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Credit: MacRumors

Music Production

Apple Music launches Dolby Atmos-powered ‘Spatial Audio’ along with lossless tier

Never one to let a good marketing opportunity go to waste, Apple today fulfilled its promise from last year’s WWDC to bring lossless audio and Dolby Atmos-powered “Spatial Audio” to all Apple Music subscribers.

Lossless audio is similar to MP3 or AAC, in that it compresses the size of the original master audio file. Importantly, however, lossless encoders compress in such a way that the compressed file is mathematically identical to the original master file. This is unlike “lossy” MP3 or AAC compression, where parts of the frequency spectrum are completely removed to reduce file size.

While you likely won’t hear the difference in your average listening environment, the enhanced clarity and frequency response of lossless files can certainly be heard on high-end headphones or studio quality speakers.

More interesting for the future is Spatial Audio, which enables immersive three dimensional music experiences using Dolby Atmos technology. Atmos has long been used in movie and video game production, but has not yet established a true foothold in consumer music. It’s possible the emergence of 3D audio in Apple Music (and Sony’s Playstation 5) represents a critical consumer mass for the technology, but only time will tell.

So does it sound better?

The jury is still out on this one. We’ve spent the morning listening to Apple Music’s Spatial Audio playlists and comparing the tracks to their stereo counterparts. A few things stand out.

  1. The enhanced separation between instruments and mix elements is glorious and truly does create an immersive listening experience
  2. On the flip side, to achieve this effect the tracks take a noticeable hit in volume, and to our ears just don’t sound quite as punchy and clear as the identical stereo mixes

It’s worth remembering this is a brand new technology implementation. It is unclear if the “Atmos” mixes today are fully re-engineered in Atmos-approved studios or simply the original stereo mix up-converted using plug-ins.

Which brings us back to marketing. Just how Atmos these Atmos mixes are remains behind the veil. Apple has stated that dynamic head tracking for Atmos mixes on Apple Music will be available “this Fall,” which could further enhance the 3D listening experience. Until then, and without more technical information, it is unclear what the Atmos designation actually means in practice.

What it certainly means, however, is that Apple Music now has a library of mixes very few outside users have access to. By our assessment, at least in the short term, marketing this fact is as much the point as anything else.

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