Can Lightning Strike Twice with Dolby Atmos Music?

Steve May | Feb 05, 2020

With immersive audio now dominating the movie scene, from sound mixing to cinema design, Dolby has once again turned its attention back to audio, launching Dolby Atmos Music — but will this new immersive variant chart or tank?

In many ways, Dolby Atmos Music is a tip of the hat to the technology giant’s music heritage. OG AV pros will remember first encountering Dolby as an audio-only noise reduction technology.

First, the Issues

But Atmos Music is rather more sophisticated than Dolby A, B, or C. Adopting object-based content creation allows artists to strive for an entirely new listening experience, one seemingly ripe for technology integrators to exploit.

But there are caveats — and surround sound audio isn’t exactly new.

Super Audio CD and DVD-A didn’t just offer an early taste for high-resolution audio on physical media, they also supported multichannel mixes. The SACD 5.1 release of Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon album remains to this day a powerful example of just how ahead of its time that Sony/Philips disc format was, while Rush’s 2112, in multichannel DVD-Audio, still remains the next best thing to seeing the Canadian rockers live.
But sadly neither format took off. Dolby Atmos Music is taking a different approach. For one thing, it’s not dependent on any physical disc format.
Sure, there are Dolby Atmos Music releases on Blu-ray, but they’re far from mainstream purchases. What actually makes this new Atmos iteration interesting are the partnerships Dolby has struck with streaming giants Amazon Music and Tidal.

Title availability may be limited, but with both Universal and Warner on-board, the catalog should improve rapidly.

Atmos is available as part of Amazon Music HD and on Tidal’s premium HiFi tier. But, frustratingly, the opportunities both offer are limited.

While Amazon’s Fire TV streamers (from the Fire TV Cube down) have an Amazon Music HD app, its device is limited to 24-bit stereo. You can’t output Atmos music from a Fire TV device over HDMI into a fully-fledged home theatre system. Indeed, currently the only way to experience it is with the Amazon Echo Studio, a relatively inexpensive smart speaker, albeit it one with a trio of mid-range drivers, one of which is up-firing, a downward-firing bass woofer and tiny tweeter!

As a single device, the Echo Studio is undoubtedly interesting, but it hardly opens the door to new business.
Fellow Dolby Atmos Music supporter Tidal doesn’t even have the benefit of a media player platform. So just how are users expected to enjoy this new era of immersive audio? On headphones, it seems.

Solid Opportunities

But we have good news! A Dolby insider has confided to us that it is looking to unlock Dolby Atmos Music playback from Fire TV gizmos via a firmware update. So it might be worth designing listening rooms with Atmos in mind, sooner rather than later.  

Of course, Dolby Atmos Music isn’t the only immersive music gig in town. Sony has a rival technology, known as 360 Reality Audio, which does much the same thing. Also available through Amazon Music, as well as Deezer, it’s similarly a headphone proposition, with decoding provided by a smartphone app. Thankfully, Sony hints at wider future use. Perhaps we’ll have 360 Reality Audio support on the upcoming PS5 games console?

Now that sounds like a plan to us.

While immersive audio for music remains a work in progress, High-Res Audio has very much broken through. It’s now a tangible benefit, widely understood by consumers.

Qobuz, Deezer, Tidal, and Apple Music (under the Apple Digital Masters banner) have led the way, and the arrival of Amazon into the HD audio space is only going to accelerate customer demand. This translates to a solid opportunity to up-sell audio systems, and the spaces they live in.

That’s sweet music to everybody’s ears.
About the author: Steve May is a technology journalist in the UK.