with all kinds of wired and wireless headphones. If you really hate it, you can turn it off, but I recommend that most people turn it on and give it a chance.

AirPods Max

Listening on a pair of AirPods Max is a really great, albeit expensive, way to experience this new music technology. At $549, it's hard to recommend anyone go out to buy a pair of these over-the-ear headphones, but they do sound amazing. With a large driver in each ear cup, the headphones provide a wide soundstage for any song, so they are especially well-positioned to demonstrate Dolby Atmos songs.

AirPods Max
AirPods Max come in several different colors, including this sky blue. TYLER HAYES

High-end headphones that enclose your ears are probably the best way to bask fully in all the atmospheric details presented in Dolby Atmos. AirPods Max are Apple's solution to do that. They carry all the automatic setup and niceties that other AirPod products do. The active noise cancellation is strong and effective, plus their pass-through audio feature, which enables you to hear others while wearing headphones, is superb. And, still, at the end of the day, it's hard to say that you need these to grasp Spatial Audio fully in any way.

Is Apple Music Spatial Audio Worth It?

Simply put, Spatial Audio with Dolby Atmos is the future of music listening. There are very few roadblocks to trying it. All Apple Music subscribers get it as part of their subscription. It works fairly universally among listening devices. It is good enough now and will get tremendously better in the near future as the music industry adopts it. Hopefully, it's not too long before it's just a common standard among all streaming music services, Spotify included. If so, music fans everywhere will benefit from Apple pushing this boulder up the hill right now.

Here are some of my favorite songs using Spatial Audio with Dolby Atmos at launch:

Listen on Apple Music.

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