Apple’s Dolby Atmos music on a big range of headphones is tried and here is the verdict

Spatial Audio comes with Dolby Atmos is made available on Apple Music now

Lossless music requires pretty specific hardware to take advantage of, and is really for the kind of person who shops for the best wired headphones and best headphone DACs.

Apple has now launched the next generation of its Apple Music service, which includes Hi-Res Lossless music, but also Dolby Atmos versions of some tracks, and it’s this latter option that’s really interesting.

But Dolby Atmos works on any headphones, from the best wireless earbuds to the best noise cancelling headphones – though it’s most effective on AirPods Pro and AirPods Max, for reasons we’ll come to shortly. And it makes an immediate and obvious difference when listening to compatible tracks on any headphones… though much more in some cases than others.

That’s what I’ve been investigating since the new tracks launched – how much does the difference vary between different headphones, and is it really worth using on non-AirPods? Here’s what I think.

How do I turn on Dolby Atmos in Apple Music?

By default, Apple Music makes the Dolby Atmos versions of tracks play only if a set of headphones with Apple’s wireless chips is detected – which means AirPods, AirPods Pro, AirPods Max and a broad range of Beats gear.

However, if you head to Settings > Music > Dolby Atmos and change the option from ‘Automatic’ to ‘Always On’, then your music app will always stream the Atmos version of the track.

If you want to hear the difference between the Atmos and regular track, with AirPods Pro or Max, you can open Control Centre, long press on the volume bar, and then tap the ‘Spatial Audio’ button to trigger it on and off easily.

For everyone else, you’ll need to use that same Settings page as before – you can just toggle from ‘Always On’ to ‘Off’ and back while something is playing. Be warned that many Atmos tracks are quieter than their normal versions, so this toggling can cause ‘fun’ with volumes.
What’s Dolby Atmos music like?

It’s very cool, but pretty weird! For two reasons: 1) At its best, it adds far more separation to different elements in a track, and though listening on headphones doesn’t really give you a true ‘3D’ sense of positioning in my opinion, I would still call it ‘2.5D’ – it’s not like standing in the middle of an orchestra, but is like you’re in the studio with the band standing in front of you, and that’s a very cool thing. And 2) for a lot of these songs, the mix has been pretty significantly altered to make this happen. There are extra flourishes. Instruments are at different levels of loudness, and even some effects on them or on voices have been changed. In a lot of cases, I’d say that listening to the Atmos version isn’t like switching from mono to stereo, it’s like going from the studio album to a live one.

The most dramatic example of this Lady Gaga’s Chromatica album, which someone has just gone absolutely nuts on, especially on making the vocals swim around in the mix in really surprising ways. It feels like someone was having a whale of a time jamming dials up and down at times during the chorus of Stupid Love. In something like GnR’s Sweet Child O’ Mine or 4 Non Blondes’ What’s Going On? the changes are more subtle, and feel like a more natural evolution of the existing song, rather than a rethinking of it.

And then there’s When Doves Cry, which fits both of the models above: they have gone absolutely wild with the Atmos elements, yet it’s a perfect fit for the song. That may not always work so well with artists who aren’t Prince. At first, I found myself going “I’m really not sure these new mixes are better” a lot, and then switching back to the normal track for comparison. But the normal track suddenly sounded so… flat. Once you try the Atmos stuff, it quickly feels like the only way you want to listen to music.

My biggest issue with the Dolby Atmos offering right now? The limited number of tracks available in it, and that they’re pretty hard to find. Sometimes, there are just random individual tracks in Atmos on an album, rather than the whole album being available. There’s no way to search only for Atmos tracks. I realise that it’s only partly within Apple’s graces to make more tracks available. The artists and labels need to supply the material. But it’s just odd to have this amazing new 3D experience that will make every immediately search for Pink Floyd and end up disappointed, or to find that there’s nothing from the most-streamed artist of last year, Dua Lipa.

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