I've seen how Sony 360 Reality Audio works – and now I'm a believer

Sony 360 Reality Audio presentation
(Image credit: Future)

I recently had the opportunity to accompany Sony to The Netherlands for a deep-dive into 360 Reality Audio, led by industry experts in a specialised Dolby Atmos-certified recording studio… how could I turn that down?

Finding out how exactly Sony's immersive audio format works, how it is being implemented into many facets of entertainment, and indeed the potential of the technology was fascinating – and, as you might expect, it all sounded pretty sweet in a room equipped with 51 speakers firing in practically all directions. 

STMPD Recording Studios in Amsterdam is undoubtedly one of the most innovative and advanced creative venues in the country, with a dedicated Atmos Premier Studios mixing theatre that is one of just nine in the world. Here, creatives mix Dolby Atmos content for home and theatrical use, as well as 7.1 and 5.1 formats.

This is where I got my first taste of truly immersive 360-degree audio, and while it has now spoiled the more standard forms of cinematic audio for me, it sets the scene for what Sony is trying to accomplish with 360 Reality Audio on its range of soundbars and surround speakers.

360 Reality Audio – what is it good for?

Sony HT A3000 soundbar

The HT-A3000 soundbar is the latest member to join Sony's 360 Reality Audio-equipped lineup  (Image credit: Future)

Sony’s HT-A7000, HT-A5000 and HT-A3000 were the (hardware) stars of this particular show, as all three soundbars support 360 Reality Audio technology. Each can then be modularly upgraded by adding surround speakers (demonstrated were the satellite SA-RS5), subwoofers, or both to create your desired set-up. Sony’s goal with these soundbars and add-ons is to form a system that can deliver enveloping sound while retaining a form factor that is less intrusive and more convenient than a traditional surround-sound speaker package.

But while the soundbars themselves were front and centre, the 360 Reality Audio technology was actually the integral aspect behind the scenes. Sony explained how the immersive audio format could be utilised for music, sport, gaming and movies, and was keen to reiterate that 360 Reality Audio isn’t here to complicate the audio space. It claims to use a very similar process to Dolby Atmos, the leading immersive format in the home cinema space.

Sony started with a music demo to highlight the strengths of the soundbars and format. Spatial, immersive, 3D – whatever you want to call it – audio is not new in the music arena, with Dolby Atmos and Apple’s Spatial Audio processing finding their way onto studio engineering software and consequently the music streaming services we use every day. But seeing how Sony's software can influence the core production of music was fascinating. 

Mastering engineer Maria Triana demonstrated songs that she mixed using 360 Reality Audio, and talked through the process of allocating certain components of a song to certain spatial locations within the mixing software. Now, I admit I am no expert in the mixing and mastering process of music production, but having the music playback accompanied by the visual representation of the 360 Reality software made it more easily digestible and it became obvious what Sony’s ambitions are with the technology.

Maria’s 360 Reality Audio mixes were rich and encompassing, with some tracks introducing enveloping choirs and others featuring instrumentation placement that felt like I was sitting in the room during the track's recording. It was one big tick in the 'immersive' box from me.

Sony 360 Reality Audio/Atmos mixing process

A look behind the scenes of creating a spatial audio mix, here in Atmos with the aforementioned 51 speakers (Image credit: Future)

Demonstrations of the next two use cases for 360 Reality Audio really flexed the capabilities of the format: both sport and gaming sounded magnificent. Its benefits for gaming were perhaps to be expected considering space and location are pivotal when controlling your character on screen. However, in a very fun demo involving Gran Turismo 7 on the PS5 and a set of rear-firing speakers connected to the HT-A5000 soundbar, it really came into its own. Tyres screeched and the engine rumbled in convincing proximity to where I was sitting in the gaming chair. Despite wiping out in spectacular fashion, the demo was intense and thoroughly enjoyable... even if I didn’t set a record lap time. 

Its value for sports somewhat surprised me. The use of spatial audio really had a profound effect on making televised sports immersive, something I often find lacking. Watching football at home can never relay the atmosphere and tangible emotion found in a stadium, of course. But Felix Krückels, a mastering engineer who utilises 360 audio in the sports field, so to speak, described and demonstrated how he mixes Bundesliga games to make for a more immersive at-home experience. He likened the playing field to a stage, explaining how the positioning of crowd noise was key to creating an immersive soundfield. 

This is essentially accomplished by splitting the two sides of the stadium into different zones for spatial sound. Much like in a real football stadium, fans are divided into separate areas of the stadium, and the same philosophy is taken when arranging the audio, with the fans placed on one of the two sides and the pitch taking centre stage. When a goal was scored, I could easily pick out the goal-scoring team's supporters and which side they were sitting on in the stadium – purely on sound alone.

The day finished on a high with a demonstration of a 360 Reality Audio-mixed film – arguably the technology's most common use case on a soundbar. There was a very convincing immersive impact on certain scenes we were presented with, most notably in a scene from The Batman. When the titular hero grapple-hooks up an elevator shaft, the sound effect of the grapple firing, shooting up the shaft and locking into place seemed to realistically travel overhead, arching from the soundbar at the front towards the rear speakers positioned just behind us. 

Sony explained that as part of the 360 Reality Audio software, the system's processing creates “phantom speakers” that the real speakers project too, giving the illusion of encompassing sound coming from angles where speakers do not physically exist. Yes, like Dolby Atmos. It's a clever system that helps to mitigate the compromise of not having dedicated ceiling-mounted speakers, though naturally the effect you can get from the real deal if you throw money and space into the set-up is incomparable.

Want to try 360 Reality Audio for yourself?

Sony WH-1000XM5 wireless headphones

Sony's immersive 360 Reality Audio is available on its brilliant WH-1000XM5 wireless headphone (Image credit: Sony)

Be prepared to jump through some hardware and software hoops if you want to try 360 Reality for yourself, but Sony thankfully supports a decent amount of apps and devices. When it comes to 360 Reality music streaming, you'll need either Tidal, Deezer, Amazon Music HD or nugs.net to get the immersive music experience. 

When it comes to speakers and headphones, of course, Sony's own flagships are compatible with the likes of the WH-1000XM3, WH-1000XM4 and WH-1000XM5 noise-cancelling headphones, as well as the WF-1000XM3 and WF-1000XM4 wireless in-ears also headlining the compatibility suite. 

It's a similar story when it comes to speakers too, with Sony's SRS-RA5000 and SRS-RA3000 having 360 Reality support as key features. The unique, Atmos-equipped SRS-NS7 neckband speaker also supports 360 Reality Audio if you want a portable immersive speaker solution. Sony also supports one third-party speaker with the Amazon Echo Studio, which pairs nicely with the aforementioned Amazon Prime Music integration. 

What's next for 360 Reality Audio?

With 360 Reality Audio, Sony set out to create a more compact and affordable way of enjoying immersive sound at home and, from a technological point of view, the format strongly appears to succeed in doing that. Even I was surprised as to how convincing it sounded coming from only a soundbar. 

Obviously, if you have the space and budget for a full Dolby Atmos-compatible speaker set-up then it will outperform this Sony soundbar and 360 Reality Audio pairing. This hardware and processing partnership is, after all, about helping to bridge the performance gap between 'standard' stereo/surround soundbar sound and the heady heights that full-blown immersive surround set-ups have reached, for those who cannot accommodate the latter.

Overall, Sony’s impressive display certainly has me invested in what the future holds for 360 Reality Audio. While Dolby Atmos is currently the dominant force in the immersive audio landscape, I want to see Sony push 360 Reality Audio in innovative ways, giving it space to thrive and not wither away in Dolby's immense shadow. 

MORE:

Everything you need to know about Sony 360 Reality Audio

Best Sony soundbars

Sticking with Dolby? Here are the best Dolby Atmos soundbars

Lewis Empson
Staff Writer

Staff Writer Lewis is the newest addition to the What Hi-Fi? editorial team. Previously Gaming and Digital editor for Cardiff University's 'Quench Magazine', Lewis graduated in 2021 and has since worked on a selection of lifestyle magazines and regional newspapers. In his down time he enjoys gaming and regular cinema trips.