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It doesn’t matter if Spatial Audio with Dolby Atmos is good because it’s already the future of Apple Music and the larger music industry, for better or for worse. Let us explain.
Apple announced Spatial Audio as part of Apple Music in May 2021. After less than two years, the company is now celebrating its success as part of a special press release.
In it, Eddy Cue said: “Since launch, Spatial Audio’s monthly listenership has more than tripled, with more than 80 percent of subscribers worldwide enjoying the experience, while Spatial Audio’s monthly plays have grown by over 1,000 percent.”
The increase in listeners is likely related to how much Apple has enabled the audio format on its devices.
All iPhone built-in speakers dating back to the XS automatically support Spatial Audio with Dolby Atmos. AirPods, modern Beats headphones, and even all Bluetooth headphones (that the iPhone knows are headphones).
Wired headphones also support the feature if Spatial Audio is explicitly turned on in the settings instead of set to “automatic”.
Apple is all in on Spatial Audio. So much so that it bundled it with lossless audio and distributed it to subscribers at no additional cost—even though Apple charges more for those audio formats.
Spatial audio in the music industry
In July 2021, following the release of Spatial Audio, Beatles producer Giles Martin commented on the technology, as well as the production and sound of the Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’.
IN A rolling stone interview, Martin called the first Spatial Audio mix not quite right. “I’m going to go back to the theater mix and do it in what’s called near-field Dolby Atmos, as opposed to cinema Dolby Atmos.”
Overall, despite the changes he felt were necessary, Martin seemed optimistic about the new hearing and its future.
“I think we’re just at the beginning of that. And I think what it can do is create an intimacy with music. You can hear the difference with spatial audio. It may not always be better, but it makes a difference.”
Almost two years later, all major label releases on Apple Music have a Spatial Audio mix available. Even better, older releases continue to be released each week and are highlighted in the app.
The audio format is growing and expanding, but it’s not yet as widespread as lossless. This is mostly due to the associated costs of producing spatial mixes.
As an example, the Dolby Atmos Production Suite costs $299. The Dolby Atmos Mastering Suite costs about $1,000. There may be other costs depending on the recording setup.
Overall, though, the more significant expense comes from building a Dolby 7.1.4-recommended monitoring system.
That would be seven surround speakers, one subwoofer and four overhead speakers. However, the production pack will support up to 22 speakers if one is so inclined.
Once those costs come down somehow, we should see even wider adaptation.
The independent side
As a point, Lyrah is a music artist who gets more than 250,000 monthly listeners on Spotify and has made the choice not to invest in Spatial Audio yet.
She explained: “There are two reasons why my songs are not mixed in spatial audio. My price and audience is primarily on Spotify, which doesn’t offer spatial listening.”
“In the long run I would love to, but since I’m trying to keep my production costs as low as possible, it doesn’t make sense right now,” she said. “I probably would have invested more in my live experience before doing a spatial audio listening experience.”
Ciel Eckard-Lee, mixing/mastering engineer and contributor to Lyrah, added: “Surround audio can provide an incredibly emotional experience in the right context, but most users don’t have the playback system to truly immerse themselves.”
“While Apple’s headphones do a good job of zooming into space, they’re not able to fully reproduce their presence within an array of speakers, and it mostly seems like a marketing ploy to sell more headphones and differentiate Apple Music.” , he said.
“I also think that not all types of music adapt well to the space because so much of the mixing and producing sounds that we love were developed for stereo,” said Eckard-Lee. “With the right listening and production environment, it can be great, but what’s available to the average consumer hasn’t been this compelling before.”
Other spatial audio
While Apple is certainly pushing the hardest on the Spatial Audio front, it’s not the only one.
Amazon Music Unlimited offers a catalog of “thousands” of Spatial Audio tracks mastered in Dolby Atmos and Sony 360 Reality Audio. Tidal, as part of its $19.99 per month HiFi Plus tier, offers access to Dolby Atmos and Sony 360 Reality Audio spatial mixes.
As of January 19, 2023, Spotify does not offer lossless or spatial audio tracks on its streaming service.
Dolby Atmos in other entertainment
Moving away from Spatial Audio music, the bigger picture may be the prevalence of Dolby Atmos in movies and TV shows. Consumers are trained to associate this Dolby brand with immersive and spatial audio content.
It doesn’t really matter that Dolby Atmos for music isn’t the same thing — including the detail that movie releases have to be mixed and mastered in a Dolby Certified studio, while music releases don’t.
Dolby Atmos is just starting to be associated with better audio, even if consumers can’t articulate exactly what that is.
Spatial Audio is the future of music
We’re far enough down this path of spatial audio that it doesn’t look like it’s going to be abandoned anytime soon.
Apple probably spent a lot of time and money investing in it because it’s important for virtual reality, where you need to hear sounds in 360-degree space.
But mostly, it’s a distinctive feature about Apple Music that customers don’t object to.
Anecdotally, Apple Music subscribers seem indifferent to the feature, if at all. This is included in their monthly costs and Apple eats any increased fees associated with licensing these songs.
Lossless audio is a hard sell because many listeners can distinguish higher quality after a certain threshold – and many people don’t care enough to try.
Spatial Audio offers a more practical and potentially tangible marketing angle. That’s why it’s the future for Apple, Amazon, Sony, Tidal, Dolby and a host of other companies in the music industry.