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’s changing fast: Dolby Atmos Music has made 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 — now with the backing of industry giant Apple — 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?
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 as not so much a format, but 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 from-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.
Initially, the only way to hear Dolby Atmos Music was through a dedicated Dolby Atmos-capable A/V receiver, soundbar, or very specific wireless speakers. However, Atmos Music can also be rendered through a regular set of headphones thanks to the magic of binaural sound — a little bit of audio trickery that convinces your brain that sounds are being produced from various locations and not just the two speakers clamped to your head.
For now, options for Dolby Atmos Music using headphones is limited to just a few devices, but we expect this to grow over time, with Apple Music (see below) leading the way.
How can I listen to Dolby Atmos Music?
In 2021, there will be several ways you can listen to Dolby Atmos Music:
Atmos Music on home theater speakers and soundbars
Tidal’s HiFi subscription tier includes a library of Dolby Atmos Music tracks. If you have an Atmos-capable media streamer, such as the Apple TV 4K, Amazon Fire TV (Stick 4K, Cube, 3rd-gen Stick), Nvidia’s Shield TV, and an Atmos-capable A/V receiver or soundbar, you can listen to Atmos Music via the Tidal app for these streamers.
If you own a Dolby Atmos-capable Android TV, you can download the Tidal app from the Google Play store and stream Atmos Music tracks directly on your TV. By default, these will be reproduced via the TV’s internal speakers, but if you connect an Atmos-capable A/V receiver or soundbar via HDMI ARC or eARC, you’ll get the full Atmos Music experience.
There are also a few live concert videos recorded in Dolby Atmos. For instance, Taylor 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.”
Atmos Music on wireless speakers
Atmos Music on smartphones and tablets
Dolby Atmos-compatible Android smartphones or tablets like the Samsung Galaxy S20 and Galaxy S10, as well as the latest Dolby Atmos-enabled devices from Huawei and Sony, can use the Tidal app along with the HiFi subscription tier to access Atmos Music tracks.
Beginning in June, Apple Music will offer spatial audio support for Dolby Atmos Music and lossless music up to 24-bit/192KHz to subscribers at no extra charge. By default, Apple Music will play the Dolby Atmos version of tracks (when available) on all AirPods and Beats headphones with an H1 or W1 chip. The built-in speakers on the latest versions of the iPhone, iPad, and Mac will also take advantage of the tech automatically.
Dolby Atmos from Apple Music will also work with all third-party wired and wireless headphones.
For iPhone owners, Apple Music will be the first (and for now, only) way to hear Dolby Atmos music using headphones.
Atmos Music downloads
Currently, there’s no way to buy Atmos Music in digital formats online. Even online stores that cater to hi-res music fans do not sell Atmos Music tracks — although we’ve been able to find two exceptions so far: AcousticSounds.com, which sells a single Dolby Atmos piece of music, which it provides in .mp4 format, and Matt Darey, an EDM artist who sells his albums Wolf and Retrospective, as dedicated Atmos mixes directly to the public. You can buy them in MT2S, MKV, and MP4 formats.
To listen to these Atmos tracks as actual Atmos Music, you’ll need to use an Atmos-capable media streamer like an Apple TV 4K or Nvidia Shield, and an Atmos-capable media player app, like Plex.
Atmos Music on Blu-ray
Blu-ray discs can be used to play Atmos Music and there have been several albums released in this format. Beatles fans will be happy to know that Abbey Road happens to be one of them. Unfortunately, the selection is still razor-thin. If you have a Blu-ray disc player and a Dolby Atmos-capable receiver or soundbar, you’re good to go.
The biggest advantage of Dolby Atmos Music on Blu-ray is that the audio is presented in Dolby TrueHD, a 24-bit high-resolution, lossless audio format, making it the highest possible quality for Atmos.
What kind of music is available in Dolby Atmos Music?
Dolby is currently partnered with two major music companies: Universal Music Group and Warner Music Group. Both companies have said they will be releasing new recordings as well as back-catalog classics in the Atmos Music format. The exact number of Atmos Music tracks isn’t something any of the players have shared publicly, though previous commitments peg the size in the thousands.
Warner hasn’t offered a list of its available artists, but Universal has said its Atmos Music contributions will include tracks from Bastille, The Beatles, Billie Eilish, Elton John, Lady Gaga, Luciano Pavarotti, Marvin Gaye, and The Weeknd — to name a few.
Are there any other 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.
Are there any competitors to Dolby Atmos Music?
Atmos Music’s most significant competition comes from Sony. The new 360 Reality Audio format (360RA), which gave our staff the chills during the demo at CES 2019, is also an immersive, object-based audio format for both speakers and headphones. It made its streaming debut on the Deezer music service in October 2019 and arrived on Tidal shortly afterward. You can now find 360RA tracks on Amazon Music HD and Nugs.net, too.
As the new kid on the block, 360RA has a long, steep climb to catch up to Dolby Atmos no matter what Sony says. 360RA currently falls short on both the recording and playback sides of the equation. Early reviews of Sony’s 360RA speakers, the SRS-RA3000 and SRS-RA5000, suggest that Dolby doesn’t have to worry — not in the short term, at least.
However, as the owner of the massive Sony BMG music publishing empire, Sony has a big advantage in pushing its concept of immersive music forward, so it’s tough to count the newcomer out at this point. The next few years will be critical to the success of these competing technologies. And yes, consumers will most likely find themselves caught in another format war.
Dolby’s main competitor in home theater and cinematic space is DTS, the company that created DTS:X — an object-based surround-sound technology that bears a substantial similarity to Dolby Atmos.
The main difference is with the configuration of the speakers, as DTS:X functions with a standard setup for surround speakers. DTS:X, originally created to compete against Dolby Atmos in the home theater ring, can also be used for music.
Unfortunately, though many Blu-Rays and 4K Blu-Rays accommodate DTS:X thus far, there isn’t much in the way of support for music. Most of the A/V receivers that are capable of decoding Dolby Atmos can also decode DTS:X.
But again, you can’t take advantage of it unless you have music recorded using DTS:X. So, until the day that record labels embrace DTS:X, as Universal and Warner have with Atmos, the DTS:X music landscape will likely resemble a desert.
Dolby Atmos is different than anything else on the market right now, making it difficult to fully appreciate it without hearing it yourself.
When you’re ready to make the switch from lackluster stereo music to Dolby’s innovative “immersive” system, Dolby’s proprietary tech will take you there. Sony or DTS will catch up eventually, but for now, Dolby’s leading the pack. Honestly, we can’t wait to hear how music will improve next.