I swapped my music listening from stereo to spatial for a week – here are 5 things I learned

Music Unlimited subscribers can now stream music in spatial audio
(Image credit: Amazon Music)

Recently I spent hours and hours curating a list of, in my opinion, the best Dolby Atmos Music tracks – the spatial audio songs I've heard and most admired in the three (and counting) years they have been available on streaming services.

The immersive audio technology's application in music has been welcomed much more tepidly than in the movie environment it was initially created for, but one thing's for sure: it won't be departing the industry anytime soon. Even if Spotify doesn't support spatial audio streams like The Other services do, tech giants Apple, Sonos and Bose are backing it in both their soft and hard wares, mostly recently in the just-announced Sonos Ace headphones. The biggest music labels are onboard, of course, alongside more than a few prestigious producers and engineers.

To gauge how far spatial Dolby Atmos music has come, how much it deserves to be part of our lives, and how ready we would be for a potential transition from stereo in the future, I spent a week listening exclusively to spatial audio songs across streaming services and headphones. Here's what I learned.

Spatial mixes are wildly hit-and-miss

While my best Dolby Atmos Music tracks curation recommends 12 and casts aspersions on five, somewhat ironically the ‘hit and miss’ ratio is heavily weighted the other way in my experience of the hundreds (maybe thousands) of tracks I’ve heard. I understand why some people dig it and others would rather listen to a leaf-blower for three minutes – not least as impressions will be based on the wildly varying quality and effectiveness of the mix’s execution, on a per artist or album case basis, or perhaps even a whole genre’s. 

No spatial Dolby Atmos track you’ll come across on a streaming service is an algorithm-led ‘upmixed’ stereo version (a song’s various sonic elements have to be individually separated and reassembled in a relevant way), but it’s hard to argue that some mixes are better than others, whether that’s due to the quality of engineering or the song naturally lending itself to being spatialised, or both.

Search needs work

If I had a dollar for every time I had to Google whether a particular song or album was available in spatial audio/Dolby Atmos because the streaming service search wouldn’t play ball, I’d be half way to a Glastonbury ticket. All three services supporting spatial streaming certainly seem to be making an effort to lure their subscribers to try spatial music with focused curated playlists and the well-labelled like on the interfaces. But God help anyone who has the audacity to try and find a specific track or album in spatial using the search bar. 

If you’re lucky, the spatial version might pop up straight away, not least if you’ve written ‘Atmos’ or ‘spatial’ after the song name and/or artist. But just as likely is you draining two per cent of your phone’s battery endlessly scrolling the irrelevant results every time, only for you to doubt its presence and, yep, resort to Google to find that it is there. Somewhere. Lurking deep within the library like a bookish wallflower. Case in point: Drive by R.E.M. Stupifyingly hard to find via the search bar. Go on, share my pain.

Snubbing the ‘loudness war’ is good… but a bit annoying

As my colleague recently found during a visit to a Dolby Atmos mixing studio, Dolby imposes a -18db threshold on Atmos mixing to allow for greater headroom (and thus dynamics), so pushing the volume just compresses the track more. It’s why Atmos mixes sound quieter than their stereo equivalents – and, as I’ve sometimes found, not loud enough. That’s an issue in itself for people who like to listen loudly, though the impracticality is having to keep adjusting the volume when you switch between spatial and stereo tracks. After all, my week’s strict spatial-only diet is hardly a real-world scenario.

You can activate a kind of flat volume mode in the services' settings (it's called 'Normalize volume' in Tidal and 'Sound Check' in Apple Music, for example), but I wouldn't recommend such signal snipping.

Head-tracking is better for movies

Watch a movie in spatial audio with ‘dynamic head-tracking’ turned on on your compatible device (an iPhone, say) and you’d be forgiven for thinking the complementary technologies are the best thing to happen to portable entertainment since the GameBoy. Head-tracking essentially adapts the mix according to your head position, keeping the central soundfield through your headphones locked to the device you’re playing it on – move your head to the left, for example, and centrally placed dialogue will fall naturally into your headphones’ right earcup, remaining aligned with the screen in your lap. In my experience, the effect feels pretty natural and moderately enhances the cinematic experience.

For music, it just feels weird to me – more disorientating than reoritentating. And not worth the battery drain. Our reviews team recently picked up on what may be behind my ‘not quite right’ feeling when testing the Bose QuietComfort Ultra Headphones: “We can still hear delay and phase issues as the processing tries to track your head movements,” they noted in our review.

It’s a headphones thing – but isn’t ideally

Spatial audio/Dolby Atmos music is and will likely always be, for as long as it lives, a headphones experience for the majority. Something to try or swear by because it’s there and accessible. Just as most Dolby Atmos movie experiences will be through a Dolby Atmos soundbar. Relatively few will have the money, opportunity or even the awareness of the possibility to hear Dolby Atmos music through a multi-speaker set-up, through which spatial audio (obviously not with head-tracking) really can take flight.

It’s how you can hear the well-mixed tracks (like those examples in my ‘best of’ list) as the engineer heard them in the studio – as the innovative audio technology was designed first and foremost to be heard. With sonic elements placed physically around (including behind) you, and with any luck in a soundfield that’s not only bigger and more spacious than that of headphones but also more precise and transparent. Believe me when I say that, relatively speaking, the headphones experience (even through top-notch gear) feels as watered down as an all-inclusive resort’s spirit inventory, even if it is a good ‘in’ to the technology and far, far more attainable.


PMC's 21-speaker Dolby Atmos system is the ultimate argument for spatial audio

Apple’s Spatial Audio is a music revolution, but try it without the headphones

12 of the best Dolby Atmos tracks on Tidal, Amazon and Apple Music (and 5 to avoid)

Sonos Ace vs AirPods Max: how the spatial audio headphones compare?

Becky Roberts

Becky is the managing editor of What Hi-Fi? and, since her recent move to Melbourne, also the editor of Australian Hi-Fi magazine. During her 10+ years in the hi-fi industry, she has reviewed all manner of audio gear, from budget amplifiers to high-end speakers, and particularly specialises in headphones and head-fi devices. In her spare time, Becky can often be found running, watching Liverpool FC and horror movies, and hunting for gluten-free cake.

  • SteppingStone01
    Most of your points are quite valid. It sounds to me like you were using Tidal for your test. It has the worst volume variation between song types out of all of the Dolby Atmos supported Services. Also, the search is horrid on there.

    Amazon Music, on the other hand, doesn't have a huge variation of volume and is easy to search for Dolby Atmos content using the search bar.
  • knreddy
    I fully agree with the observations, further I have moved from Atmos to Mono Samsung MX T70/XL with the above experience, I am comfortable and happy with move.