I love Spatial Audio music but I can’t enjoy it

Photo by Vivien Wauthier on Unsplash

Spatial Audio is the term used to represent a number of different technologies such as Dolby Atmos that essentially give you 360 degree surround sound but without the need for multiple speakers. This technology can be used as part of a home cinema set up as well as computers like the M1 Macbook Pro and headphones like the Airpod Max which is what I bought a month or so ago.

I bought the headphones after reading up on spatial audio and how I would be able to watch movies in the format with the Apple TV 4K I already had as well as enjoy gaming in spatial audio and spatial audio music seemed like icing on the cake.

I can’t fault the Airpod Max at all aside from maybe the lack of a headphone jack (Apple seem to have it in for that particular port), they are maybe the most comfortable pair of noise cancelling headphones I’ve ever owned and they are remarkably light.

My first port of call for trying out Spatial Audio was Disney+ as all the Star Wars movies on there support 4K and Dolby Atmos, plus connecting the headphones to the Apple TV 4K is really easy so it was good excuse to watch the trilogy again.

I then tried a few games on my Windows 10 machine, opting to play Tomb Raider: Shadow of Tomb Raider first which was so immersive that the claustrophobic scene where Lara is almost crushed while diving actually felt uncomfortable even though I was in no sense of danger myself.

I then had my girlfriend play Resident Evil 2 (a game she really loves) and she confirmed the immersion was incredible. I am too much of a wuss when it comes to horror games (I hate jump scares) that I will never experience that however.

A note for potential Xbox Series X owners though, the console doesn’t have bluetooth so you won’t be able to experience Atmos gaming without a headset that uses the Xbox wireless connection technology.

Rediscovering details in my favourite tracks via Spatial Audio

After trying out the movie and gaming side of Spatial Audio I decided to bite the bullet and sign up for Apple Music as this was the cheaper option for me because the Airpods came with a 6 month trial, Amazon’s service is £8–10 depending if you have Amazon Prime and TIDAL is £20.

Listening to music in Spatial Audio is amazing as it opens up the sound stage massively and grants clarity to each instrument in the mix which allows you to find the subtle nuances that are often lost in a stereo mix and the bass on spatial audio tracks is just on another level.

I’d recommend trying the following tracks to see the difference Spatial Audio makes:

  • Bohemian Rhapsody by Queen — As you can imagine the operatic parts of the song really help show the space the format creates
  • Taxman by The Beatles — Really good for experiencing the placement of different instruments around the listener
  • Could You Be Loved by Bob Marley & The Wailers — A good track for clarity of instruments and hearing all the different grooves that make up the song (to be honest the entire Legend album is great for this)
  • Feel the Love by Rudimental — This song is a good example of D&B and how the extra space and clarity means the bass doesn’t overpower the mix
  • Dimension by Wolfmother — This song shows the ability for the layering to really add dynamics to the sound with the extra guitar overlay really bringing extra oomph to the mix
  • Prokofiev: Dance of the Knights by Andre Previn & London Symphony Orchestra — This song is a good example of classical music in the format and how the sense of space makes it feel your in the room with the orchestra

Here’s a couple of tracks that the extra clarity (or lack of) makes you aware of some things you may have missed before (and been glad to)

  • Amazonia by Gojira — The guitar sounds amazing but good luck hearing any of the vocals
  • You Give Love a Bad Name — The falsetto backing layer at the start is way too clear -luckily it’s less obvious in the chorus though

Being completely unable to discover anything in Apple Music

An example of Apple Music’s terrible job of highlighting Spatial Audio. The album doesn’t have Atmos listed even though two tracks (Welcome to the Jungle being one) are in the format. The progress bar is the only indicator the song is in Atmos (the icon in the top right).

Considering the amount of effort Apple put into marketing Spatial Audio as a feature of the Airpods they are doing an absolutely shit job of helping you find tracks in the format in Apple Music.

In order to find their special section for Spatial Audio tracks you have to click the search bar which then loads a bunch of buttons to jump to specific areas (I’d say genre but they don’t strictly follow that pattern ). Once you’re in the Spatial Audio section you then have a set of playlists and albums you can choose from but this list rotates often and there’s no means outside of these lists to see if single tracks are in the Atmos format.

I eventually found a really useful tool by Ben Dodson called the Spatial Audio Finder which allows you to search for artists and tracks to see if they are available in Atmos.

Ben also runs a really handy Twitter account — NewSpatialAudio — that tweets when tracks and albums get upgraded. It’s through this bot that I found out that Wolfmother’s album was upgraded to Spatial Audio, something that Apple’s listings haven’t been updated to reflect (it’s worth noting that neither TIDAL nor Amazon Music appear to have the album in Atmos at time of writing).

Personally, those listings are another reason why it’s hard to find anything as they aren’t tailored to my tastes and are just statically compiled by Apple so there’s a certain bias on what makes it on there. I’m sure if the same service was on Spotify there’d be a specific Spatial Audio playlist that could be created based on your existing music tastes.

Another reason why it’s hard to find anything is that even if you previously bought music via iTunes in the times before Apple Music you won’t get those Spatial Audio versions in your artist / album listing and you have to go find it in Apple Music to save to that list.

This weird mix of purchased music and streaming music is a massive issue in my Apple Music library as I used to buy a lot of albums before moving to Spotify which has the concept of following an artist and getting access to all their albums, EPs and singles from one page.

Moving back to Apple Music I found myself missing a lot of releases because my music library was stuck in 2016 when I left but there’s no easy way to update the library so that existing library and the artist->album is essentially pointless.

I won’t be able to enjoy Spatial Audio just yet

Once my six month trial of Apple Music is over I’ll be cut off from access Spatial Audio as the Apple Music interface is just too crap to be useful to even contemplating paying £10 a month and losing access to an actual useful way of accessing my music via Spotify.

If Spotify opt to support Spatial Audio at a later time then I’ll be very happy but this doesn’t seem to be high up on their list of priorities, plus I imagine the fact that Dolby is going to be looking to take a cut for Atmos will make it harder to get to market.

Until now though I’ll have to just hope that some of my favourite albums are released in Spatial Audio so I can enjoy them until my trial runs out.

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Colin Wren

Colin Wren

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Currently building reciprocal.dev. Interested in building shared understanding, Automated Testing, Dev practises, Metal, Chiptune. All views my own.