Dolby Atmos is already well established in the cinema and at home with discerning film lovers. Yet Dolby launches a new form of surround technology, specifically aimed at the music fan. But what exactly does Dolby Atmos Music offer?
Introduction Dolby Atmos Music
Is Dolby Atmos Music really something completely new? When you talk about the underlying technology, the answer is actually “no”. It could have been that Atmos Music was something new, because there are indeed different “flavors” of Dolby Atmos . For example, Atmos is a very advanced version in the cinema that can work with 128 channels. The home variant is a bit simpler, but still related to it. Dolby Atmos Height Virtualization is a version that simulates missing speakers in height via your regular surround speakers. The Atmos version does something similar on smartphones and tablets: it uses the extra data present in the Dolby Atmos soundtrack and places it virtually in space. So you get a kind of 3D display, even with headphones or the pair of speakers in the edge of your mobile device.
Dolby Atmos Music is Dolby Atmos as you know it from Ultra HD Blu-ray discs and streaming services. It is therefore a classic Dolby Digital Plus (lossy) or Dolby TrueHD (lossless) surround recording, supplemented by a so-called substream with information or metadata about sound objects (for example, a vehicle or an instrument). If you have extra speakers hanging on your wall or so-called Dolby speakers that reflect sound from your ceiling, the AV receiver will analyze that substream and place the audio objects in the room. That provides a much more seamless, immersive experience than with a 5.1 or 7.1 channel surround setup. Firstly, because sound objects can be placed more correctly in your space thanks to that metadata than with Dolby Digital or Dolby TrueHD. Secondly because height channels provide more realism. Sounds do not only come from around you but also from above, which makes everything feel more natural. A scene that takes place in a busy street sounds much more realistic with Dolby Atmos. Background noise (such as people talking and walking, a tram passing by and cars in the distance) are added to the height mix, making them appear as an extra layer next to the effects in the surround channels.
Starting from the mix
De benefits of Dolby Atmos also apply to music. That is why music releases in this format also appeared very quickly. The albums “1615 Gabrieli in Venice” by The Choir of Kings College or “Reflections” by Trondheim Solistene were among the first works to show the potential of Atmos. In both cases these are classic recordings made in the special acoustics of a church, an excellent opportunity for Atmos technology to convey that special spatial feeling. Later Atmos releases demonstrated that the technology also has value in other genres. The Atmos versions of Metallica's “Through The Never”, “3D The Catalog” by German electronic pioneers Kraftwerk or the reissue of “Automatic For The People” by R.E.M. are great to hear, just like “The Wall” by Roger Waters and “Smoke & Mirrors Live” by Imagine Dragons.
Music in a surround format has been around for a long time. For example, 5.1 mixes were found on a number of SACD discs and certain record labels always believed in them. The Norwegian 2L – a technological trendsetter in classical recordings – for example records orchestras in surround, sometimes starting from a very special arrangement. The musicians are arranged in a circle around the microphone, so that the listener appears to be in the middle of the piece of music. It is a completely different experience than a recording made from the concert hall. Not every classic lover can taste it, partly because the space is less noticeable.
It is still a matter of coffee how record labels will deal with Atmos releases. In theory, you can make very realistic live recordings with Atmos. When starting from all channels that were recorded, each instrument can be turned into a separate object. This can then be placed very precisely on a stage, which in turn can provide a super realistic representation. If labels choose to upgrade mixed stereo mixes to Atmos, the result depends on how much time is taken. Upmixing from stereo to multichannel is the easiest route, and is possible through plugins for professional audio production software.
In any case, Dolby Atmos music has the potential to sound much more realistic than a song in stereo sent by the AV receiver to surround. Virtually every receiver has one or more of those upmixing modes, such as Dolby Pro Logic II or DTS Neural: X . Those algorithms work in real time and are less sophisticated than the plug-ins professionals use.
Limited number of carriers
The notable releases mentioned above all appeared on Blu-ray, which makes sense. Until recently, disks were the only practical way to get a video with Atmos stream to a consumer.
That is slowly changing. To formally launch Dolby Atmos Music, Dolby has a partnership with Tidal and Amazon Music HD. Through both streaming services several thousand Atmos tracks can be heard, including work by Jay-Z, The Weeknd, Blondie and Ariana Grande. Record company Universal wants to expand that range even further. What seems strange is that the Atmos tracks can only be listened to via Tidal via an Android phone and only via the built-in loudspeaker or connected headphones.
So there is no way for the Atmos yet. play songs through an AV receiver or an Atmos soundbar, not even via Airplay or Chromecast, for example. Even if you have a television with a Tidal app, you cannot play the Atmos music. That's a line off the bill for people with a Dolby Atmos speaker setup, or as long as Tidal restricts access to the content. However, listening to Atmos music via a mobile device on paper does make sense. The extra metadata can be used by the mobile version of Atmos to create a simulated 3D view. That sounds better than if the algorithm has to start from a stereo recording.
How do I listen to music in Dolby Atmos?
To play Atmos content, you have to deliver it in bitstream format to your AV- receiver or Atmos-compatible soundbar. The easiest way to do this is with a Blu-ray player or UHD Blu-ray player that connects to an AV receiver via HDMI. You could also play media files with Dolby Atmos soundtracks through a media player connected to your AV receiver, although the question remains where to get those files legally. Some media players can also play Atmos streams from streaming services. The NVIDIA Shield or the Apple TV 4K can do that, although you will find streaming videos with only some exceptions with Atmos via streaming services. Recent TVs allow to do without an AV receiver. Thanks to a eARC connection, it is possible to send an Atmos stream from a streaming service such as Netflix to an Atmos soundbar. In this scenario, too, the concern applies that specific Atmos Music content is not easy to find. That only changes when, for example, Tidal offers Dolby Atmos music via the TV app. Until now, drives remain the best option.
It is a tradition in the AV world that there should always be a rival for any technology. This is also the case with Dolby Atmos Music. Sony – the eternal sleeper when it comes to media formats – strongly believes in 360 Reality Audio, a 3D format based on MPEG-H. That's an alternative to Dolby Atmos and the rival DTS: X, with a more accessible licensing structure. Another difference is that MPEG-H is being developed as a broader technology. It is not only intended for film, but also for very different applications, such as virtual reality. However, it is not yet completely clear what Sony is planning with 360 Reality Audio . It is rumored in some corners that the format may play a greater role in the introduction of the PlayStation 5 later this year.