When I heard that Apple would be joining the movement to improve upon stereo audio I was skeptical. I’d heard attempts at this by other companies and wasn’t impressed. Now, after having listened to some of the new “Spatial Audio” mixes in Apple Music, I have to admit Apple’s execution of the concept is better than I expected.
Spatial Audio is Apple’s brand name for music in its streaming catalog that supports Dolby Atmos, a proprietary audio format that tries to give music the “surround sound” you experience in movie theaters. It’s billed as an advance beyond the stereo mixes we’re used to, which are mixed for two channels, left and right. Apple already has Spatial Audio mixes of “thousands” of tracks in Apple Music, and they’re free to people who pay for the service.
“It’s the next stage in the evolution of recorded music from mono to stereo and beyond—one in which songs feel as though they’re happening all around and above you,” says the Spatial page in Apple Music. “We believe it’s the future of sound, a giant leap forward that’s going to revolutionize the way fans listen and artists create.” Dolby is equally effusive: “Music created in Dolby Atmos is freed from channels, allowing artists to place individual sound elements all around you.”
In my listening tests, I found some good reason for that excitement, but I stop short of calling Spatial Audio a revolution in the way music is produced and enjoyed.
To give myself the best chance of being impressed, I played the Spatial tracks on an iPhone 12, and monitored them on a pair of AirPods Max headphones and a set of AirPods Pro earphones that Apple had loaned me. The songs I chose came from the Spatial Audio playlist Apple made for the launch of the new format. I tried to listen to a diversity of music styles to discover how each benefited—or didn’t benefit—from a Spatial mix. For each song I listened to the conventional stereo mix, then compared it to the Spatial mix. (This is easy to do—Apple Music serves up the stereo mix after you toggle off Spatial in Settings>Music.)
These are the songs I chose, and my impressions while comparing the stereo mixes to the Spatial ones. Some of my thoughts are objective (the placement of sounds and their clarity), while others are subjective (Spatial’s effect on the “vibe” of the song, for example). Your results may vary.
“Moanin'” / Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers (jazz, 1958)
Older jazz recordings are particularly well-suited for Spatial Audio. The stereo recording of “Moanin’” (1958) already has a live feel to it, as if the group were performing in a basement jazz club on the Lower East Side. But with the expanded aural space from Spatial Audio, that small-room vibe is greatly enhanced. Listening with my eyes closed, it sounded like I was standing just a few feet in front of the players. I could hear the piano coming from a place on the right and toward the back of the stage. The drums came from the center-right, also toward the back of the stage. I heard the sax closer to me on the right. The trumpet solo arrived just behind me on my left. The whole thing sounded very organic, gritty, and real.
Olivia Rodrigo / “Deja Vu” (pop, 2021)
“Deja Vu” benefits from the larger soundscape mainly in the synth parts and vocals. The synths sound better when they have more separation from each other, especially the sawtooth synth part, which sounds a little grating in the more confined space of the stereo mix. Most importantly, the Spatial mix creates more space for Rodrigo’s powerful background vocals, which sit in their own spot behind the lead vocal, punctuating and commenting on the lyrics.
Kacey Musgraves / “Space Cowboy” (country, 2018)
Here too, the Spatial mix sounds more expansive and separated compared to stereo. Musgraves’s angelic voice is situated in roughly the same place as in the stereo mix (center, front), but it sounds clearer and better defined. The drums sound as if they’re pushed back to the rear of the sonic space a bit. The keyboard and guitar parts are split wider apart than in the stereo mix, which creates a nice effect.
“Hanging on the Telephone” / Blondie (new wave/pop, 1978)
An expanded aural space doesn’t always serve the song. This Blondie track (a cover of the Nerves classic) from the Spatial playlist actually sounds worse in some ways than the stereo recording. The production of the stereo mix is pristine to begin with. The drums sound crisp and locked in with the bass, and Debbie Harry’s doubled vocal lines on the chorus are split hard left and right and sound gorgeous. To my ear, the recording seemed to lose cohesion within the larger soundscape of the Spatial mix. The instruments sounded too separate from each other, resulting in a less urgent, forceful effect.
“Shimmy Shimmy Ya” / Ol’ Dirty Bastard (R&B/hip-hop, 1995)
Rap mixes often have fewer component parts than pop or rock music. But the parts are big, like this track’s huge bass drum womp from the TR-808 drum machine, and the imposing synth bass line. The music in “Shimmy” is carried by a very phat synth bass, some drum kit samples, and a piano sample. The regular stereo mix of the track bunches up these sounds with the vocals in the very middle of the mix; the sounds seem to compete for space, creating a stuffy, uptight, even shrill vibe. All those sounds have more space to live in the Spatial mix. The separation of the various sounds into their own spaces, to me, removes the bunched-together feel, and allows for a more pleasing, laid-back feel.
John Lennon / “Instant Karma” (rock, 1970)
“Instant Karma” was produced and mixed by Phil Spector using his Wall of Sound technique, which involved lots of orchestration, instrument doubling and tripling, and dense reverb. The technique has its effect on the “Instant Karma” single, but it also means a crowded mix with lots of sounds sharing various frequency ranges. It’s no big surprise, then, that the song doesn’t gain much from a Spatial mix. You get a slight sense of an increased aural space. And the female choir that comes in midway through sounds a bit more defined. But the main instruments (piano, bass, drums) and the vocals are placed in a similar way to the stereo mix and sound no more defined or distinct.
Two things seem to be true of most of the Spatial mixes I sampled: First, the Atmos technology does enlarge the soundscape in which the various parts of the music are situated. Second, the Atmos software seems to allow mixing engineers to more accurately place specific instruments or voices in defined spaces within that soundscape. These effects occurred to greater or lesser extents from track to track, and between music genres.
The increased dimension of the soundscape is best exemplified on tracks that are sparsely orchestrated. (In other words, fewer instruments play continuously, and instruments don’t take up wide swaths of frequency range.) That’s probably why Apple chose to use Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On” as the first song in the playlist to showcase Spatial Audio. It’s just a few instruments, some reverb, one voice, and lots of space to give a sense of the soundscape.
The whole idea of Spatial is to trick listeners’ ears into hearing sounds coming from various places around the listener, using just two headphone or earphone speakers—one in each ear. Atmos uses complex algorithms to accomplish this. But engineers doing regular old stereo mixes also have tools—such as EQ, reverbs, and panning—to create the illusion of depth by making some things sound very near, and others far off in the background. So it’s not quite right to say that Spatial mixes are like 3-D and stereo mixes are 2-D.
Don’t expect magic. I had no “holy shit” moments where a sound in the headphones sounded so much like it was coming from behind me that I jerked my head around. The effect is more subtle than that. And subtle isn’t bad. The Spatial mixes do sound different and, in most cases, better. Spatial Audio may not be revolutionary, but, used skillfully, it can be a useful tool that lets mixing engineers more accurately capture and convey a songwriter’s vision.