Currently I’m trying to choose a replacement music service for Spotify. We love the functionality of Spotify (controlling players with nearby players is brilliant) and the catalogue is great for the international crowd (no shortage of French, Slovak, German and Russian artists and recordings) but the audio quality is truly a drag. Head to head against Amazon Music HD, Tidal Hifi, Deezer or even Apple Music,1 Spotify doesn’t stand up on even a modest headphone amplifier and mid-range headphones. This has meant confronting the latest snake oil of the AV industry: Dolby Atmos and Apple Spatial Audio.
There’s lots to buy to support Apple Spatial Audio. The whole charade has reminded me of how often the AV industry has attempted to rip consumers off with unnecessary and even counterproductive formats and “innovations”.
Here’s my quick catalogue of AV ripoffs over the years.
3D. No one can watch 3D for very long without getting a head/eye ache. It’s a fun house effect, suitable for Jurassic Park type material only. Billions and billions of dollars were wasted on 3D glasses, upgrades to 3D compatible projectors, 3D versions of films.
HDR. HDR is basically turning up chroma and over brightening the whites. Again it’s not healthy for eyes. One’s eyes adapt to contrast levels when watching
Of course, demo material of volcanic eruptions can be more impressive in HDR. How many volcanic eruptions did you watch for more than thirty seconds before HDR? In my case, I saw some in the Ontario Science Center (rip) on Eglinton Avenue. Impressed the heck out of me. It was probably in SD, transferred from 16mm, as this was the 1970’s.
Dolby Vision HDR. This one is marginal. If you have HDR equipment, the Dolby Atmos version is better. The tone curves are more carefully curated to look more like SDR, the colours are not jacked up so hard. Dolby Vision is a not-so-bad HDR. Still doesn’t do anything that properly calibrated SDR doesn’t do in a dark room.
HDR and television. If you watch television in a bright room (you shouldn’t do, you should be out in the great outdoors, walking your dog, playing with your children or dancing the night away if you don’t have any), then HDR might look more like the movies in that environment as your eyes are mis-calibrated for cinema due to the bright environment. Careful though you could be damaging your eyes over time. Staring at a bright light bulb doesn’t do eyes any favours either. Certainly looks good in a TV showroom (“which one is brighter, oh, the colours are so rich” – think Pink Floyd’s One of My Turns ““Oh, wow! Hey, look at this tub! Wanna take a bath?”). But hopefully you don’t live in a TV showroom and neither do I.
Dolby Atmos/Apple Spatial Audio. These are just remixes to resell us the same albums we’ve already bought. The record companies can persuade us to listen multiple times to the old version, the new version, the new new version on streaming when re-releasing. When they are done with that, all the collectors will have to buy yet another HD remix.
Hires music. This one is complicated. For mixing having high resolution recordings can make a huge difference.
Also, when tuning and time stretching vocals on say Melodyne, you can’t do drastic edits on anything lower than 96khz because it will sound [terrible]. Try it out for yourself and you’ll know what I mean. With 96khz native sample rate, you can get away with even changing the entire phrasing’s pitch and time/duration. People have longed demonise and tell others not to go higher sample rates, but the truth is that it isn’t simply placebo, and does offer real benefits in return.
But for playback CD quality (16-bit 44 kHz) is plenty. The ideal playback format would not be 32-bit 192 kHz (ridiculous overkill, huge amount of wasted data) but 24-bit 48 kHz as it’s literally impossible with the human hear to differentiate between 24-bit 48 kHz and 32-bit 192 kHz recordings.
Quadrophonic audio. There was never a large enough userbase. Quadrophonic audio worked. It’s logical, music comes at you from all four sides reflected off of walls, hence four speakers does a much better job of creating a live sound. There was just never enough quadrophonic audio to justify the equipment installation.
5.1 sound mixes. There were very few of these done. Those that exist are for the most part pretty good. The issue is that this means setting up a special listening room. With audiophile speakers which start at €1000/pair (since forever, good speakers used to be relatively more), no wonder 5.1 high fidelity didn’t take off. The juice was not worth the lemon. I.e. the improvement in sound was not substantial enough to refit all of one’s listening environments.
I’m not sure if quadrophonic or 5.1 mixes did well enough in the club scene but some kind of surround could certainly work there, with throngs of frenzied dancers.
Fake surround environments. For many years, AV receiver companies like Yamaha, Marantz/Denon and Onkyo used to promote their latest receivers based mostly on how many surround sound modes this year’s iteration included. There were two flavours, most included both, Dolby and DTS. I had a bit more luck with DTS (sounded passable) but mostly music sounds better without extra processing. There’s exceptional songs but changing surround sound modes every time the song changes is no way to zone into the music. Cathedral mode sounds cool in a demo though.
Dolby to reduce tape hiss was a useful innovation at the time, which of course outlived its usefulness the day Philips released the first CD.
Flat speakers/Wall speakers. I don’t know how and when women were given the prerogative to refuse to have floor standing speakers in the main listening rooms. Well-designed speakers look great and sound even better. Any living space should have them. The wall versions/flat speakers almost always sound worse and are more expensive and cannot easily be substituted (I don’t think there are standard sizes). Another marketing success to persuade people to throw away first rate audio equipment.
Dolby Atmos/Apple Spatial Audio. This is the current unfolding marketing scandal of the AV world and the one which prompted me to write this article. Wherever one turns Dolby Atmos versions and Apple Spatial Audio versions are promoted. Apple’s marketing machine has geared up FMO (Fear of Missing Out) to the max. There are AV receivers with Dolby Atmos to buy, there are special AirPods (not just any AirPods but the right generation) to buy, there are albums to rebuy.
Let’s take a listen to some Apple Spatial Audio for ourselves to find out what it’s all about. I am able to compare directly from Tidal HiFi version (44.1 Hz) with Apple Music, switching back and forth smoothly without having to fiddle with preferences.2
The Dolby Atmos/Apple Spatial Audio version of Fleetwood Mac’s Dreams is supposed to be one of the poster children for Spatial Audio. The stereo remaster from 2004 sounds much better with a much wider soundstage and less veiled vocals. The Atmos version sounds compressed (apparently on the technical side Atmos is compressed) and very close. Instead of listening to a concert you are sitting on the stage next to the kit drums. Having spent quite a bit of time backstage at theatres and ballets, as interesting as the perspective is from the wings, shows are better from audience, especially front row and center. Both music and theatre are directional.
Rocket Man doesn’t sound worse in Dolby Atmos. There’s more intensity to the bass line. Elton John’s voice sounds a little fresher. If we’re lucky the Spatial Audio version doesn’t ruin the song, and just gives us a version with us in the middle of the instruments with the instruments scattered around the room.
Twenty One Pilots Stressed Out sounds good in Spatial Audio. Until you listen to the stereo version. Suddenly there’s air and space and immediacy. The Spatial Audio version sounds like Tyler Joseph is at the far side of a heavily damped room. There seems to be less dynamic range as well. Both of them regularly go over 0 dB so both mixes are too hot.
In a similar vein, the Apple Spatial Audio version of Ed Sheeran’s Boat sounds like he fell into a barrel. The normal stereo version sounds fresh, bright and joyous. If you like bass, the bass line is clearer in the Apple Spatial Audio version.
Underused technical opportunities
Binaural audio. Binaural audio is the rights free better version of Apple Spatial Audio. The idea that one can mix music differently for headphones where the speakers on each side of the head is not a new idea. Done properly, sound can be moved around directionally. The height adjustments don’t really work for me. There’s really only two dimensions – angle and distance. Since so man
But Apple and the tech companies couldn’t extract much money from a rights-free format which plays perfectly equally well on all existing hardware and all headphones. Hence the rush to Dolby Atmos and Spatial Audio. The right answer is no to these commercial formats. The artists will eventually be back in binaural. I’ll look out for binaural sound experiments with mixing.
Colour calibration. Colour calibration makes a world of difference but it’s still way too hard. I don’t understand why companies are trying to push ordinary colour calibration into a special category with specialists who must come to your house at a $1000/day. Properly calibrated devices make for happy consumers and great word-of-mouth.
Great AV Innovations over the years
It would not be fair to publish this article without some praise for the real innovations of the tech industry in the AV space. This list is a consumer innovation list and not a production list (which would be much longer).
DVD. This moved us past the snow of video cassettes and towards a resolution which is psychologically sufficient to suspend belief, even on a larger screen. A great DVD master still looks great in 2023. What’s sad is how very few DVD’s were mastered properly. Inadequate colour transfers, poorly compressed into MP2. Again a lesson, quality audio and video more about the craft and care during mastering, and less about the technology.
CD. With all the frenzy about listening to vinyl and its warm sound and non-digital nature, or on the other extreme, the media-free life of streaming, CD’s have acquired a bad rap. Having lived through scratched records, dust, special anti-static brushes, the first time out, and moved crates and crates of LP’s, I’m less nostalgic. Putting on a record is a lot of work, let along maintaining it in good condition. Vinyl wears out. CD’s and CD quality were an incredible innovation when they arrived. Perfectly reproducible high fidelity music on a small disc.
I still miss the album art though. I still remember leafing through Crosby Still Nash & Young’s Déjà Vu in the seventies.
Subwoofers. Building affordable floorstanding speakers which go down to 20 kHz persuasively was an insolvable problem to fix. Such speakers have to be very big and very expensive. Subwoofers solved the missing deep bass problem quite elegantly (although getting a subwoofer which genuinely works for deep bass and doesn’t rattle is an issue on its own. Quick hint buy a rubber mat for a washing machine and cut a piece to go under your subwoofer).
HD Home video projectors. We don’t have a television and would not want one. A talkbox which interrupts conversation and diverts everyone’s attention has no place in our home. On the other hand, there are fewer greater communal joys for a family than curling up together to watch a great film at home. Taking everyone and all ages out to the theatre regularly or even to the cinema is an overwhelming logistical challenge. The way we used to do this was to gather around the fire and tell stories. Perhaps this was better for everyone but in the media age, the projector is a wonderful virtual fire.
Video projectors were not much use before HD as there was literally not enough information to be spread out on a four metre patch of wall.
Watch your money carefully. Check any innovation out up close before you jump on board. There was a lot of money to be saved by dodging 3D, HDR, Dolby Vision, flat speakers, frequent AV receiver upgrades, Dolby Atmos, Apple Spatial Audio and hires audio. Most streaming services charge double for the spatial and hires formats. Even good innovations can cost a consumer a lot of money.
Imagine buying Déjà Vu on LP, 8-track, cassette, CD and now HD over the years. Buying two of those formats should be more than enough (LP and CD would be my pick, if you needed a cassette tape the LP yourself). On the video side, VHS and DVD are almost worthless now. There was no point to the 3D version, there’s usually no point to the 4K version. The version we need was a properly mastered blu-ray (1080p). Be careful not to invest in a poor mastering in a good format as it will be superceded. Never buy the digital versions attached to any provider unless they are very cheap and very convenient. Digital providers come and go, and just disappear. My whole Ultraviolet Vudu library went into the ether forever. Of a dozens films, only one transferred over to my Google Video account (the exit path promised). With a dozen samples, I was annoyed (and mostly still have the physical media) but with a library of hundreds or thousands, I would be seriously out of pocket.
With audio streaming, all one really needs is either Deezer (CD quality) or Tidal HiFi (CD quality).[^streaming] Buying media is mostly difficult these days. If you do buy physical media, have a good backup plan in place. I’ve made some mistakes over the years, a good part of my CD collection is in manually created mp3. For the equipment I had at the time, it was good enough and saved space. Of course what I want now are lossless flac files (the second half of the collection did get the flac treatment).
I’ve also published an article on what characteristics really matter in AV equipment.
[^streaming] Apple Music continues to fiddle with fidelity and masters and doesn’t have an exclusive mode for the DAC so it’s fidelity is questionable (the interface is almost universally panned), while Qobuz continues to be more trouble than it’s worth. Soundcloud’s interface was awful enough to make it unuseable.
Apple seems to be running their mixes hot and Apple has some built-in music enhancement features which have to be turned off if you don’t want excessive treble and weird tone curves applied to your audio. ↩
By the time one changes the preferences in Apple Music and reloads the song in a non-Atmos version, any hope of useful comparison is long lost, you really need two high fidelity services to compare, for a fair comparison better not to use Spotify. ↩
Alec has been helping businesses succeed online since 2000. Alec is an SEM expert with a background in advertising, as a former Head of Television for Grey Moscow and Senior Television Producer for Bates, Saatchi and Saatchi Russia.