After treating myself to a new MacBook M1 Air earlier this month (For Minecraft Education sessions) I got a trial of Apple News, Apple Arcade and also Apple Music; 6 months in fact, so til the end of November. I know how these things work though and yes, they want me to make it part of my life so I feel like it's a huge loss in November and as a Music lover, I'm keen to explore the service and being a tech-head, I'm especially keen to play with the new Dolby Atmos music or Spatial Audio as Apple are calling it.
There's only a limited amount of content available in Atmos at the moment, but unless you've had a bucket on your head for the past 100 years, some of the albums you'll likely be familiar with. Like Sgt Pepper for example. To listen to the difference I used my Beats Studio headphones and some V-Moda crossfades, both great headphones although they're getting on a bit now.
Sgt Pepper was a tremendously produced album to start off with, so it's a good base to show off incredible 'spatial audio' and it is an odd experience. My initial reactions were quite positive, but having come to my conclusions about Atmos, going back to it know, I'm not sure if I wasn't just being blindsided by the effect. Initially I felt I could hear the voices better, they sounded clearer, warmer and better defined. The instruments would burst into life from everywhere and they did feel like there was space around them, each instrument or noise could be pulled out individually. I went back and listened to my 320kbps version and it didn't sound as alive, slightly more flat, but still impressive. I continued with this to-ing and fro-ing from track to track and it was fascinating, and my observations were the same from track to track. Better separation, warmer voices and more detail. The only negative seemed to be an increase in hiss.
I then turned my attention to the Week'nd and Blinding lights. Again, this is another brilliantly produced track, and the single sounded great, the separation outstanding. Similar observations, but with clearer sounds due to the progress made by recording technology over the past 40 years.
Billy Eilish is another to have had the Atmos treatment and Bad guy sounded great, the vocals feeling far too close for comfort.
Also the new Ed Sheeran single, also the first thing of his I've liked; Bad Habits. Same observations.
Then I compared them to their Lossless equivalent and this is where I really got woken from my Atmos daydream. The difference between Lossless and Atmos was night and day. Detail that was missing from the Atmos version was back, perhaps the 'spatial' effect wasn't as clear and details weren't as obvious, but what was gained was more clarity, natural noises that were masked out were apparent, the overall feeling was one of completeness, music sounded more together and how (my perhaps old fashioned head thinks) it should be.
I then went back and re-listened to everything in Lossless and it all sounded better, everything sounded better.
In Playback settings in Music you can choose to force Atmos on, force it off or set it to automatic. I've played with it so many times now, auto won't seem to trigger for me (I have to force it on or off). I also can't blast it in Atmos to my surround sound using Airplay as I'd need a new Apple TV... oh and Amp. But the good news is, I don't want to, I've come to the conclusion that although many songs sound interesting, good perhaps, for many, the difference is not great.
Switching to Lossless shows Atmos up for what it is and how it works, it's an over processed gimmick and it would appear I'm not alone, I went looking for other opinions and found a thread on reddit with many coming to the same conclusion I had, although many had the opposite view, but a lot liked it because when you turned your head relative to your iOS device, the music stayed in front (I can only imagine how that sounds, although I guess it's the same as head tracking on the PSVR where the music comes from the screen) but almost definitely a gimmick.
Second opinion; just had my eldest listen to a number of tracks and she reached a conclusion without my input much quicker. (I did play Lossless next to Atmos back to back), she concluded it's over processed and sounds more distant. She suggested it might work best with live recordings if you wanted to to feel like you were an audience member. I concur, she might be right. She is hooked to Lossless though and is currently reciting In the Heights at the top of her voice, (it's still hot, the window is open and I hope the neighbours are enjoying it).
So to conclude, Atmos is a gimmick, but Lossless is tremendous and ironically, come November that might feel like a loss.