Dolby Atmos for Apple Music – Impressions and Playlist

Posted on June 8, 2021
Updated June 9, 2021

Wow. Mostly a good wow, sometimes a not so good wow. The advent of Spatial Audio has at once improved and complicated my music experience. When it’s done right, yeah, it’s as promised.

From all my exploring of the available Spatial Audio tracks on Apple Music, there are no patterns as to which track will be sound good to you or bad. No genres of music have to sound bad. It’s tempting to say electronic or dance music doesn’t benefit as much from Jazz, but there are so many great dance and pop tracks that this clearly isn’t true.

Spatial Audio is a framework and it’s up to producers and audio engineers to make it actually sound good. I guess producers aren’t actually mixing for spatial audio specifically: they’re mixing for surround in Dolby setups. Convert down from real surround to Atmos (fake surround) seems to have left some tracks sounding better than others. I’m sure some of the poorer examples of Spatial Audio / Atmos tracks will be remixed, so many of the negatives in this blog will come down to teething issues, I hope.

Please note that for this review I was not using the head tracking feature of Spatial Audio. It’s not supported yet, but I won’t be ever as it’s not how I listen to music (I want to escape into the music, not tack it onto the real world!). I was also using Apple’s AirPods Max

When Spatial Audio is bad, it’s really terrible.

At the absolute worst, otherwise great songs are completely botched, such as Buddy Holly by Weezer or Glitter by Benee. Weirdly though, Supalonely by Benee is a one of the best pop Atmos mixes I’ve heard, and Island in the Sun by Weezer is also a winner, so go figure.

Tracks can sound really sibilant as if the phases added to sound don’t do what they’re supposed to (track your brain into positioning them).

At the next level of bad, a song doesn’t sound much more spatial than it does in stereo – but does suffer from the weird sibilance effect and the lack of impact that seems to be inherent in a lot of bad Atmos mixes. This is the case with Don’t Dream it’s Over by Crowded House (in fact it sounds less surround than the stereo mix, and a hell of a lot worse otherwise).

Tracks sometimes sound like an incorrectly configured surround setup, or one where the centre channel wasn’t plugged in.

Many tracks suffer a lack of impact and immediacy – with things dispersed around you, like drums and lead parts, that should be in your face. For example Due Lipa’s Un Dia, in which the drums, big and central in stereo, get pushed to the edges, to the detriment of the track.

But the many tracks that don’t prove that this is not a result of Atmos – rather the mix, mastering, or conversion to Atmos.

When Spatial Audio is done right, it sounds amazing.

Atmos tracks don’t have to sound weaker. Occasional pop tracks do sound better than in stereo. Aforementioned Supalonely, and also Prince’s When Doves Cry both really retain the closeness and loudness, but also make use of the added value of Atmos. So apparently it can be done

I Want You Back by Jackson 5 is really well done too – it seems like music with many parts really benefits. Going back to stereo mid-track in this one was really strange. The mixes are really different – a total conversion.

Check out my Apple Music playlist for songs that sound great on Spatial Audio.

Advice to producers mixing for Spatial Audio and Atmos:

I’ve tried to pull out some takeaways from my listening, but the more I listen, the less any patterns hold true. Despite the genre, some tracks are better than others. It’s really volatile though, when it’s good it’s great when it’s bad it’s fucking terrible. If I was a producer I’d be checking how these dolby mixes sound over Apple’s stereo Atmos implementation, not just monitor surround, especially seeing as Atmos will probably be the major way these mixes are heard going forward.

I initially thought that Spatial Audio shined brighter in analog recordings – where the surround sound has been captured in real life – rather mixed into surround. But a listen to Savior by Rise Against, a hard rock track, had me fully convinced. The song had so much more oomph – in Atmos. It’s like each part was stronger, but also clearer, if slightly less immediate overall. Like if pure strength was my goal, I’d probably blast stereo, but if I was listening to the music in any other way, Atmos is better.

Other rock songs are just really really really really bad in Atmos. Try All Over You by Live. What has gone wrong I wonder? I’m sure it’s some kind of accident.

Jazz in Spatial Audio

Jazz, folk and classical often sound much more interesting in Spatial Audio / Atmos. See Come Away with Me by Norah Jones. This is one example of a track that retains some of the centre stage impact that is lost in many others. Don’t Know Why is also so much better in Atmos than stereo, that beautiful double bass resounding powerfully.

As another example, and oh my god what a difference, the first track on Apple’s “Jazz in Spatial Audio” playlist: Herbie Hancock’s The Sorcerer. Yes it seems less immediate and loud with Atoms on, sounds slide to the edge of the room as they would in any atoms mix, but the clarity and listenability added to the music is uncanny.

You can toggle between the spatial audio and regular version of any track on (iOS) by swiping from the top right of the screen to get your volume slider, then long pressing on it and hitting the Spatial Audio button. As far as I can tell it starts playing from a different file at the right timestamp (I guess this is the case from the time it takes to switch when listening to lossless). Someone might help me verify this (@alidark3000 on twitter).

How to listen to Spatial Audio in the Music App.

If your device is on 14.6 or above it should now be ready to play. Maybe sure You’ve turned Spatial Audio to automatic (or always if you aren’t using a variant of AirPods Pro/Max) in Settings > Music > Audio.

A good place to start listing to Spatial Audio / Atmos is through Apple’s playlist collection, where most of these tracks were played from.

Bugs with Spatial Audio in Apple Music

I ran into some teething bugs. At least in once instance my iPad claimed to be playing Dolby Atmos but it seemed it had forgotten how and I was being served the normal tracks. I switched to iPhone at this point, but later a restart fixed this.

There are also volume bugs apparently. Songs would start playing occasionally at higher or lower volumes and when I went to adjust the volume, the slider would not be in the correct position.

Can you listen to Spatial Audio with non-Apple or wired headphones?

Absolutely. I listened to the above tracks with AirPods Max, but I also plugged in some Beats Solo 2 (non-wireless, plugged into my iPhone 11 with Apple’s lightning to 3.5 audio DAC/dongle) and the differences were all exactly the same.

PS – a quick note on lossless audio in AM. I’ve been hanging out for this for a while. Total props to Apple for including this as it makes a huge difference for some of us. Now just throw more money to the artists. A topic for another post but worth mentioning – Apple, standing for creativity, needs to become the leader in this area.