Dolby Atmos was first shown in 2012 in a Los Angeles movie theater, and now 10 years later, the technology is available in more than 6000 movie theaters. But Dolby Atmos is not only used for movies, since a few years ago Dolby also pushed the music standards. Many services such as Tidal, Amazon Music and perhaps especially Apple Music now support the standard. Apple is a company that has already marketed the standard as the next big thing when it comes to music, like the move from mono to stereo. Is that hype on the same level when Apple compared the Digital Crown input method on the Apple Watch to a multi-touch pointer or mouse? Who do you know.
A few weeks ago I visited the Dolby Atmos studio in Stockholm where we listened to the Swedish shooting star Paula Givens Mixed Dolby Atmos music in the same studio we’re sitting in. And in the studio it looks great, and not entirely unexpectedly. The instruments are well separated, the song sounds like it comes alive and both the speakers and the room are gone, I really feel like I’m sitting inside the song, due to the lack of a better expression. At home, though, it’s a slightly different story, I often think songs lose their “closeness” and sound a bit like the “concert hall effect” at many amps. But of course there are exceptions, like Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On,” which I think sounds better in Atmos. Then it’s also like a lot, a matter of taste.
So what is Dolby Atmos? As the name suggests, Dolby Atmos is one of Dolby’s latest inventions, which other than the stereo is owned by a company, which may not be the best. Anyway, Dolby Atmos originally took the usual surround sound and added additional height channels to give a more immersive home theater sound effect. Atmos is also not defined by the number of channels per se, but different sounds can be placed as objects, both in different channels, but also anywhere in the room.
In the studio, Atmos songs are exported in WAV format with hundreds of megabytes in size, but when they are then sent to streaming services like Apple Music, they are converted into MP4 files much smaller than that. So there is no streaming service offering lossless and Dolby Atmos at the same time at the moment. An interesting detail about the format is that the files in Apple Music are always converted to six channels (more or less than 5.1 surround), but as I understand it, for example, the Apple headphones will convert that file back to something more than 6 channels , but still.
When it comes to music itself as art, Paula makes a good point that it can be fun when, or rather if you say, artists really start making songs for spatial sound, and songs today are still created in stereo, and then mixed with Atmos. It remains to be seen if this will happen, but it is certainly interesting to think about and what it will mean for the tract.
Something that might be worth mentioning in the discussion about whether or not Dolby Atmos is the future is the evolution we’ve seen in terms of transferring audio from phones to headphones. Just a few years ago, we had a standard that everyone really used – the headphone jack. It has now been replaced by an increasingly fragmented landscape of different Bluetooth standards and different pairing protocols. Sure, it’s very convenient to use AirPods if you only use Apple stuff, but is that the way we want to go? Speakers and headphones, which previously worked well with any device, must be “locked” in different ecosystems. I wouldn’t say that Atmos contributes any solution to this problem, rather the opposite.
It’s also ironic that the quality of music has really gone backwards in recent years, we’ve gone from vinyl and CD quality recordings to MP3 and CD music online. Only now, CD quality is starting to make a comeback, with many streaming services starting to offer it. Many of us also listen to speakers that can only produce monaural sound at home. Why is it like that? It’s proven time and time again that most people don’t prioritize actual sound quality very highly, but what matters is how easy something is to use – just look at Sonos, Spotify, and AirPods.
It’s very hard to come up with a definitive answer and predict the future, but while the Dolby Atmos standard has big names like Apple behind it, I find it hard to see that it will be about stereo as the most popular format for music. Because it actually requires more work from artists, because who is going to stop making stereo mixes? number.
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