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What is Dolby Atmos Music, and how can you experience it?

Simon Cohen
what is dolby atmos music and how to get it mobile

Despite the advent of streaming music services, which have utterly changed the landscape when it comes to accessing music, there haven’t been many changes to how songs are produced. Whether you listen to music through terrestrial FM, digital satellite, MP3, CD, DVD-Audio, or even lossless high-resolution files like FLAC, or DSD, the original recording was probably created in stereo, that familiar, two-channel mix of sound that has been with us for decades.

That may soon be about to change: Dolby Atmos Music is slowly making its way into the mainstream music business and it makes good ol’ stereo sound like mono AM radio. You may already be aware of Dolby Atmos for movies and TV shows — if not, we have a great explainer and a detailed how-to guide — but Dolby Atmos Music is its own beast. An entirely new way of recording and listening to music, Atmos Music could become a big part of recorded music’s next big leap forward. Here’s everything you need to know.

What is Dolby Atmos Music?

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Dolby Atmos Music is music that has been recorded and produced using Dolby’s Atmos 3D audio format. That’s what we call it, but Dolby prefers the term “immersive” over “3D,” and describes Atmos not so much as a format than as an “experience.” Semantics aside, Atmos Music is different from traditional stereo music in a few key respects.

Keep the channels open

Modern day music producers have access to some very sophisticated digital recording equipment, that lets them mix music from dozens of separate channels (also called tracks). However, no matter how many channels they start with, if they’re creating a stereo recording, these multiple channels must be combined eventually into just two channels: A left and a right, which corresponds to the two speakers in a stereo environment. Dolby Atmos Music, on the other hand, is a native surround sound technology, with support for up to 128 channels, and up to 34 separate speakers in a home theater, including speakers that can direct sound down toward the listener from the ceiling.

That sounds like the kind of thing you’d get in a commercial movie theater, and it is — Dolby Atmos is used for creating highly immersive soundtracks for movies, with sound that feels like it’s coming from in front of you, behind you, both sides, and above. But that same recording technique can be used with music for a similar result: Total sonic immersion.

It would be easy to dismiss Dolby Atmos Music as simply a way to play normal tracks over a surround sound setup. After all, every home theater receiver can take an audio source like vinyl, CD, or streaming media, and run it through circuits and software that optimize it for a surround system, like a 7.1 speaker setup. But Atmos Music isn’t a conversion of stereo into multichannel surround — it’s a scratch-made recording that utilizes these extra channels in a whole new way.

One of the defining characteristics of both Dolby Atmos for movies and Dolby Atmos Music is that an object (or in the case of music, an instrument or vocal track) can be manipulated in 3D space by the producer independently. For example, when listening to Atmos Music on an Atmos-compatible sound system, you might hear the violins from the front of the room as a symphony begins, but as the music continues over time, those instruments could be gradually shifted in space to feel as though they are coming from all around you. It’s an unprecedented degree of control for producers, and much like the 3D effect in movies, it might feel jarring or even cheesy if it were executed in a ham-fisted way. But by the same token, it can also feel sublime when the spatial options are manipulated by a deft and experienced hand.

Where can I experience Dolby Atmos Music?

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As with its cinematic counterpart, there are two main ways to experience Dolby Atmos Music. Some clubs are beginning to install Dolby Atmos Music systems that give performing DJs the ability to control their music in 3D space around the club. These include Ministry of Sound in London, Sound-Bar in Chicago, and Halcyon in San Francisco.

If you have a Dolby Atmos-compatible home theater system at home, and a source of Dolby Atmos music, you’ll also be able to experience Atmos music from the comfort of your own home.

What do I need to listen to Dolby Atmos Music at home?

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Because Dolby Atmos is unlike stereo audio, or even traditional multichannel surround audio, you can’t buy Atmos Music on typical physical media like a compact disc, SACD, or DVD-audio. Nor will you be able to use typical digital music file formats like MP3, AAC, FLAC, or even DSD to transfer or listen to it. The only physical medium that currently supports Atmos Music is Blu-ray disc.

If you were determined to transfer the Atmos Music content by ripping the Blu-ray disc (and you were willing to break the law to do so), you would have to use a video file format. We understand that it can be done successfully using the .MKV container, but it’s also doable with the .mp4 format. Either way, you end up with a massive file size, which poses problems for use on portable devices that have limited storage.

While awkward from a storage point of view, that file size is what makes Dolby Atmos Music scalable: A single music track recorded in Dolby Atmos can be played back on a wide variety of devices and speakers configurations, from a massive 32-speaker private cinema to a pair of earbuds on your phone. However, there are big differences between these scenarios.

As a true surround sound format, the only way to get a full, authentic Atmos Music experience is with at least a 5.1.2 speaker configuration, in conjunction with an A/V receiver or soundbar that is Dolby Atmos-compatible. The more surround channels your system can support, the better your Atmos Music will sound. The same is true in reverse: As you move down to a simplified speaker arrangement — say a 5.1, or 3.1 system — as long as your audio device is capable of processing a Dolby Atmos signal, you’ll still hear the music, but its spatial immersion will gradually become less apparent.

Eventually, once you get down to a two-channel set of stereo speakers, it may be hard to tell the difference between Atmos Music and traditional stereo mixes, because there’s no longer a way for the Atmos system to move the sound around your listening space.

What about Dolby Atmos Music in headphones?

Headphones (with a few notable exceptions like the Razer Tiamat V2) are effectively 2-channel stereo speakers for your head. However, the fact that each ear can only hear one of those channels at a time means that a technique known as binaural audio can be used to simulate 360-degree sound (our brains are remarkably easy to fool). Dolby Atmos takes full advantage of binaural audio and is pretty headphone-friendly. In fact, Dolby Atmos for Headphones is already widely used throughout the Windows 10 and Xbox One gaming worlds as a way to give gamers a more immersive audio experience that helps them place characters, as well as actions like explosions and gunshots, in context so they can react faster and with greater accuracy.

The same binaural effect that makes Atmos for headphones so effective for gaming works with music as well, with the same distinctions we discussed earlier around cinematic Atmos versus Atmos for music.

To experience Dolby Atmos Music via headphones, you’ll need an audio device (smartphone, A/V receiver, laptop, etc.) that can run the Dolby Atmos decoder software, a source of Dolby Atmos music, and of course, a pair of headphones. Any headphones will work. But, as with traditional stereo, you’ll get a much better Atmos music experience with a set of high-quality cans versus the cheap earbuds that came with your phone.

Dolby maintains a list of phones that support Atmos and it includes many of the biggest brands. Apple isn’t among them, but this is expected to change with the rollout of iOS 13.

Where and when can I get Dolby Atmos Music?

Right now, Dolby Atmos Music is very hard to come by, though we expect that to change in the near future. Universal Music Group, which includes Capitol Records, has started the process of using Atmos in the creation of new recordings, as well as reaching into its massive back catalog to remaster its classics in Atmos.

For the moment, the only official source of music recorded in Dolby Atmos are Blu-ray discs that contain Atmos Music tracks. The 2017 release of INXS’s Kick 30th anniversary CD and Blu-ray collection is one example. The Blu-ray disc includes many videos created for that album’s tracks, as well as the entire album remastered by Giles Martin in Dolby Atmos. Martin is no stranger to Atmos; he was the driving force behind the 2017 remastering of The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band in the surround format. Sadly, this version has yet to make it to store shelves as a Blu-ray disc.

Currently, there’s no way to buy, rent, or subscribe to Atmos Music in digital formats online. None of the streaming services in the U.S. currently support it, and even online stores that cater to hi-res music fans do not sell Atmos Music tracks — although we were able to find one exception: AcousticSounds.com, which sells a single Dolby Atmos piece of music, which it provides in .mp4 format.

Do any music streaming services have Dolby Atmos Music?

No. It’s unknown when you’ll be able to stream Dolby Atmos Music in the U.S., but given Apple’s support for the format in iOS 13, we hope an announcement will come in 2019. That said, there have been — and continue to be — ways to listen to music performances in Dolby Atmos via video streaming services. For instance, Talyor Swift’s Reputation Stadium Tour on Netflix was recorded in Dolby Atmos. Live performances recorded in Atmos deliver a slightly different listening experience than studio-recorded Atmos: Live performances benefit from Atmos by delivering a more true-to-life concert experience, enhancing the feeling of “being there.”

Are there any other ways to experience immersive music?

In the cinematic and home theater space, Dolby’s main rival is DTS, the company behind DTS:X — an object-based surround sound technology that bears a strong similarity to Dolby Atmos. DTS:X can be used for music too, but so far there doesn’t appear to be much in the way of support for it. Most A/V receivers that can decode Dolby Atmos can also decode DTS:X, but again, you’d need music recorded using DTS:X to take advantage of it. Unless record labels jump on the DTS:X bandwagon, as Universal has with Atmos, the DTS:X music landscape will likely resemble a dessert for some time.

Perhaps Atmos Music’s biggest competition will come from Sony — some day. At CES 2019, Sony showed off its new 360 Reality Audio technology. Also object-based, it produced a dramatic result that gave our staff the chills, both in speaker and headphone format. As the new kid on the block, it has a long, steep climb ahead of it to catch up to Dolby Atmos on both the recording and playback sides of the equation. But, as the owner of the massive Sony BMG music publishing empire, Sony has a big advantage in pushing its concept of immersive music forward. The next few years will be critical to the success of these competing technologies, and yes, it’s possible that we as consumers could get caught in another format war. Let’s hope we aren’t looking at another Blu-ray vs. HD-DVD.