Apple Music’s spatial audio is amazing at times, but mostly inconsistent

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Late Monday night, Apple flipped the switch on two new features for its Apple Music subscription service: immersive spatial audio from Dolby Atmos and lossless streaming. However, it feels like the company is really only excited about one of them, and it won’t be the last.

Eddy Cue is Apple’s senior vice president of services and the person who oversees Apple Music. He didn’t mince his words when he told it Billboard that the sudden spread of lossless audio will not significantly evolve or change the way we listen to music. “There’s no doubt it won’t be lossless,” he said when asked what technologies will bring about the “next-gen” of music streaming. Cue is firmly on the side of the crowd who claim that most people can’t tell the difference between CD-quality or hi-res songs and the AAC or MP3 files that have been filling their ears for so long. He did acknowledge that the higher bit rate songs could be of interest to music lovers with particularly keen hearing or top-notch audio equipment, but he was also direct about how niche that group is.

“The reality of lossless is, if you take 100 people and you take a stereo song in lossless and you take a song compressed in Apple Music, I don’t know if it’s 99 or 98, I can’t tell the difference.” Cue revealed that he has done regular blind tests with the Apple Music team, and they confirm how rare it is that someone can consistently recognize lossless audio.”You can say to someone, ‘Oh, you’re listening to a lossless audio. [song],’ and they tell you, ‘Oh, wow. That sounds incredible.’ They’re just saying it because you told them it’s lossless and it sounds like the right thing to say, but you just don’t know.”

Judging by the message that Cue and Apple are pushing, the Dolby Atmos-powered spatial audio feature is the real breakthrough. “When I look at Dolby Atmos, I think it will do for music what HD did for television,” Cue said in the Billboard interview. And then he really went inside:

“I think this is all going to take over. It’s the way I want to listen to music when I’m in my car. It’s going to be the way I listen to music directly with my AirPods. It’s going to be the way I listen to music at home “In a way it won’t feel very good if I’m listening to something that’s not Dolby Atmos because it’s so good. It’s like when I’m watching HD it’s hard to go back.”

“This requires someone who is a sound engineer and the artist to sit back and listen, and really make the right calls and the right things to do,” Cue told me. Billboard on mixing for spatial audio. “It’s a process that takes time, but it’s worth it.”

The problem is, with much of the Dolby Atmos content on Apple Music that I’ve sampled so far, it seems like not everyone is making the right calls. It’s a hit and miss exploration game, and songs that really show the immersive potential of Atmos are more often the exception than the rule. In many cases, spatial audio tracks have an artificial width, unfamiliar placement of vocals and instrumentation, and plain sound… from. Far away? Too reversible? Choose your favorite interpretation. Still, Apple is so confident in Apple Music’s spatial audio that it essentially overnight became the standard for millions of customers listening with AirPods.

But let’s backtrack a little.

What should spatial audio do for music?

In short, it’s all about immersion. Here’s how Cue hyped it: “It makes you feel like you’re on stage, right next to the vocalist. It makes you feel like you’re on the drummer’s left, guitarist’s right.” On its website, Apple says that “music created in Dolby Atmos is channel-free, allowing artists to place individual sounds all around you.”

Wow there. Like all senior executives at Apple, Eddy Cue knows how to pitch things. But if you bang your AirPods and expect to feel like an invisible person standing in the middle of a recording session, you probably won’t be impressed.

When done right, spatial audio does indeed give music a unique sense of breadth. And it’s in a different way than high-end headphones that get the most out of the soundstage of a stereo track. Vocals in particular often have a very clear placement in the mix and cut through better than on traditional stereo tracks. That’s the most consistent benefit I’ve noticed with spatial audio music. But because of the different mix, you’ll most likely also pick up details or sounds that you wouldn’t normally notice in the regular version of a song. And on the best Atmos tracks, everything has a lot more room to breathe.

But when engineers don’t take great care with an Atmos mix, it really shows. Sometimes everything can give so much space to take the impact or creaking out of guitars. Or other aspects of a job fall flat. I’ve included just a few examples below where the spatial audio version of a song is a clear downgrade from the original. But there are many, and hitting a few in a row where the vocals sound weird or something isn’t right can detract from the listening experience.

How many songs are available in Dolby Atmos spatial audio?

Apple isn’t giving any hard numbers right now, just saying that “thousands” of tracks will be available with spatial audio at launch, with many more to come.

How do I know when I hear spatial audio on Apple Music?

You’ll see a Dolby Atmos or Dolby Audio logo appear on the Now Playing screen below the album art.

A few random, good examples of spatial audio from Apple Music:

“Don’t Know Why” by Norah Jones – This is one where I almost believe in the description of Cue. Close your eyes and you could almost transport yourself to a small club where the spread of this mix feels like a live version of Jones’ career hit. Stereo doesn’t take you to the same place.

“Paparazzi” by Lady Gaga — With a very surround sound-like mix (go to the second verse at 1:23 for the best examples), this is a great example of an old pop hit with excellent spatial audio handling.

“Tree” by Tiësto and Sevenn — A fun, lively song that does have a nice surround sound effect.

Kanye West’s “Black Skinhead” — This is another great example of the “beyond two-channel” openness that spatial audio can provide.

Very much jazz and classic — If there are two genres that naturally lend themselves to spatial audio and Dolby Atmos, it’s jazz and classical. Orchestras can sound really massive, and it’s an engaging way to listen to jazz ensembles where it’s easy to hear even the softest notes.

Other examples where it just sounds wrong

“Buddy Holly” by Weezer — The guitars basically lose all life in this mix and vocals dominate the whole thing in a way that just sounds weird and bad. And yet this song is on Apple’s own playlist, meant to showcase Atmos.

“Follow Your Arrow” by Kacey Musgraves — Apple named Musgraves as an artist to check out at Atmos. And while her most recent album golden hour sounds… fine… her breakthrough Same trailer Different park is quite rough in spatial audio format. “Follow Your Arrow” seems to lose most of its backing vocals, and even the main guitar melody here is much calmer than in the regular mix. It almost comes across as a demo recording.

“What’s my age again?” by Blink 182 — This is another track that Apple seems to think spatial audio sounds good, but I’d strongly argue it does the opposite. Mark Hoppus’ muffled vocals sound legit as if they were recorded over a phone.

“Alex Chilton” by The Replacements — Is that enough cowbell for you during the chorus? It overpowers everything else and makes me feel like I’m in the old Christopher Walken SNL sketch, only with a different band.

I’m curious about some of your samples that sound great, and others that you found disappointing at Atmos.

Do I need AirPods or Beats headphones for Apple Music spatial audio?

No. Apple Music spatial audio works on:

  • All headphones and earbuds
  • The speakers on supported iPhones, iPads, and Macs
  • Apple TV 4K

If you set Dolby Atmos to “always on” in the Music app settings, you’ll see a popup saying it probably won’t sound good on all speakers, but Apple Music will still play the spatial audio mix if that’s your preference. In fact, Apple clearly states that you can “listen on any headphones” to Apple Music’s spatial audio.

How do I turn off Apple Music spatial audio if I don’t like it?

iOS and iPadOS: Go to Settings > Music > Dolby Atmos (under “audio”), and there you can choose between automatic, always on and off.

If you’d rather leave Atmos on by default, but quickly switch to a regular stereo version of a song that’s playing, just pull down Control Center, hold down the volume slider, and turn off spatial audio. Apple Music switches to stereo. Turning spatial audio back on will return you to the Atmos track.

macOS: Open the preferences in the Music app and select the ‘play’ tab. Halfway through you will see an ‘audio quality’ section and that includes Atmos. You get the same three automatic/always on/off choices as on Apple’s mobile devices.

Head-tracking coming to Apple Music spatial audio this fall

Apple Music’s spatial audio is currently very different from the spatial audio experience you get when watching movies and TV shows on an iPhone or iPad. For videos, Apple has a head-tracking feature that adjusts the placement of the sound as you turn your head to keep it anchored to the source device. This trick is exclusive to the AirPods range, but it’s a very impressive effect.

Apple has said it plans to bring this sound-changing feature to Apple Music in the fall — likely with iOS 15.

Is this just a gimmick?

That’s actually the question that still needs to be answered. But Apple isn’t alone in hyping multidimensional music (nor is it the first to do so). Amazon, Tidal and others are also increasingly pushing the experience. I recently reviewed an extravagant Sony speaker that positions 360-degree audio as its main selling point.

Are people like Eddy Cue and Zane Lowe right to claim that spatial audio will revolutionize the way we consume music in the same way that stereo did? Or is this a gimmick like 3D TVs that will fade and be forgotten in a few years? If it comes first, it will take a lot of work and creativity from artists, producers and mixers to make this format shine.

Because right now, for every Atmos spatial audio track that stands out on Apple Music, there are a dozen others that are rather meh — or worse than in stereo. We’re still in its infancy, and now that Atmos is officially part of Apple Music, hopefully consistency will improve. When you find those mixes that they totally agree with, that’s something special.

Apple should make it easier to switch between Atmos and regular stereo

But in the meantime, and to keep people from turning from of Atmos when they hit a bad mix, Apple Music should make it easier to go back and forth between spatial audio and regular stereo tracks song by song. One solution could be to show a choice when you tap the Dolby icon, similar to the “go to artist/album” options that appear when you tap an artist’s name.