Why Spatial Audio is the future of the music industry, even if you hate it

by Lindsey Francy Jan 29, 2023 News
Why Spatial Audio is the future of the music industry, even if you hate it

Apple Music is compatible with the latest in audio technology.

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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 worse. Let us explain.

Apple Music has Spatial Audio as part of it's offerings. The company celebrated its success in less than two years.

In it, Eddy Cue said, "Since launch, the number of monthly Spatial Audio listeners has more than tripled, with more than 80 percent of worldwide subscribers enjoying the experience, while monthly plays in Spatial Audio have grown by over 1,000 percent."

The increase in listeners probably has to do with how much Apple is enabling the audio format across its devices.

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The built-in speakers on the iPhone are compatible with Spatial Audio. All the headphones that the phone knows are headphones.

Wired headphones support the feature too if Spatial Audio is explicitly turned on in the settings, rather than set to "automatic."

Apple is all in on Spatial Audio. So much so that it bundled it with lossless audio and gave it away to subscribers for no additional cost — despite Apple paying more in royalty fees for those audio formats.

In July 2021, after Spatial Audio rolled out, Beatles' producer Giles Martin commented on the technology as well as the production and sound of the "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" album.

In the Rolling Stone interview, Martin called out the first Spatial Audio mix as not being quite right. "I'm gonna go back to the theatrical mix and make it into what's called near-field Dolby Atmos, as opposed to the cinema Dolby Atmos."

Despite the changes he thought needed to be made, Martin was positive about the new listening experience.

"I think we're right at the beginning of this. And I think what it can do is it can create intimacy with music. You can hear the difference with spatial audio. It may not always be better, but there's a difference."

Nearly two years later, all major label releases on Apple Music have a Spatial Audio mix available. Better yet, older releases continue to be released weekly and highlighted in the app.

Mixing for Dolby Atmos

The audio format is growing and expanding, but it has yet to spread as widely as lossless has. Mostly, that's due to the associated costs to produce spatial mixes.

As an example, the Dolby Atmos Production Suite costs $299. The Dolby Atmos Mastering Suite costs around $1,000. There may be other costs depending on the recording setup.

Overall though, the more significant expense comes from building out a Dolby-recommended 7.1.4 monitoring system.

That would be seven surround speakers, one subwoofer, and four overhead speakers. The Production Suite will support up to 22 speakers, however, if someone is so inclined.

Once these costs come down in some way, we should see even wider adaption.

As a point, Lyrah is a musical artist who gets more than 250,000 monthly listeners on Spotify and has made the choice not to invest in Spatial Audio yet.

Lyrah and Ciel Eckard-Lee Lyrah and Ciel Eckard-Lee

She explained, "There are two reasons I don't have my songs mixed in spatial audio. The cost and my audience base mainly being on Spotify, which doesn't offer a spatial listening experience."

"Longterm I'd love to, but because I try to keep my production costs as low as possible, it doesn't make sense right now," she said. "I'd probably invest more in my live show experience before I would a spatial audio listening experience."

Most consumers don't have the proper equipment to immerse themselves intial audio, which can provide an incredibly emotional experience.

"While Apple's headphones do a good job of approximating spatialization, they're not able to fully replicate being within a speaker array, and it mostly seems like a marketing tactic to sell more headphones and differentiate Apple Music," he said.

"I also think that not all kinds of music adapt well to spatial since so much of the mixing and production sounds we've come to love have been developed for stereo," Eckard-Lee said. "With the right listening environment and production, it can be awesome, but what's available to the average consumer hasn't been that compelling so far."

Although 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 songs mastered in Dolby Atmos and Sony 360 Reality Audio. Tidal, as part of its $19.99 a month HiFi Plus tier, offers access to Dolby Atmos and Sony 360 Reality Audio spatial mixes.

As of January 19, 2023, Spotify doesn't offer lossless or spatial audio songs on its streaming service.

Stepping back from Spatial Audio music, the larger picture might be the prevalence of Dolby Atmos in movies and TV shows. Consumers are being trained to associate this Dolby branding with immersive and spatial audio content.

It doesn't really matter that Dolby Atmos for music is not the same thing — including the detail that cinema releases need to be mixed and mastered at a Dolby Certified studio, while music releases do not.

Dolby Atmos is simply coming to be associated with better audio, even if consumers can't quite articulate what that is.

We're far enough down this Spatial Audio road that it doesn't look like it'll be abandoned any time soon.

Virtual surround sound

Apple has likely spent a lot of time and money investing in it because it's important for virtual reality where you need to hear sounds in a 360-degree space.

But mostly, it's a differentiator for Apple Music that customers aren't pushing back against.

Anecdotally, Apple Music subscribers seem indifferent to the feature, if anything. It's bundled in their monthly cost and Apple is eating any increased fees associated with licensing these songs.

A lot of people don't care enough to listen to lossless audio because they can tell the higher quality past a threshold.

Spatial Audio does offer a more practical and potentially tangible marketing angle. That's why it's the future, for Apple, Amazon, Sony, Tidal, Dolby, and a plethora of other companies in the music industry.