Stereo and surround sound are fine and dandy, but what's the next big thing in consumer audio? Sony would like you to believe its 360 Reality Audio format is top of the list.
Sony is working with a number of major record labels (including Sony Music Entertainment, Universal Music Group and Warner Music Group), streaming services and other music organisations to create a next-gen audio format that sits the listener smack bang in the middle of a 360-degree music listening experience.
But what exactly is Sony 360 Reality Audio, how does it work and which products support it? You'll find all that information, and more, below.
What is Sony 360 Reality Audio?
Sony 360 Reality Audio is a new audio format that uses Sony’s object-based spatial audio technology to deliver a full 360-degree audio experience. Its launch was one of Sony's key CES 2019 highlights, but it's only now sony has firmed up more information on streaming partners and compatible products.
The aim is to make the listener feel like they’re right in the recording studio or at a live concert watching their favourite artist.
The format has been built using the open MPEG-H 3D Audio standard, which itself has been optimised for music streaming. It supports up to 64 speaker channels and allows audio coding to be done in different ways.
Engineers can map out and place everything including vocals, individual instruments and a live audience in any position inside a 360 spherical space. Different parameters can be altered for various elements, including distances and angles.
Sony’s teamed up with the Fraunhofer IIS (Institute for Integrated circuits) to open the format up for content creators and artists to take advantage of.
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How can you listen to music in Sony 360 Reality Audio?
At launch you'll be able to experience Sony 360 Reality Audio through certain pieces of kit with the help of compatible software.
In case you haven’t heard of it, nugs.net is a streaming service for live concerts. It currently has over 10,000 concerts in its catalogue including artists such as Bruce Springsteen and Red Hot Chili Peppers.
Amazon Music isn’t included, although Amazon appears to be a slightly unique case, which we’ll get to shortly.
You’ll also need to be subscribed to the premium tier of said streaming service. If you’re currently enjoying Deezer’s Free tier, for example, you need to upgrade to Deezer HiFi to experience the new format. Other than that, it shouldn't cost you extra.
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Sony claims that 360 Reality Audio can be experienced “using headphones from most manufacturers”. It's not exactly crystal clear what separates one pair of compatible headphones from a non-compatible pair, but Sony has been quick to highlight which of its own headphones will work on its official 360 Reality Audio site.
With select Sony models you can even use its Headphones Connect app to analyse your ear shape and help optimise the sound field for its new audio format. Open the app and you can scan both ears using your phone’s camera. The results are then applied to the app of your streaming service of choice.
Head to Sony’s site and you’ll be able to see a full list of compatible headphones, which include current What Hi-Fi? favourites, the WH-1000XM3 wireless over-ear noise-cancelling headphones and the WF-1000XM3 wireless earbuds.
What can you listen to in Sony 360 Reality Audio?
When Sony 360 Reality Audio arrives this autumn, you’ll be able to stream over 1000 tracks in the format, including tunes from Mark Ronson, Pharrell Williams, Billy Joel and Jeff Beck.
Sony’s promising more tracks will be added via major record labels, plus over 100 songs recorded from live concerts, including the likes of CHARLI XCX and Kodaline.
Which products support Sony 360 Reality Audio?
Besides headphones (and apps of compatible music streaming services), you’ll also be able to experience Sony 360 Reality Audio on at least one other piece of hardware at launch: the Amazon Echo Studio wireless speaker (pictured above). However, you will need to be a subscriber to Amazon Music HD to take advantage. This does seem slightly strange given it looks like (at the time of writing) that the Amazon Music app won't support the audio format at launch.
The key to experiencing 360 Reality Audio in hardware, is that each product will need to have Sony’s custom decoder built-in. Sony has confirmed that it’s looking to make the new sound format available across a number of Alexa-enabled devices and those that support Chromecast built-in.
It’s also working with chipset manufacturers Media Tek, NXP Semiconductors and Qualcomm, so you can expect to see support for the format increase across more consumer kit moving forward.
Sony 360 Reality Audio vs Dolby Atmos Music
Now there just so happens to be another object-based audio tech in the offing from Dolby. Dolby Atmos Music is based on the company’s surround sound tech, Dolby Atmos, and allows engineers to either remix tracks and place sounds at specific points in your soundstage, or record live mixes in-studio, as long as they’ve got access to the necessary Dolby Atmos Music mixing kit.
Dolby Atmos Music tracks should work on any home audio kit that supports Dolby Atmos, which does give this audio format an immediate advantage with TVs, soundbars, AV receivers, smartphones and tablets already geared up to support the format. Whether Dolby Atmos Music will be able to offer the same sort of 360-degree sound experience as Sony's offering remains to be heard.
We haven’t had any real-world experience of either of these formats, but hopefully, when the Sony service launches and we get to hear more of what Dolby has to offer, we’ll be able to come to a definitive verdict.