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Atmos Music: A World Beyond Movies

Atmos Music

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I recently came across an interview with Elliot Scheiner, a 5.1 surround mixing pioneer. He had some things to say about music in Dolby Atmos that caught my eye. For example:

There’s no way that anybody would consider 11 speakers so that leaves the listener with a Sennheiser or Sonos soundbar or Echo smart speaker. . . .

 

Dolby Atmos is great in a theater. You get a perfect picture of what Atmos is. They can’t convince me, just yet, that it’s great for music.

 

[Interviewer:] Yeah, it’s not accessible to most people yet in a way they can actually enjoy.


You’re right.

Reading this was yet another reminder of the general lack of awareness about the many home theater and media room installations that already have everything in place for playing music in Atmos. If you have 11 speakers (or 15, or maybe even more) plus subwoofers in an Atmos layout, why wouldn’t you want to listen to music that is specifically mixed for your setup?

 

The good news is that not all recording engineers feel as lukewarm about music in Atmos as Elliot Scheiner. Take for example Stefan Bock and his team at MSM Studio Group, who began mixing in 5.1 in 1994 and in Auro 3D in 2012. Stefan embraced Atmos in 2015 and has never looked back. He is also the developer of the Pure Audio Blu-ray format, which was introduced in 2009 and remains pretty much the only game in town for lossless playback of musical recordings in immersive formats such as Atmos, Auro 3D, and DTS:X. Out of a total of roughly 250 to 300 Pure Audio Blu-ray titles, there are currently around 75 that include an Atmos mix, usually alongside high-resolution 5.1 and stereo mixes, and that number continues to grow.

 

When I contacted Stefan for this article, one of the first things he said to me was: “In my opinion, immersive 3D audio formats can be bigger for music than they have been for movies.” Now that I have had a chance to listen closely to some music that was recorded and mixed specifically for a 3D playback environment (as opposed to albums remixed in Atmos from existing recordings), I think Stefan may be on to something. 

 

For starters, the added height channels in Atmos can definitely help to recreate spatial effects of reverberant and reflective spaces such as concert halls and churches with more fidelity than either stereo or 5.1 mixes. Atmos’ object-based audio, which frees artists and mixing engineers from being tied to specific surround channels, is also stimulating new approaches to music and therefore new listening experiences for consumers. Finally, there is the indefinable subjective response triggered when listening to a high-quality immersive music recording. Can Atmos do for music what Technicolor did for movies? The potential is there, but many hurdles must still be overcome before that potential can become reality. 

 

DIVING IN

For anyone who wants to experience how good 3D music can sound in their home, there are plenty of Pure Audio Blu-ray titles available in a variety of musical genres. To hear how a great Atmos recording can create a truly immersive soundstage where you can locate every instrument around you with jaw-dropping immediacy, listen to Alessandro Quarta plays Astor Piazzolla (the track “Jeanne Y Paul” was a particular highlight for me) or The Gordian Knot by Gordon Goodwin’s Big Phat Band. To place yourself in the midst of an incredibly lush-sounding string ensemble, try Reflections by the Trondheim Soloists (shown in the photos and video below)For a crystal-clear and intimate performance by a jazz trio playing in a church, listen 

Stage layout and microphone array for recording a performance by the Trondheim Soloists on
2L’s immersive album Reflections.
(Session photos and diagram by Morten Lindberg, recording
producer and balance, mix, and mastering engineer.)

to the Hoff Ensemble’s Polarity. To experience the spaciousness of a cathedral, try either The Choir of King’s College Cambridge on 1615 Gabrieli in Venice or Konstantin Reymaier’s The New Organ. To appreciate how object-based mixing can add to electronic music, check out Yello’s Point. If you are looking for video to go along with your music, try either John Williams Live in Vienna for a rousing concert recorded with superb attention to detail or Max Cooper’s Emergence for a combination of electronic music and science-inspired animation that seems made for a home theater.

 

Although it was easy to play Pure Audio Blu-ray discs through my theater system, I did need to raise the levels of my surround and height channels to match the front LCR channel levels at my listening position to get a more balanced immersive effect. This kind of adjustment may be particularly relevant for those who are starting from a calibration set up for playing music in stereo or if the surrounds and heights have been de-emphasized since they are typically used only for effects in movies. If you want to go one step further and you have a Trinnov Altitude audio processor with the latest software installed, you can

open the Atmos Object Viewer while you’re listening to get real-time feedback on the approach taken to object-based mixing for any given recording.

 

While Atmos has been available as a music format for several years, the pace of new releases has so far been sluggish. This may be about to change, however, as more music 

labels, including Universal and Warner, have jumped on the Atmos bandwagon, bringing welcome reinforcements to the original trailblazers, such as Grammy-winning Norwegian immersive music pioneer 2L. As a result, the number of Atmos music studios is increasing, with Universal’s Capitol and Abbey Road studios joining independent immersive mastering specialists such as MSM Studio Group and the newly rebuilt Coast Mastering. Although it is still in the early days and the quality of the end product varies, with more recording-studio infrastructure coming online it is becoming easier for artists and labels to start building Atmos mixes into their release plans.

 

DISCS ARE THE BEST OPTION—FOR NOW

What if you want playback options other than physical media for listening to music in Atmos? Unfortunately, the pickings here are still very slim, and those options that do exist are likely to disappoint anyone who has invested in a high-end audio system.

 

For example, Tidal Atmos relies on the lossy Dolby Digital Plus codec with a bitrate of 768 kbps. In contrast, Pure Audio Blu-ray employs the lossless Dolby TrueHD codec for Atmos, which I measured routinely delivering bitrates more than 10x higher when playing music from discs. The difference in sound quality between streaming and physical media is therefore much more pronounced for music in Atmos than for stereo recordings, which both Tidal and Qobuz can stream in high-res formats. Listening to Tidal Atmos tracks in my theater through an Apple TV felt like a tease. Once I raised the volume level 

(substantially higher than what is normally required for playing stereo tracks on Tidal), I could definitely hear the immersive mix, but I missed the vivid envelopment and the way I can pick out the crisp sound of each instrument when listening to a Pure Audio Blu-ray recording.

 

If there are currently no options for lossless streaming of Atmos music,

are there any straightforward solutions for downloading and playing lossless Atmos music files? For 2D surround music in 5.1, for example, it is relatively simple to download a FLAC file, add it to a Roon music library, and then use a Roon Ready processor such as the Trinnov Altitude to play it through a theater audio system. You can also use the processor decoders to upmix from 5.1 to Atmos or Auro 3D, but this doesn’t sound the same as playing a native 3D mix.

 

Downloading and playing Atmos music is a different story. First of all, Atmos content cannot be stored in a FLAC file because FLAC can’t carry the metadata with the location coordinates for the sound objects that are a core feature of Atmos mixes. There are a few Atmos albums downloadable in the MP4 file format, but these also use the same low-bitrate codec as Tidal Atmos so can’t match the sound quality of Pure Audio Blu-ray. Until a service like Roon supplies an elegant solution for lossless playback of Atmos music files through home AV systems, downloads are likely going to have only limited appeal.  

 

Sadly, Atmos support isn’t a priority for Roon, as evidenced by a reference in a Roon Knowledge Base article on multichannel support to “video/movie specific schemes that aren’t very relevant in an audio-only environment like Roon.” When I queried Roon about their plans, they confirmed that they’re likely to be more of a follower than a leader when it comes to enabling Atmos playback through Roon Ready devices. It’s therefore going to be up to another content-delivery platform to come up with a user-friendly solution for downloading and playing Atmos music. 

 

Since, for the time being, there are no viable options for either streaming or downloading lossless Atmos music, Pure Audio Blu-ray is in a privileged position for anyone who wants to experience how good an immersive 3D music mix can sound in a home theater or media room. Until Pure Audio brings a US distributor on board, the most reliable way to get your hands on these recordings is to go through the European Pure Audio Recordings online store. Some Pure Audio Blu-ray titles are also available on Amazon, but they may be mislabeled as Audio CDs.

 

Hopefully other Cineluxe readers will enjoy this novel listening experience as much as I have. After all, the more uptake there is for these types of recordings, the easier it will be to convince skeptics like Elliot Scheiner to take Dolby Atmos more seriously as a music format for the high-end home AV market.

William Erb

William Erb is a longstanding movie enthusiast, music lover & home AV tinkerer. He has been using his spare time, now that he is semi-retired after a career in banking and biotech, to renovate his new home in Los Angeles with a private cinema and a distributed audio system, both state-of-the art. William became a client of Sam Cavitt’s Paradise Theater in the very early stages of his renovation project. He was lucky enough to get the private cinema completed just before lockdown, and is glad not to need an excuse to stay home to watch movies and listen to music.

How to Get Audiophile-Quality Streaming

How to Get Audiophile-Quality Streaming

There are many ways to listen to high-quality, great-sounding music but not everyone knows about the multitude of wonderful options that are readily available these days. Some of you well might be enjoying the resurgence of vinyl and turntables. I am certainly into those (always have been!), and yet I am also a fan of high-resolution surround sound music from Blu-ray, SACD, and DVD Audio discs!

 

Curiously, in these 21st Century times, downloads are fast becoming retro technology, especially as high-quality dedicated, computer-driven streaming audio services have become a strongly viable option for many listeners.

 

And I’m not talking about just pulling up some random advertising-riddled audio-videos on YouTube, which often are quite awful sounding with no information as to what you are hearing. A lot of people do this. In fact, YouTube has grown so popular

for music listening that Billboard is now counting it in their tracking of the album charts.

 

It’s a thing, as they say . . . But, you know, tinny sounding monaural AM radio was also once a thing.

 

We can do better than that, fidelity-wise!   

 

I’ve tried several of the popular modern internet streaming services. While Spotify gets points for its sheer volume of titles, to my ear it has never sounded particularly good nor especially high fidelity. Fortunately, there are some real fine genuinely “HiFi” alternatives. For the past couple of years, 

I’ve had access to two of the premier high-resolution, subscription-based streaming-media services, which deliver fidelity at a minimum of CD quality and often much much higher: Tidal and Qobuz.

 

These are especially good when you stream music in their respective high-resolution formats: MQA (aka Master Quality Audio) and Hi-Res. Both services offer thousands of albums new and old to stream. Any albums in Tidal’s catalog marked with an “M” have the potential to play back in higher 24-bit depth, many at 96 kHz and higher resolution. I reviewed one title

streaming at 352.8 kHz that sounded fantastic!

 

The upsides to Tidal and Qobuz are many, but there are some crucial connections you’ll need to make to get the most out of these services. While your installer can likely help you integrate streaming into your current sound system, here are some of the basics you’ll want to understand.

 

First and foremost, you will probably need a digital-to-analog converter (DAC) to 

help integrate music streaming into your home entertainment system from a computer or mobile device. The DAC essentially handles the quite significant processing muscle your computer would otherwise be required to do in order to deliver high-resolution audio to your system. In a loose sense, MQA is to high-resolution internet streaming as DTS and Dolby are to surround sound, compacting large audio files for delivery to you that get unpacked when decoded locally in your home. 

 

If you want to stream in MQA format, make sure your DAC is compatible. Alternately, if you don’t want to bother with a DAC and a computer, there are very cool new stand-alone products on the market that may be more appealing. Last year at a preview event here in San Francisco, I heard (and reported on) NAD’s M10 systema beautiful-looking piece of modern hardware designed purely for streaming.

How to Get Audiophile-Quality Streaming

NAD’s M10 BluOS streaming amplifier

How to Get Audiophile-Quality Streaming

Mytek’s Brooklyn Bridge streamer/DAC/preamp

When using these systems on a day-to-day basis, it is important to understand that Tidal requires a bit more finesse to use, settings-wise, so you might want to ask your installer to help you dial that in. If you don’t want to mess around with the settings, Qobuz is probably the easiest one-click solution. Just hit Play, and the DAC recognizes the “Hi-Res” album you have chosen and plays the music. 

 

There are trade-offs. When comparing identical albums on each platform, there are some sonic differences you might notice. To my ear, most times the MQA versions on Tidal tend to sound best—something to do with how it handles the music and presents it to you sounds more appealing to my ear. Again, this also depends largely on a variety of variables, including the quality of your DAC, the pedigree of the recordings the streaming services received from the music labels, how the music was transferred to digital for streaming purposes, and what resolution files were provided to the service for streaming. That is another discussion for the future and a reason to look for my reviews here and on Audiophile Review.

 

Streaming services can be a rabbit-hole adventure as you compare the sonic differences between titles—many times, you’ll find an album in both CD and high-resolution versions on these services, so it can be fun to compare and contrast.

 

Basic use of each service is easy: Just search for titles you want to play and then mark them as “favorites” if you want to add them to “your” collections. You can also build playlists, which are fun and handy.

 

So, what recordings should you stream? In the weeks and months ahead, I’ll try to make recommendations of cool albums to check out. Most everything you might want to hear is up there, from Abba to Zappa, quite literally! 

 

Happy streaming!

Mark Smotroff

Mark Smotroff breathes music 24/7. His collection includes some 10,000 LPs, thousands of
CDs & downloads, and many hundreds of Blu-ray and DVD Audio discs. Professionally, Mark has
provided Marketing Communications services to the likes of DTS, Sony, Sega, Sharp, and AT&T.
He is also a musician, songwriter & producer, and has written about music professionally for
publications including Mix, Sound+Vision, and AudiophileReview. When does he sleep?