Whether we get our music through streaming services, satellite radio, CDs, or vinyl, most of it has been recorded using the time-honored technique of two-channel stereo. But over the past few years, there’s been a growing movement in the recording industry toward so-called spatial audio formats. The most popular of these formats is Dolby Atmos Music, and it can make good ol’ stereo sound like mono AM radio.
But what exactly is Dolby Atmos Music? How is it different than stereo? And what kind of gear do you need to listen to it at home and on the go? We’ve got everything you need to know to get on the Dolby Atmos Music train.
What is Dolby Atmos Music?
If you’ve been to see a blockbuster action movie in the theaters, you’ve probably already heard what Dolby Atmos can do for movies, with its immersive, three-dimensional sound field. Dolby Atmos Music puts that same technology into the hands of musicians and producers, letting them craft songs and other recordings that possess a greater sense of space and depth than the traditional stereo recordings we’re used to.
More on Dolby Atmos:
Keep the channels open
It all starts in the studio. In the world of stereo recordings, engineers use multiple tracks to record different parts of the same song. Drums go on one track, lead guitar on another, and so on. When everything’s finished, the producer and engineer may elect to “pan” some of those tracks more to the left or right in order to create an immersive stereo mix, but the result is always two-channel sound — one channel for each speaker in a stereo pair.
Dolby Atmos Music works differently. Instead of being limited to just two channels, Dolby Atmos Music can take advantage of up to 34 channels, which means up to 34 individual speakers. What’s even more remarkable is that a recording engineer can divide a song into 128 different tracks and move each of those tracks independently within that 34-speaker arrangement.
In other words, instead of having a single track for the drums, and then deciding how far to the left or right the drums should sit in a stereo mix, the producer could take just the snare drum and move it all around a room, or have it come from just one overhead speaker at the back of the room, or have it come from all 34 speakers at once.
If you’ve ever been in an Dolby Atmos theater and heard a helicopter fly overhead, from one corner of the room to another, you’ve already experienced how this technology can be used to make movies more immersive. Dolby Atmos Music uses the same concept, but with the goal of immersing you in a song, instead of a movie.
It’s an unprecedented degree of control for producers, and much like the 3D effect in movies, it can feel jarring or even cheesy if it’s executed in a ham-fisted way. But by the same token, it can also feel sublime when the spatial options are manipulated by a deft and experienced hand.
Since most people won’t have anywhere close to 34 speakers at home, the software that engineers use to create Dolby Atmos Music tracks is smart enough to scale the recording down to fit whatever gear you’re using — even if it’s just two speakers — while still preserving that “all around the room” effect.
How can I listen to Dolby Atmos Music?
Listening to Dolby Atmos Music is possible when you have a source of Dolby Atmos Music and an audio device that is capable of playing this format.
Atmos Music sources
For most people, the easiest way to access Dolby Atmos Music tracks will be to use a music streaming service. As of March 2023, your options are Apple Music, Tidal, and Amazon Music. Apple Music and Amazon Music include Dolby Atmos Music tracks in their standard tiers, while Tidal requires a more expensive HiFi Plus subscription.
Unfortunately for Spotify fans, that service hasn’t announced any plans to offer Dolby Atmos Music tracks. This may change if Spotify ever launches its promised Hi-Fi lossless music tier.
For audiophiles, the very best Dolby Atmos Music source is Blu-ray discs. Blu-ray discs can be used to play Atmos Music and several albums have been released in this format. Beatles fans will be happy to know that Abbey Road happens to be one of them.
The biggest advantage of Dolby Atmos Music on Blu-ray is that the audio is presented in Dolby TrueHD, a 24-bit high-resolution, lossless audio format, making it the highest possible quality for Atmos.
These include live concert performances as well as special Dolby Atmos versions of music albums, like the 30th Anniversary release of <em>Kick</em> by INXS.
Atmos Music-capable devices
Home theater gear
If you own a Dolby Atmos-capable soundbar or AV receiver (AVR), they’re also Dolby Atmos Music-compatible when used with the right software or accessories.
- Use a Dolby Atmos-capable streaming device like the Apple TV 4K or Nvidia Shield TV/Shield TV Pro.
- You’ll need a streaming music app from one of the services that has an Atmos Music catalog (Apple Music, Tidal, or Amazon Music) and a subscription level that gives you access to the Dolby Atmos Music tracks.
- Some services like Netflix offer live concert videos in Dolby Atmos, like Taylor Swift’s Reputation Stadium Tour. Again, you’ll need the appropriate subscription level to get access to Dolby Atmos content.
- From a Dolby Atmos-capable Blu-ray player.
- You’ll need Blu-ray discs that include Dolby Atmos audio tracks.
For either of these scenarios, you’ll need to make sure your audio system is receiving its signal from an HDMI connection. Connecting a Blu-ray player to your TV via HDMI and then connecting your TV to your soundbar via optical cable won’t work. For more on Dolby Atmos’s connection requirements, see our explainer: How to know if you’re actually getting Dolby Atmos sound.
Alternatively, we’re beginning to see AVRs that have built-in Dolby Atmos Music streaming support, like Pioneer Elite’s latest flagship, the VSX-LX805.
Some Dolby Atmos-capable smart TVs, like LG’s 7-series OLED TVs and newer, support streaming music apps like Apple Music, but they don’t necessarily support Dolby Atmos Music as a format. Be sure to check all of the specifications for your setup.
If you’re a Sonos user, you have one more choice: As long as you own a Sonos Arc, Arc SL, or a Beam Gen 2 soundbar, you can stream Dolby Atmos Music tracks from Amazon Music directly to these speakers using the Sonos app. Starting at the end of March 2023, they will also support Atmos Music streaming from Apple Music.
There are currently three wireless speakers that are Dolby Atmos-compatible. Apple’s second-gen HomePod, which can play Dolby Atmos tracks from Apple Music, the Amazon Echo Studio 3D wireless smart speaker, which can do the same thing using Amazon Music, and the Sonos Era 300, which is able to play Dolby Atmos Music tracks from Amazon Music and Apple Music.
Smartphones and tablets
Unlike Dolby Atmos Music on soundbars, AVRs, or wireless speakers, which all require Atmos-compatible gear, an increasing number of smartphones and tablets are Dolby Atmos-compatible and don’t require any additional hardware. It’s made possible through the science of binaural sound — a way of delivering sounds to each ear in such a way that mimics what we would hear if the sounds were coming from all around us. Any set of wired or wireless headphones will work, but there are two key caveats:
- Your phone must support spatial audio, or the technology must be embedded in your preferred streaming app.
- Your preferred music service must have a Dolby Atmos catalog, and its app must support streaming in Dolby Atmos on your particular phone.
iPhone 7 and newer models all support spatial audio, as do the following iPads:
- iPad Pro 12.9-inch (3rd-generation) and later
- iPad Pro 11-inch
- iPad Air (3rd-generation) and later
- iPad (6th-generation) and later
- iPad mini (5th-generation) and later
Spatial audio support is included in Android 13 and newer versions of Google’s mobile software, which means that if an app is Dolby Atmos Music-compatible, your Android 13 or newer phone should support it. If your phone is running an earlier version of Android, it might still support Dolby Atmos Music — select models from Samsung, Motorola, LG, Sony, and Huawei already provided this capability prior to Android 13. Amazon Music is an exception to all of these rules — Amazon has embedded full Dolby Atmos support into its app, making it independent of any given phone’s capabilities — including older iPhones.
What kind of music is available in Dolby Atmos Music?
Dolby is currently partnered with two major music companies: Universal Music Group and Warner Music Group. Both companies have said they will be releasing new recordings as well as back-catalog classics in the Atmos Music format. The exact number of Atmos Music tracks isn’t something any of the players have shared publicly, though previous commitments peg the size in the thousands.
Warner hasn’t offered a list of its available artists, but Universal has said its Atmos Music contributions will include tracks from Bastille, The Beatles, Billie Eilish, Elton John, Lady Gaga, Luciano Pavarotti, Marvin Gaye, and The Weeknd — to name a few.
Are there any other ways to experience Dolby Atmos Music?
Some clubs are beginning to install Dolby Atmos Music systems that give performing DJs the ability to control their music in 3D space around the club. These include Ministry of Sound in London, Sound-Bar in Chicago, and Halcyon in San Francisco.
Are there any competitors to Dolby Atmos Music?
Atmos Music’s most significant competition comes from Sony. The new 360 Reality Audio format (360RA), which gave our staff the chills during its launch demo at CES 2019, is also an immersive, object-based audio format for both speakers and headphones. It made its streaming debut on the Deezer music service in October 2019 and arrived on Tidal shortly afterward. You can now find 360RA tracks on Amazon Music and Nugs.net, too.
As the new kid on the block, 360RA has a long, steep climb to catch up to Dolby Atmos no matter what Sony says. 360RA currently falls short on both the recording and playback sides of the equation. Early reviews of Sony’s 360RA speakers, the SRS-RA3000 and SRS-RA5000, suggest that Dolby doesn’t have to worry — not in the short term, at least.
However, as the owner of the massive Sony BMG music publishing empire, Sony has a big advantage in pushing its concept of immersive music forward, so it’s tough to count the newcomer out at this point. The next few years will be critical to the success of these competing technologies. And yes, consumers will most likely find themselves caught in another format war.
Dolby Atmos is different than anything else on the market right now, making it difficult to fully appreciate it without hearing it yourself.
When you’re ready to make the switch from lackluster stereo music to Dolby’s innovative “immersive” system, Dolby’s proprietary tech will take you there. Sony or DTS will catch up eventually, but for now, Dolby’s leading the pack. Honestly, we can’t wait to hear how music will improve next.