Spatial audio seems made for me. A self-confessed Apple enjoyer who has also fallen down the entry-level audiophile hole, I was excited to try Apple Music’s new Dolby Atmos features. I grabbed my AirPods Pro, searched the playlists for music I’m familiar with already and got to listening.
I left my first big session of listening with a few realisations. Spatial audio for music doesn’t seem to have the same effect that Spatial Audio for video does. There’s no sense of the music coming from fixed positions around you like there is for video. Turning my head around like a goof never gave the impression that the drums were moving relative to my movements. It’s much closer to ‘headphone surround’ that you might have tried with games or movies before in that it tries to fool your ears into thinking sounds are coming from somewhere other than tiny little drivers next to your skull.
With that said, I did discover that the new mixes created for Atmos can sound incredible. When done well, the sense of space in the track is huge. AirPods Pro being in-ear headphones are generally not incredible at sound staging, compared to a big set of open-air headphones like the Audio Technica AD700s – but with the Atmos mix activated these airbuds achieve a sense of space they’ve never had before.
It very much depends on the mix, however. Some are done masterfully - adding both an incredible sense of space, bring previously recessed elements right to the fore and add a heaping serve of dynamic range to the track. Others just sound like you’ve accidentally turned on the ‘Concert Hall’ effect on your old CD player. 🤨
The new mix of Kanye’s Black Skinhead stood out immediately. The song was always full of somewhat dissonant sounds, but things like the primal screams and the breathing sounds in the beginning and especially the repeated vocal of ‘black’ in the second verse, appear to move around you much more subtly than the stereo mix ever did. The Atmos mix is an extremely fun way to revisit the song. It’s a shame that the whole album hasn’t been given this treatment.
I immediately noticed the new mix of Halsey’s Without Me, it puts the vocals right at the front of the soundstage.
It wouldn’t be a post from me without Carly Rae Jepsen, the new mix of Call Me Maybe emphasises a fun guitar lick during the chorus that somehow despite listening to this song over and over I had never heard before. It makes the song even more fun to listen to.
And then there’s the bad. The Atmos mix of Fall Out Boy’s Dance Dance just sounds… more echoey. Like they just went ham on the reverb dial and called it a day.
All that said, I’ve had a ball relistening to some songs I’m intimately familar with but haven’t heard in a while. For the most part these new mixes breathe new life into old recordings, giving them a sense of space that’s often just really fun to listen to.
Spatial Audio isn’t life changing, but when an artist produces a great new mix it’s damn fun.
(Bonus! Here’s a playlist of the best new mixes I’ve found to help sort the good from the rubbish. I’ll add to it over time, promise!)