Spatial audio now available on Android – but does anyone care?

Android users that subscribe to Apple Music (rare breeds) can now experience spatial audio too. 

The format – powered by Dolby Atmos – was touted as “the next generation of sound” when the feature was rolled out in Apple Music back in June.

Apple’s head of music Eddy Cue told Billboard – “To me, when I look at Dolby Atmos, I think it’s going to do for music what HD did for television. Today, where can you watch television that’s not in HD?”

I’ve written here about my experience with the format which essentially gives listeners a 360-degree surround sound, immersive experience when used with a compatible device.

Sounds come at you from unexpected places and the listener is set in the midst of the music makers – almost like you’re part of the band.

While it sounds intriguing, and can work on certain tracks, I found spatial underwhelming in practise and haven’t listened to tracks mixed in the format since, much preferring the standard two-channel mix. Although new music, specifically created for the format – Apple will be updating its Logic Pro recording software soon so creators can produce content – does have some potential.

Producer Giles Martin, son of legendary Beatles producer George Martin, who mixed The Beatles in spatial is having second thoughts too – and plans to remix the spatial version of Sgt. Peppers – telling Rolling Stone that “It’s a bit bright. It’s a bit digital.”

Others have compared the format to the colourisation of old black and white movies or when record companies in the 1960s simply took their mono catalogue and processed it to stereo – both with less than stellar results.

Spatial and Apple’s rollout of lossless has been underwhelming in other ways too. 

If this was the big push to shore up subscribers and play catch-up to Spotify (which has around 100 million more subscribers than Apple Music) it’s a pretty big fail; few, outside those with vested interests, are hashtagging #Spatialaudio and it has been treated with suspicion and scorn by the audiophile community.

Martin’s right when he says that – “It may not always be better, but there’s a difference.”

The format is in its early stages and sound engineers are still getting to grips with the format. 

“I think we’re learning the tools to provide that difference for people,” says Martin. 

“What’s great is that it creates more of a lean-in listening environment where you’re paying attention to it, as opposed to just having audio being played into your head to stop you from thinking.”

It’s also unlikely that many new artists, few of them with Martin’s access and resources, will go to the expense of mixing and mastering for spatial.

Meanwhile the lossless announcement was undermined by the fact that Apple’s flagship headphones the AirPods Pro and AirPods Max can’t play hi-res lossless audio – (the Max’s wired option re-digitises data to maximum 24-bit/48kHz). 

To access high-res files you’ll need an external USB-digital-to-analog converter.

A fail on both counts.