Dolby Atmos Music, 360 Reality Audio, binaural, immersive, 3D music… All these terms are literally flying around your ears at the moment. Especially if you’re a bit into music streaming, you can’t really get around "3D music" on Apple Music, Tidel, Deezer and co.
What Dolby Atmos Music is all about, how it sounds and why current music hypes should be critically scrutinised we have already covered here.
One question that comes up again and again is: How good does 3D music sound now? What can the songs in Dolby Atmos Music or 360 Reality Audio accomplish? Or also, what can spatial sound for music actually not achieve?
Streaming services such as Tidal now offer quite a large selection of songs in Dolby Atmos Music and 360 Reality Audio, sorted into different playlists. You can enjoy the listening pleasure (or sometimes the opposite…) with Tidal with the TIDAL HiFi subscription (€19.99/month).
I listened to the Dolby Atmos playlists and 360 RA examples. I came up with the following list for Dolby Atmos Music and 360 Reality Audio. With both good and bad examples. Sony WH1000XM3* headphones and Apple AirPods Pro* were used.
The list was compiled on the basis of subjective impressions, the division into "good" and "bad" examples is based on sound descriptions. It was tried to formulate them as neutrally as possible and to leave personal taste out of it as much as possible.
However, the binaural listening experience varies considerably from person to person. These examples should therefore only be a listening stimulus, from which everyone can form his or her own opinion.
Most of the titles come from existing productions that have been remixed for both formats. New titles or albums, on the other hand, are sometimes produced especially for Dolby Atmos Music and 360 RA.
It is currently difficult to find the same titles in both formats – this may be due to the fact that the production for both formats would be too complex. On the other hand, labels like Sony Music Entertainment mainly release 360 Reality Audio content, whereas Universal Music Group produces a lot in Dolby Atmos Music. Sometimes even an entire album.
Here you can find an overview of streaming services for 3D music. There you can see which platform supports which format. And you are also invited to listen to the demo tracks.
Sound differences between the two technologies are described below, and there will soon be two separate posts on the technical differences.
What Dolby Atmos Music and 360 Reality Audio have in common is that they are object-based, immersive technologies. This means that audio content is transmitted together with associated metadata. Metadata describes, for example, the positions or loudness of the audio objects.
In addition, both are proprietary formats, which means that special tools are required for production: the Dolby Atmos Production Suite or the 360 Reality Audio Creative Suite.
It is noticeable that Sony does not use a loudness measurement, as all titles have different volume perception. This means that there are clearly audible jumps in loudness. This is not necessarily conducive to listening to music across the tracks. The listener probably has to constantly adjust the volume.
This is especially audible when switching from an older song (e.g. Space Oddity – David Bowie or Loves Me Like a Rock – Paul Simon) to a newer song (e.g. Closer – The Chainsmokers or Hometown – Kane Brown). Of course, this brings up the well-known problem of loudness, which is actually contained by loudness standards.
Attention: If, for example, you listen to Loves Me Like a Rock first and then jump to Hometown, your ears are in great danger!!!
The 360 Reality Audio mixes often sound rather dull and thin with unfamiliar resonating high mids. The immersion and spatiality also fall short of the possibilities of 3D audio.
However, 3D effects (positioning of sound sources in three-dimensional space, use of reverb/delay in 3D space) are now increasingly used.
The 360RA technology works much better with newer, more electronic songs. Presumably because these offer more possibilities to work with sound objects that can move and be positioned in space.
Comparing the first tracks already added to Tidal at the end of 2019 and those that are currently new, it is noticeable that the sound quality has improved. This may be due to a further development of Sony’s binaural renderer on the one hand, and improved production workflows on the other.
BED – Joel Corry, RAYE, David Guetta / Lonely – Joel Corry
Space Oddity – David Bowie
Don’t Let Me Down – The Chainsmokers, Daya
New Years Concert 2020 – Vienna Philharmonics
Album: Voyager – Paul Epworth
A Crow Left of the Murder – Incubus
Walk This Way – Aerosmith
No One / Empire State of Mind (Live at TIDAL X Rock The Vote) – Alicia Keys
Toxic – Britney Spears
I Ain’t Goin’ Out Like That – Cypress Hill
Compared to 360 Reality Audio, Dolby Atmos Music has the advantage that attention is paid to loudness normalisation and thus no strong loudness jumps occur. A different HRTF (head-related transfer function) is also used for binauralisation. On the one hand, it should sound like in a good cinema or a large recording studio. But it should not colour the sound too much with spatiality.
Overall, Dolby Atmos test songs here sound more balanced and less high-mid-heavy. On the other hand, the low mids are often emphasised too much. Most Dolby Atmos mixes sound very similar to the stereo mix (e.g. Stitches – Shawn Mendes). They are a little louder and a little more spatial than stereo, but that’s often it.
The immersive and spatial envelopment could be mixed much better and more noticeably! The overall concept of many Dolby Atmos Music demo mixes can be described as "conservative", usually adding little value compared to stereo.
Blinding Lights – The Weeknd
Shallow – Lady Gaga, Bradley Cooper
Imagine – John Lennon
Break My Heart Myself (feat. Travis Barker) – Bebe Rexha / Your Power – Billie Eilish
Clementine – Halsey
Born This Way – Lady Gaga
Call Me – Blondie
Welcome To The Jungle – Guns N’ Roses
Kryptonite – 3 Doors Down
Object-based technologies for the production of 3D music (such as Dolby Atmos Music or 360 Reality Audio) would offer a multitude of new possibilities: The use of a three-dimensional space, the feeling of envelopment, use of the height plane, personalisation at the end user etc.
Nevertheless, it can be said that both technologies currently fall far short of their potential, especially sonically.
360 Reality Audio songs are often creatively mixed, and make particular use of object panner in 3D space, but they often have a high-mid-range overall sound, given by the binaural renderer.
Dolby Atmos Music songs usually sound more balanced overall (with a tendency towards too strong mids), but they often hardly differ from the stereo mix and thus rarely offer added value.
The approach taken here can of course be questioned. So to compare these technologies only with the yardstick "which sounds better – stereo or 3D music mixes?" (apples to oranges). Binaural music, given its spatiality, lacks the "fat, close" sound that makes up stereo. Binaural music will certainly not replace stereo productions.
But still, for binaural songs not to just sound like something is missing, technologies such as Dolby Atmos Music or 360 Reality Audio must offer some added value over stereo. 3D music must at least sound "good in a different way", so that there is an incentive to listen to these mixes ALSO.
To this end, the new possibilities, above all spatiality and immersion, should be exploited to a much greater extent. Stronger, however, does not mean "too strong" – an exciting example of this is the phenomenon 8D-Audio.
The continuous panning around the head that is present there does have a good externalisation. You forget the feeling of using headphones. But it uses the effect of room panning much too strongly and simplified. This does not create a lasting, pleasant listening experience.
If subjectively so, Dolby Atmos Music is to be classified ahead of 360 Reality Audio in terms of sound. The latter, however, is more courageous in its use of the new production possibilities. So it remains exciting to see how and whether both technologies will develop sonically in the coming months. We will of course report about it here
Do you have other examples of good and bad 3D music titles? Feel free to send them to me and I can add to the list.Send me your examples!