Spatial Audio and the Geriatric Millennial

Posted by Matt Birchler
— 2 min read

Is spatial audio for music the next great innovation in music production, or is it a whole bunch of nothing?

This is the question I’ve been thinking about this week after Apple announced it was coming to Apple music in June. This is largely because my social feeds are full of people over the moon for this feature, all who seem to think stereo sound is dead and spatial audio is the future.

I’m just not so sure.

Spatial audio is really just surround sound with some added Apple tech on top. Surround sound is nothing new to music, and there have been options to get some records mixed in 5.1 surround sound for decades. I remember back in the day there as a single 4-foot section at my local Best Buy with CDs mixed in surround sound. They never really took off. One problem was people didn’t have the hardware to experience those records, but another problem was because the sales pitch was never very clear.

But today the tech is better, and there have been countless experiments with simulating surround sound in headphones over the years. Apple has also already shipped spatial audio for movies and TV, so I know what it sounds like, and it’s pretty darn good. But I’m still not convinced spatial audio is even something I want from my music.

  1. Movies and TV usually show content taking place in a 3D space, so surround sound makes sense. Music isn’t quite like that, and I really don’t think I want to hear my music swirling around me or anything.
  2. One key feature of spatial audio is head tracking in relation to the screen, which makes it feel more like the audio is coming from the screen. It doesn’t sound like that’s going to be a part of Apple Music, and why would it? I listen to music while I run, for example. Should the music sound like it’s coming from my pocket? Should it shift around me when I make each turn? None of this sounds appealing.
  3. This requires a Dolby Atmos mix of each song, which doesn’t just come for free, music producers will need to make new mixes of their songs in this format, which will add significant time to their productions. Some will do this for sure, but this really seems niche.
  4. After years of promises of making music sound “better than stereo” I’m a little gun-shy about new promises to do this. Remember when Apple said the original HomePod was actually doing something better than stereo sound and all us stereo fans were living in the past? Then remember how everyone soon went, “oh, two HomePods as a stereo pair is actually way better”?
  5. I get strong 3D movies vibes from this whole thing. It was innovation for innovation’s sake, but didn’t result in a thing people actually wanted, and was just a way to sell more expensive movie tickets and get people to buy new TVs before they normally would have.
  6. When I ask people who are excited about this what they think will be cool, the answers are very nebulous and usually bring up AR glasses or some other future tech that will make this all tie together. Did I mention 3D movies were just a way to sell you more shit?

Those are my concerns, but maybe I’m just an old crank who just isn’t into things changing. I love music, so if this does indeed lead to incredible new ways to experience music, then I’ll be really excited. I’m just saying I’m not convinced yet.

This is going to start rolling out next month, so you can bet I’ll be trying it out as soon as I can. Nothing would make me happier than to be pleasantly surprised.