Apple Music’s spatial audio is sometimes amazing but mostly inconsistent

Late on Monday night, Apple flipped the switch on two new features for its Apple Music subscription service: immersive Dolby Atmos spatial audio and lossless-quality streaming. It feels like the company is really only excited about one of them, though, and it’s not the latter.

Eddy Cue is Apple’s senior vice president of services and the person who oversees Apple Music. He didn’t mince words when he told Billboard that the sudden proliferation of lossless audio isn’t going to significantly evolve or change how we listen to music. “There’s no question it’s not going to be lossless,” he said when asked what technologies will bring about the “next-gen” of music streaming. Cue firmly stands on the side of the crowd that argues most people can’t hear any difference between CD-quality or hi-res tracks and the AAC or MP3 files that’ve been filling their ears for so long now. He did acknowledge that the higher-bit rate tracks might matter to music lovers with particularly sharp hearing or premium audio equipment, but he was also direct about how niche that group is.

“The reality of lossless is: if you take 100 people and you take a stereo song in lossless and you take a song that’s been in Apple Music that’s compressed, I don’t know if it’s 99 or 98 can’t tell the difference.” Cue revealed that he has regularly done blind tests with the Apple Music team, and they confirm how rare it is for anyone to be able to consistently recognize lossless audio. “You can tell somebody, ‘Oh, you’re listening to a lossless [song],’ and they tell you, ‘Oh, wow. That sounds incredible.’ They’re just saying it because you told them it’s lossless and it sounds like the right thing to say, but you just can’t tell.”

If you go by the message that Cue and Apple are pushing, the Dolby Atmos-powered spatial audio feature is where the true breakthrough is. “When I look at Dolby Atmos, I think it’s going to do for music what HD did for television,” Cue said in the Billboard interview. And then he really went in:

“I think this is going to take over everything. It’s the way I want to listen to music when I’m in my car. It’s going to be the way I listen to music immediately with my AirPods. It’s going to be the way I listen to music in my house. In a way, it won’t feel very good when I’m listening to something that’s not Dolby Atmos because it’s so good. It’s like when I’m watching HD, it’s hard to go back.”

“This requires somebody who’s a sound engineer, and the artist to sit back and listen, and really make the right calls and what the right things to do are,” Cue told Billboard about mixing for spatial audio. “It’s a process that takes time, but it’s worth it.”

Problem is, with much of the Dolby Atmos content on Apple Music I’ve sampled so far, it doesn’t seem like everyone is making those right calls. It’s a hit-or-miss game of exploration, and songs that truly showcase the immersive potential of Atmos are more often the exception than the rule. In many cases, spatial audio tracks have an artificial wideness to them, unfamiliar placement of vocals and instrumentation, and just sound… off. Distant? Too reverb-y? Pick your preferred interpretation. Yet, Apple is so confident in Apple Music’s spatial audio that essentially overnight it became the default for millions of customers listening with AirPods.

But let’s back up a bit.

What is spatial audio supposed to do for music?

In a word, it’s all about immersion. Here’s how Cue hyped it: “it makes you feel like you’re onstage, standing right next to the singer, it makes you feel like you might be to the left of the drummer, to the right of the guitarist.” On its website, Apple says “music created in Dolby Atmos is freed from channels, allowing artists to place individual sounds all around you.”

Whoa there. Like all of Apple’s senior executives, Eddy Cue knows how to pitch something. But if you slap on your AirPods and expect to feel like an invisible person standing in the middle of a recording session, you’ll probably be underwhelmed.

When it’s done well, spatial audio does indeed give music a unique feeling of breadth. And it’s in a different way than a high-end pair of headphones might bring the most out of a stereo track’s soundstage. In particular, vocals often have a very distinct placement in the mix and cut through better than on traditional stereo tracks. That’s the most consistent advantage I’ve noticed with spatial audio music. But because of the different mix, you’ll very likely also pick up on details or sounds that ordinarily don’t stand out in the regular version of a song. And on the best Atmos tracks, everything has a lot more room to breathe.

But when engineers don’t put much care into an Atmos mix, it really shows. Sometimes giving everything so much space can take the impact or crunch out of guitars. Or other aspects of a track fall flat. I’ve included just a few samples below where the spatial audio version of a song is an obvious downgrade from the original. But there are many, and when you hit a few in a row where the vocals sound weird or something’s amiss, it can detract from the listening experience.

How many songs are available in Dolby Atmos spatial audio?

Apple currently isn’t providing a hard number, and is instead only saying that “thousands” of tracks are available with spatial audio at launch, with many more on the way.

How do I know when I’m hearing spatial audio on Apple Music?

You’ll see either a Dolby Atmos or Dolby Audio logo appear on the Now Playing screen beneath the album artwork.

A few random, good examples of Apple Music spatial audio:

Note: if the below tracks don’t initially play as Dolby Atmos, try browsing to them from Apple’s new playlists like made for spatial audio, hits in spatial audio, plus genre-specific playlists for pop, rock, hip-hop, country, and others.

“Don’t Know Why” by Norah Jones — This is one where I nearly buy into Cue’s description. Close your eyes, and you could almost transport yourself to a small club where the spread of this mix feels like a live version of Jones’ career-making hit. Stereo doesn’t take you to the same place.

“Paparazzi” by Lady Gaga — With a very surround sound-esque mix (skip to the second verse at 1:23 for the best examples), this is a great example of an old pop hit with an excellent spatial audio treatment.

“Boom” by Tiësto and Sevenn — A fun, lively track that does give off a nice surround sound effect.

“Black Skinhead” by Kanye West — This one is another good example of the “beyond two-channel” openness that spatial audio can provide.

A whole lot of jazz and classical — If there are two genres that naturally lend themselves to spatial audio and Dolby Atmos, it’s jazz and classical. Orchestras can sound truly massive, and it’s a captivating way to listen to jazz ensembles where it’s easy to hear even the quietest notes.

Other examples where it just sounds wrong

“Buddy Holly” by Weezer — The guitars basically lose all life in this mix and vocals dominate the entire thing in a way that just sounds strange and bad. And yet this song is on Apple’s own playlist meant to showcase Atmos.

“Follow Your Arrow” by Kacey Musgraves — Apple mentioned Musgraves as an artist to check out with Atmos. And while her most recent album Golden Hour sounds… fine… her breakthrough Same Trailer Different Park is pretty rough in spatial audio format. “Follow Your Arrow” seems to lose most of its background vocals, and even the main guitar melody is way quieter here than in the regular mix. It almost comes off like a demo recording.

“What’s My Age Again?” by Blink 182 — This is another song that Apple seems to think makes spatial audio sound good, but I’d strongly argue it does the opposite. Mark Hoppus’ muffled vocals legitimately sound like they were recorded through a phone.

“Alex Chilton” by The Replacements — Is that enough cowbell for you during the chorus? It overpowers everything else and makes me feel like I’m in the old Christopher Walken SNL skit, only with a different band.

I’m curious to hear some of your examples that sound great, and others you’ve found that are a disappointment with Atmos.

Do I need AirPods or Beats headphones for Apple Music spatial audio?

No. Apple Music’s spatial audio works on:

  • All headphones and earbuds
  • The loudspeakers on supported iPhones, iPads, and Macs
  • Apple TV 4K

If you set Dolby Atmos to “always on” in settings for the Music app, you’ll see a pop-up advising that it probably won’t sound right on all speakers, but Apple Music will still play the spatial audio mix if that’s your preference. In fact, Apple clearly states that you can “listen on any headphones” to Apple Music’s spatial audio.

How do I turn off Apple Music spatial audio if I don’t like it?

iOS and iPadOS: Go to Settings > Music > Dolby Atmos (under “audio”), and there you can pick between automatic, always on, and off.

If you’d prefer to leave Atmos on by default but want to quickly switch to a regular stereo version of any song that’s playing, just pull down Control Center, press and hold on the volume slider, and toggle off spatial audio. Apple Music will switch over to stereo. If you turn spatial audio back on, you’ll return to the Atmos track.

macOS: In the Music app, open preferences and select the “playback” tab. Halfway down you’ll see an “audio quality” section and Atmos is in there. You get the same three automatic / always on / off choices as on Apple’s mobile devices.

Head tracking is coming to Apple Music spatial audio this fall

Apple Music’s spatial audio is currently much different than the spatial audio experience you get when watching movies and TV shows on an iPhone or iPad. For videos, Apple includes a head-tracking feature that adjusts the sound placement as you turn your head to keep it anchored to the source device. This trick is exclusive to the AirPods lineup, but it’s a very impressive effect.

Apple has said it plans to bring this sound-changes-as-you-turn-your-head feature to Apple Music in the fall — likely with iOS 15.

Is this just a gimmick?

That’s really the question that remains to be answered. But Apple isn’t alone in hyping multidimensional music (nor is it the first to do so). Amazon, Tidal, and others are also increasingly pushing the experience. I recently reviewed an extravagant Sony speaker that positions 360-degree audio as its main selling point.

Are people like Eddy Cue and Zane Lowe right in their insistence that spatial audio will revolutionize how we consume music in the same way that stereo did? Or is this a gimmick like 3D TVs that will fizzle out and be forgotten within a few years? If it’s going to be the former, it’ll take a lot of work and creativity from artists, producers, and mixers to make this format shine.

Because right now, for every Atmos spatial audio track that’s a standout on Apple Music, there are a dozen others that are quite meh — or worse than in stereo. We’re still in the early days, and now that Atmos is officially part of Apple Music, hopefully the consistency will improve. When you do find those mixes where they totally nail it, it’s something special.

Apple should make it easier to switch between Atmos and stereo

But in the meantime, and to avoid turning people off from Atmos when they land on a lackluster mix, Apple Music should make it easier to go back and forth between spatial audio and regular stereo tracks on a per-song basis. One solution could be displaying a choice when you tap on the Dolby icon, similar to the “go to artist / album” options that appear when tapping on an artist’s name.