Surround sound is so 20th century. Object-based immersive audio is the hip new thing, and Sony has convinced a big slice of the music industry—ranging from the major labels to the streaming services that serve it to audiences—to adopt its new 360 Reality Audio technology.
With most of us getting our music via the internet these days, Sony has wisely decided that it would be a fool’s errand to convince consumers to once again buy some new type of media (e.g., discs) along with new music players, amplifiers, and speakers get the new format. All you’ll need to enjoy 360 Reality Audio is a subscription to a high-resolution music-streaming service and some good-quality headphones or a multi-driver loudspeaker.
At an event in New York City on Tuesday, executives from Sony, Universal Music Group, Warner Music, and the music-streaming services Amazon Music HD, Deezer, and Tidal—as well as the live-concert-focused Nugs.net—came together to launch the new format. Representatives from Live Nation were also on hand to describe their intention to use the new tech for live concert mixes, and I even spotted a YouTube Music exec in the house (Sony Hall, in midtown).
360 Reality Audio is an object-based spatial audio technology in the vein of the cinema-focused Dolby Atmos and DTS:X. Based on MPEG-H audio technology, Sony says its 360 Reality Audio can place individual instruments, sound effects, and voices in any space over and around you. The format is slated to roll out at the end of the month with about 1,000 tracks that in the early stages will be dominated by classic rock, soul, and jazz content from the Sony catalogue.
The label started commissioning 360 Reality remixes from in-house sound engineers such as Mark Piacentini (Battery Studios) about 18 months ago, according to Piacentini. At a demo station, event attendees could sample new immersive mixes of Santana, Laura Nyro, Britney Spears, and Marvin Gaye—who really got our head spinning with a voices-in-the-sky revamping of “Sexual Healing.”
But this isn’t just your father’s SQ/SACD/DVD-Audio/Blu-Ray Audio library revisited. Thoroughly modern popster Mark Ronson, on hand to tout the project and perform, is anxious to remix his latest album Late Night Feelings in 360 Reality Audio “to bring out a lot of the ambient sounds” buried in the stereo mix. Pharrell Williams is likewise hot on the case.
Live Nation will contribute fresh club and theater sessions from the likes of Charli XCX and Kodaline. And Nugs.net will be cherry picking from the thousands of shows it has recorded (and continues to capture) with Metallica, Phish, Dead and Company, Bruce Springsteen, Pearl Jam, and The String Cheese Incident, among others.
Amazon actually jumped the gun and released information about Sony’s project a week ago, when it unveiled its new Echo Studio smart speaker, which supports both 360 Reality Audio and Dolby Atmos. Amazon also announced that both formats would be available via its Amazon Music HD high-resolution music-streaming service.
Amazon software exec Tapas Roy told me you’ll need “just one” of those five-driver speakers, which are fitted with “one driver pointing up, a pair pointing left and right, one positioned straight ahead, and one pointing down” to get a immersive audio experience rocking your room. The Echo Studio is currently available for pre-order and expected to ship November 7.
Sony also showed its own one-cabinet, multi-driver speaker equipped with “Sony’s unique decoder of the 360 Reality Audio music format.” But the company has yet to announce pricing or availability.
But “the real magic of 360 is the headphone playback” said Nugs.net founder Brad Serling. The multi-channel format was intended for solitary listening on good-quality, conventional headphones from day one, according to Serling. “That’s what’s so interesting about it, how they folded it down and mapped your ear. It’s playing off psycho-acoustics”—timing and phasing effects that trick the brain as to “where you think the sound is coming from.”
Sony executive Mike Fasulo said 360 Reality Audio can be experienced using headphones “from most manufacturers when combined with an Android or iOS smartphone that has a participating streaming service’s app installed.”
Ah, but if you buy one of a “select” group of current and future Sony headphone models, you’ll be able to tweak them especially well for 360 Reality Audio, using the QR purchase code on the box to unlock the Sony Headphones Connect app. The app analyzes a listener’s hearing characteristics using images of ear dimensions. You hold a smartphone at arm’s length and take pictures of your face—first a straight-on shot, and then side views where you position your ears “just so” over screen-marked sweet spots. “Maybe the first time a selfie has real value,” cracked Fasulo.
Models ready for this black magic range from the IER-H500A in-ear phones ($80) and closed-back WH-XB700 Bluetooth Headphones ($99) to the new and well-reviewed $229 WF1000XM3 wireless noise-cancelling in-ears and the ultra-premium Z1R headphones ($1,999).
While 360 Reality Audio is efficiently encoded, you’ll find tracks encoded with it as an added feature only in the pricier high-resolution tiers of streaming services. The thinking being “the listener who appreciates the added detail of a 16- or 24-bit FLAC or MQA music file is the same music fan who’ll be excited by this process,” said Serling.