If you've yet to be fully persuaded by the benefits of listening to music in spatial audio, then you may be interested in my pick of the 6 best tracks I've heard in the format so far. Each song manages to showcase the full potential spatial audio tracks can bring on the latest speakers or headphones capable of handling the new audio format.
I've been discussing spatial audio for a while now. I confess, though, I'm not entirely convinced by the new audio format and every spatial audio mix. After all, do we really need a more nuanced version of a song just to give it a greater sense of scale when played on today's wireless speakers or headphones?
An audio format that's built around remixing a song to deliver a stronger sound on today's small speakers, say, doesn't exactly feel like progress to me. To my mind, anything that messes with the original recording undermines the music mix that the artist(s) and record producer(s) settled on at the time the song was made, and from that point of view feels like a backwards step.
As an audio expert, I have spent more years than I care to mention listening to stereo recordings on conventional speaker systems. I know all about the benefits listening to music on a good quality system can bring in terms of soundstage depth, and conjuring up a three-dimensional sonic image of a musical performance in my living room simply by using a pair of Hi-Fi speakers, or the best audiophile headphones. Ironically, this is the goal of Dolby Atmos and 360 Reality Audio formats, but for non audiophile setups using modern speaker systems and headphones.
Of course, not all spatial audio format songs are as effective as one another. So if you really want to hear what spatial audio is capable of, play these 5 Dolby Atmos remixed songs on a Sonos Era 300 speaker, which is designed specifically for spatial audio formats. Alternatively, you can try any stereo speaker setup or pair of headphones that support spatial audio, such as the AirPods Pro 2 and AirPods Pro Max, to discover what the format can bring when done right.
1. Rocket Man by Elton John
Few tracks demonstrate the immersive capabilities of spatial audio more effectively than Elton John's remixed Dolby Atmos version of "Rocket Man (I Think It's Going To Be A Long Long Time)". The soundscape this version of the classic song manages to produce on my Sonos Era 300 smart speaker is so expansive that it defies belief that it's coming from a single source.
The exaggerated backing vocal harmonies and ramped up synth sounds in this Dolby Atmos mix aren't authentic to the version I've listened to hundreds of times over the years. It's very effective, though, and although I don't dislike it, it does feel a bit too different. Thankfully, not everything has been tinkered with in the track's mix, and the song still has a lovely warm characteristic that evokes the original 1970's recording style, making it sound familiar and different at the same time.
2. Thriller by Micheal Jackson
Another classic pop album that's been given the Dolby Atmos Spatial Audio treatment on Apple Music is Jackson's "Thriller." There are some neat touches that make the synth sound bigger on "Beat It" than the speaker cabinet the track is being streamed on, and has a room filling sound that is very engaging.
Meanwhile, I can well imagine that there's some audio trickery applied to the howling wolves at the beginning of the "Thriller" album's title track, but it refused to play on my Sonos Era 300, informing me that 'the song is not encoded correctly.' It's not the first time this has happened when trying to stream Apple Music content to the Sonos Era 300, and leads me to suspect that there are still some encoding issues to be addressed between Apple Music and Sonos.
3. No Time To Die (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack)
From Hans Zimmer's rousing orchestral score for James Bond's most recent outing to Billie Eilish's brooding performance of the title track, the No Time To Die movie soundtrack is a fine example of how orchestral pieces can work spectacularly well with spatial audio. Once again, the sound is much bigger in scale than I would typically expect from a single cabinet speaker, and the rousing strings and lavish production of the soundtrack are projected upwards and outwards, filling the room.
The track called "Matera" is a particular highlight, with all the signature elements of a Bond movie rolled into one very beautiful piece of music, and I have to confess that the Dolby Atoms Spatial Audio elements make it sound pretty spectacular on my Sonos Era 300.
4. Royals by Lorde
Lorde's "Royals" track from 2013's "Pure Heroine" album was a go-to track ideal for showcasing bass performance on passive speakers and subwoofers in my reviews for a previous role, and I'm pleased to discover this Dolby Atmos version. The remixed version has all the scale to show off the bass handling of whatever speaker or pair of headphones you're listening on, and gives an extra dimension to the finger snaps and harmonies that seem to stretch beyond the confines of the speaker cabinet.
I love the way I am able to follow each layer of the backing vocal harmonies, and the way they seem to build on the Sonos speaker. The crashing gong sounds at the beginning of the chorus also appear to have additional presence in this mix that I wasn't aware of when listening to the original stereo version. This all adds up to the Dolby Atmos version of the song being added to my go-to demo tracks for spatial audio.
5. A Day in The Life by The Beatles
The Dolby Atmos mix of "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" album by The Beatles is full of special effects that show just how ahead of their time the band was back in 1967 when the album was originally released. I've often found the original mix of the album a bit too chaotic for my tastes, but this Dolby Atmos remix version unpicks the multitracked layers to give each element its own space within the soundstage.
With so many tracks on the album to showcase Dolby Atmos' capabilities with throwing sounds wide of the soundstage thanks to the likes of the cock-a-doodle-doing cockerel on "Good Morning, Good Morning", to the extra dimension given to the snaking synth sounds on "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds." Even more spectacular, though, is "A Day In the Life."
The way the Dolby Atmos version places the instruments in their own acoustic space within the soundstage is remarkable for a 55-year-old recording. The drum kit feels as though it's actually positioned behind the speaker in the soundstage, which is a really neat trick that gives this mix the impression of depth. If fact, the soundstage conjured up by the Sonos Era 300 here sounds closer to what I'd expect to hear on a traditional stereo music system, with two speakers placed several feet apart, than any single speaker setup I've heard so far.
6. The Immaculate Collection by Madonna
Regarded as one of the best-selling compilation albums by a solo artist, Madonna's 1990s collection of songs on "The Immaculate Collection" remains one of the best-selling compilation albums of all time, with global sales exceeding 30 million. The original CD of greatest hits included tracks remixed in Q-Sound, an early version of spatial audio sound that enveloped the listener sat in the 'sweet spot' in front of a pair of stereo speakers.
I was a fan of the collection of songs, largely because of the immersive Q-Sound remixes on tracks including "Like a Prayer" and "Express Yourself", and this released Dolby Atmos remix version of some of Madonna's biggest hits throws out a wide soundstage that places me right at the heart of the music for every song.
Although much of Madonna's early 90s output have the better production, with drum beats appearing to come from somewhere outside of the speaker cabinet, it's early-era (mid-80s) Madonna songs that are the most effective Dolby Atmos remixes. Tracks like "Lucky Star" and "Boderline" have more prominent guitar and synth lines that seem to pop out of my Sonos Era 300 speaker, and the space around the vocal reverb makes it sound like Madonna is singing in a much larger auditorium than on the original mix of the track.
If you were ever a fan, then this Dolby Atmos remix version of one of the best compilation albums of the 1990s is pure nostalgic joy with a modern-day twist. This album is the perfect demonstration of how good spatial audio can sound.
How to hear spatial audio tracks
From Apple's AirPods Max headphones to the latest HomePod 2 smart home speaker, the idea of spatial audio seems to be finding its way into all kinds of products. Indeed, it's a fundamental part of the distinctive design behind the Sonos Era 300 smart speaker, which makes some spatial audio tracks sound so impressive they defy belief that they're coming from a relatively compact speaker design.
It is no surprise, then, that spatial audio music is taking off, and as Apple Insider points out, it's important to note that there's no fixed definition for the term spatial audio.
When it comes down to it, Apple Music uses Dolby Atmos mixed tracks that it calls Spatial Audio with Dolby Atmos, while Tidal and Amazon Music Unlimited employ both Dolby Atmos and Sony's 360 Reality Audio formats in their Spatial Audio content libraries.
There are some issues with easily tracking down spatial audio version of songs. For Apple Music subscribers using iOS, though, this third-party music library tracker app automatically discovers which of the tracks and albums in your Apple Music library have a spatial audio version, all without having to carry out lengthy searches of your favorite artist's back catalog.
I've found it particularly useful with getting to grips with spatial audio content in my own library, rather than relying on Apple Music's playlist of Spatial Audio tracks, it has made streaming tracks to my Sonos Era 300 smart speaker far more straight forward.