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Sony 360 Reality Audio Vs. Dolby Atmos Music: The New Format Wars

by February 26, 2024
Sony Reality 360 vs Dolby Atmos

Sony Reality 360 vs Dolby Atmos

The current decade has seen a surround-music revival through new digital technologies and Dolby Atmos Music isn't the only game in town. Sony's 360 Reality Audio (360RA) is a growing new format competing directly with Atmos Music on Tidal and Amazon HD Music. Upon closer inspection, the competition between the new surround-music formats appears to be just one part of a larger struggle as new object-based 3D-audio formats reshape how we listen. But we’ve seen surround-music formats try and fail to capture the broader market in the past. So, what makes Sony and Dolby think new 3D-music technology will catch on now?

What’s Old is New Again!

When Dolby Labs published its survey in late 2021, the company was signalling confidence that young adult GenZers prefer quality options in their music. Dolby's survey was singing from Sony’s hymn book in 2021 because both companies placed bets that immersive audio would trend among the latest crop of young adults. GenZ's appreciation for sound quality was a sharp contrast to similar research performed back when Millennials were the up-and-coming generation just over a decade earlier. In blind testing, one study found that a significant number of Millennials actually preferred the sound of compressed 128-bit MP3s over higher quality alternatives. Around 2010, things may have looked bleak for the future of hi-fi. But that was back when the revolution in music involved portability and legally questionable availability through online music sharing. Many young music fans through the 2000s may have unconsciously trained themselves to prefer digital-audio compression soon after Steve Jobs told us we could us could carry 1000 songs in our pocket. But we’ve come a long way since the days of what Gene called: The Dumbing Down of Audio.

Dolby Research

To meet anticipated demand and to gain a competitive edge over incumbent streamer Spotify, enhanced and lossless audio formats have been adopted by several streaming music services. Surround-music had been a niche curiosity since way back, even before Frank Zappa's famous experiments with analog quadraphonic recordings in the 1960s. But new object-based digital formats have given us new terms to refer to a similar listening experience: 3D audio, immersive or spatial audio have all become buzzwords for one of the newest ways to listen. What’s old is suddenly new again.

Sony 360RA LogoSony’s 360 Reality Audio (360RA) appears to be diving into an already crowded pond populated by established formats like DTS:X, Auro3D, IMAX Enhanced and the pond’s apex predator, Dolby Atmos. But Sony’s strategy for 360RA makes an end-run around most of the pond by specializing only in music. While technically capable of mixing sound for video, Sony has positioned 360RA and its ecosystem, specifically for music reproduction and not movies and TV. The company's laser focus on music makes it a direct competitor to what is merely a side-hustle for Dolby Labs. But Sony still has a tough road ahead. Dolby became the dominant brand in immersive sound when it led the charge into new object-based 3D-audio through its hybrid of the two, Dolby Atmos.

Digital Multi-Channel Sound Oversimplified:

Channel-based surround formats employ the classic approach where studio engineers mix sounds to specific channels corresponding to dedicated speakers in predefined positions around your listening room with limited flexibility.

Object-based surround formats trade the specificity of channels for more fluid digital acoustic objects represented by metadata. These objects position sounds in virtual space, enabling a significant increase in the potential number of sounds from different directions. One of the key breakthroughs in object-based audio technology is that it excels at adaptability, accommodating different speaker layouts and consumer audio playback systems. The specificity of channels has been traded for broad compatibility with today's variety in home audio systems.

Dolby Loves it When a Plan Comes Together 

Dolby Atmos LogoAfter bringing vertical height channels to movie theaters in 2012 with the release of the animated film Brave, Dolby Atmos was ready to bring Atmos the home market. Dolby’s improved successor codec to Dolby Digital (AC-3), aptly dubbed AC-4 was ready for commercial use in late 2014 and according to Dolby:

"AC-4 provides a 50% compression efficiency improvement on average over Dolby Digital Plus (AC3) across content types ranging from mono to immersive audio."

Even as AC-4 was being introduced to home audio, Dolby alluded to bigger plans with Atmos when it clarified that Dolby Atmos and AC-4 are not necessarily the same thing. Dolby's strategy involved using Atmos as an umbrella brand rather than tying the format to a specific codec.

"Atmos is Dolby's immersive audio experience that can be delivered through multiple Dolby audio codecs, including Dolby AC-4 and Dolby Digital Plus."

Consumer processors and AVRs with Dolby Atmos elevated immersive audio in the home as aficionados everywhere installed ceiling speakers for the new format. But Atmos licensing wasn’t half-done yet! It soon became apparent that compatible Atmos approved audio equipment didn't need to decode height-channels or even multi-channel surround-sound at all. Dolby had positioned Atmos as a quality seal for the pliable notion of an immersive audio experience. Now, nearly any device with speakers and a chip, from soundbars to smart-speakers and even phones, tablets and car audio systems could all boast - Dolby Atmos inside!

Atmos Everywhere!

By the late 2010s, Atmos had achieved deep penetration into nearly every category of consumer electronics. Many audio purists said that the Atmos brand was becoming diluted and even speculated that its expansion risked causing consumer confusion about a product’s capabilities. After all, both may carry the Dolby Atmos stamp of approval, but a soundbar bears little acoustic resemblance to a multi-speaker component audio system.

Atmos Soundbar

As movie theaters sought any edge to bring-in audiences with premium viewing experiences, Dolby presented theaters with Dolby Cinema. Cinema’s audio-visual combination of Dolby Vision and Atmos sound is widely regarded as the gold standard in theatrical viewing. Atmos licensing allowed anyone to at least feel like they’re bringing home a piece of that luxury theatrical experience, even in a $300 soundbar. The format was a hit for Dolby, but the wide umbrella of Atmos across consumer electronics may have ushered Dolby Labs into another, less well-known strategic victory.

Next-Generation Audio Format War

While shrugging off rivals at the movies and in consumer electronics, Dolby found itself in another ongoing, high-stakes format war where its main rival is an open standard called MPEG-H 3D Audio. The competitive arena is an international audio standard called Next Generation Audio (NGA).

NGA presents a set of requirements for immersive audio formats and standards that had been adopted for many digital broadcast TV rollouts worldwide. While Dolby was potentially diluting the Atmos brand across a broad range of devices, it was also flexing its flexible rendering capabilities, a key NGA requirement and Atmos' brand recognition meant it simply could not be ignored.

Dolby Loves it When a Plan Comes Together

In practice, flexible rendering allows an audio stream to be folded down to render across a significant number of new digital audio devices found in homes today. This duty is in-part performed by the codec and it's just one advantage of object-based audio. The NGA standard promises that users will hear a best possible rendition of a soundtrack, whether using a compatible soundbar, built-in TV/computer speakers or headphones, even where the soundtrack may have been mixed for a multi-channel surround system. Widespread licensing gave Atmos a compelling familiarity advantage in the NGA race for international digital broadcast TV. So, besides winning over video streaming services like Netflix and Apple TV+, digital broadcast television networks worldwide will also deliver Dolby Atmos sound. Somewhere, George Peppard’s Hannibal lit up a cigar.

MPEG-H 3D Audio 

Fraunhofer logoFraunhofer IIS and ISO/IEC Moving Pictures Experts Group (MPEG) together have set the standards for digital multimedia for about as long as most of us have been using the Internet. The MPEG may have turned the music industry upside-down with the MP3 but it's also been researching object-based audio/video as far back as the late 1990s. The earliest significant mention I could find of object-based encoding in AV is a 1998 IEEE paper entitled: “MPEG-4 systems: Architecting Object-Based Audio-Visual Content”. That's over a decade before the arrival of Brave (2012), the first movie released in Dolby Atmos.

Not as well-known as Atmos, MPEG-H 3D Audio (MPEG-H) is an open standard that you may have noticed featured in a growing list of consumer audio today. The standard has long found a niche in convenience home audio systems like soundbars and smart-speakers by brands like Sennheiser and Samsung. But it's also included in AVRs by Marantz, Denon and McIntosh, that have recently added support for 360 Reality Audio.

Unlike Atmos, 360RA hardware support is still in its infancy and documented support for 360RA in new AVRs may be a bit murky at present. We have received verification from Masimo that some new models of Denon & Marantz receivers, including Denon's AVR-A1H support 360RA via HDMI for full-speaker sound using certain Amazon's Firestick models.

Connect the following Fire TV devices listed below to the AVR via HDMI:

  • Amazon Fire TV Cube 3rd Gen
  • Fire TV Stick 4K Max 2nd Gen
  • Fire TV Stick 4K 2nd Gen

To see the growing list of Sony 360 Reality Audio full-speaker hardware support, check Sony's "How it works with speakers" section on its main 360 Reality Audio page.

While their technologies may compete in certain markets Sony, Dolby and Fraunhofer have collaborated on a “patent pool” agreement. This will make their use of patents less restrictive and potentially less litigious. Perhaps we’ve entered an era of kinder, gentler and more forward thinking format wars.

Among manufacturers that support MPEG-H, the open standard's biggest fan has to be Sony. The Japanese electronics giant has implemented MPEG-H for its own proprietary formats including 360RA and PlayStation 5’s Tempest 3D Audio engine. But its around 360RA where Sony has ambitious plans in collaboration with Fraunhofer to build a 3D-music ecosystem from the bottom-up. According to Sony:

"360 Reality Audio Music Format, a format optimized for music distribution and compliant with MPEG-H 3D Audio, an open audio standard."

Dolby Atmos Music

Amazon Music and Tidal both began streaming Atmos Music libraries in late 2019. In 2021, Apple Music began streaming its own implementation of Atmos Music called Spatial Audio, which is really Atmos with a head-twist. 

Apple's Spatial Audio is an extension of Atmos tailored to portable music using headphones & earbuds. It adds a dynamic head tracking feature to Dolby’s surround. Compatible headphones will provide a fluid reorientation of the soundstage in a fixed position as you turn your head within it. This effect requires compatible headphones using gyroscopic/accelerometer sensors, such as the AirPods Pro or AirPods Max. Without these sensors in your headphones, you'll still get the benefits of a Dolby Atmos binaural rendering, but without dynamic head tracking.

Dark Side of the Moon - Atmos

A big win for Apple Music and Dolby! DSotM in Atmos, available on Blu-ray or to stream on Apple Music

With Apple Music and other popular streaming music services on board, Atmos seemed ready to dominate this new object-based rendition of surround-music.

Sony 360 Reality Audio Deployment

In late 2019, 360RA made its debut on premium subscription music services including Tidal, Deezer, Amazon Music and a live performance music service called Nugz.net. Deezer mysteriously dropped support for 360RA as of October 31st, 2023. However, a unique blockchain streaming service called PeerTracks has picked up Sony 360RA for 3D-audio music and music videos. Native hardware support for 360RA was rolling-in by 2020. By 2023, Sony had released everything from Soundbars to new lines of AVRs featuring direct 360RA compatibility. Now, Sony 360RA support is growing across manufacturers alongside MPEG-H. But how does Sony intend to compete with Atmos Music?

Besides being a consumer electronics giant and a movie studio, Sony also happens to be the world's largest music publisher. The company has the power to exercise a top-down deployment of 360RA by putting its mixing tools into the hands of professional studio engineers working for Sony Music and its many subsidiaries that collectively cover almost half the music ever recorded. But 360RA's biggest marketing push appears to be positioning its mixing tools as the choice for hip DIY creators. It's a wise choice in today's atomized music industry that includes a wave of YouTube & Soundcloud-famous composers, musicians and DJs. Sony teamed-up with Virtual Sonics to create 360 Reality Audio Creative Suite, a software plug-in for digital audio workstations (DAW) apps like Pro Tools.

360RA Mixing

Mixing 3D sound in 360RA Walkmix Creator

Sony says the 360RA mixing process is entirely object-based, allowing creators to easily place sounds in a true 360-degree sphere around the audience, including above or below. Sony’s 360RA for Creators web-page strongly implies a friendliness for independent recording artists. The introductory video for amateur creators features veteran music producer Keith Harris working in a swanky living-room studio where he's shown mixing tracks with Sony's Walkmix Creator on a laptop while monitoring his work on a pair of Sony headphones. Sony appears to have recently renamed its 360RA mixing tools from "Creative Suite" to "Walkmix Creator". Instead of sounding like an office productivity tool, the new name sounds more cool with allusions to its own Walkman brand. Sony's portable Walkman players have been around for decades primarily for music-listening on headphones.

Sony's 360RA web-pages lean heavily into the format's use with headphones for both creators and users, yet professional studios use a unique spherical 13-speaker monitor layout to mix 360 Reality Audio tracks that sound great on any Dolby Atmos home theater system. Sony may face a challenge marketing low-altitude floor-speakers for home audio just for 360RA listening. But, Dolby was able to bring height-channels to the ceiling, perhaps floor speakers are the next frontier.

Keith Harris Mix

Producer Keith Harris Mixing in 3D w/ 360 Reality Audio

While Sony is communicating to indie creators, the ground-up strategy isn't exclusive to 360RA. Dolby's own ground-up strategy has seen the company partner with Avid to help Indie artists using Pro Tools to create and distribute tracks in Atmos and Apple Spatial Audio.

Personal Listening Impressions - Sony 360RA & Atmos

It may be a cop out but I cannot declare a clear preference. Just like any stereo recording, the primary sound-quality choke point is in the studio mix. But I will offer that when listening over speakers, the best-sounding tracks in either format sound fantastic! However, alternating between headphones and a Sony ES AVR 7.2.2 speaker system, results vary greatly.

Listening on a Multi-CH Speaker System

At best, Atmos and 360RA over a multi-channel speaker system are everything we'd want from surround-music and I love it. I've heard sounds emanate from phantom speakers around the room, an effect I've never heard so clearly from my 5.1 SACD & DVD-Audio discs. It may seem counter-intuitive considering both formats use digital compression, but they're bringing dynamics back to music. Both formats solve problems associated with the so-called "Loudness Wars" by being mastered at significantly lower volume than most stereo tracks. According to Mastering Engineer Ian Shepherd, Atmos specifies mastering at an integrated loudness of -18 LUFS. From lurking audio pro communities I've learned that's as much as 10dB lower than the many of today's stereo masters. You'll have to turn-up the volume, but for your effort you may hear more dynamic range and subtle detail missing in so much of today's two-channel recordings. Just be careful not to mix 3D-music tracks with regular stereo tracks into the same playlist or your system may be in for a shock.

In my opinion the best tracks subtly blend surround effects to create unique environmental ambience. In Atmos I've heard tight guitar reflections from the back of the room that sonically put me in a small tavern listening to The Band. In 360RA, a Jeff Beck's riff creates broad echos turning my listening room it into a stadium. Both formats are equally capable of these effects and so much more.

Jeff Beck 360RA Cast

We lost a guitar legend in 2023, but Jeff Beck is well remembered in fantastic 360RA mixes on Tidal

On the downside while listening on a speaker system, some tracks sound anemic and thin while lacking the oomph of the same song's stereo recording. An Atmos live performance featuring Prince seemed to lean too heavily into surrounding me in audience cheers while limiting the soundstange of the band to mostly the center channel. Sometimes an otherwise great sounding track may contain a muddled section or the vocals may sound distant, as if I'm missing a channel. But those are minor quibbles I've experienced with only certain tracks in both formats while listening on speakers. Listening to binaural over headphones is another matter entirely.

Listening on Headphones

Both object-based formats can check the binaural rendering box, meaning you'll get a rendition of immersive 3D-audio over any pair of stereo headphones, not just those labelled as compatible to a particular format. But, sadly it's my opinion that Atmos and 360RA don't offer the same experience on headphones. It may go without saying, but even the best-sounding tracks lack the dramatic directional effects you may hear over speakers. Both 3D-music formats can deliver excellent ambient effects sometimes adding space and soundstage to a recording. It's possibly a function of the fold-down to binaural, but you won't have to crank up the volume over headphones like you will over a multi-channel speaker system. While detail and dynamics are good, headphones just don't provide the revolutionary sonic experience I'm hearing from a full speaker system.

I do most of my real music listening over headphones, for which I keep a small collection of favorites for different moods and music styles. I absolutely LOVE hearing a great pair of headphones. I will even admit that my multi-channel speaker system is mostly used for movies with only occasional music sessions, although these have increased lately as I explore these surround-music formats. But my biggest complaint with 3D-music formats over headphones is that a good stereo mix using a decent pair of headphones—is already an immersive listening experience! It's my humble opinion that headphones are just not a compelling use-case for either format.

Tinfoil Headphone Theory

Apple Music BenefitsAs the second most popular streaming music service, Apple Music is surely looking for any edge to catch up to Spotify. Apple Music has incentives for creators to grow its Spatial Audio music library. Like any popular music distributor Apple Music is a partner to the major labels, but it also has a reputation among independent musicians and studios for paying better royalties than Spotify. According to some creators online, better royalties makes Apple Music a priority destination for new artists attempting to gain traction. Meanwhile for users, Apple Music has invested heavily in Atmos through its Spatial Audio format, including Atmos support on its Apple TV 4K. The device provides Atmos on its Apple TV+ streaming service and seamless Atmos support on 3rd party apps like Netflix and Tidal. But the device does not support 360RA.

Digital Music News reported in late 2023 that Apple will turn up the Spatial Audio heat by offering additional royalties to further incentivize its 3D-music format. Due to the opacity of proprietary algorithms it may be difficult to prove, but it’s long rumored among audio pros that Apple Music gives favorable treatment to tracks mixed in Spatial Audio. It’s said to provide additional weight in its algorithms while “playlisting” tracks recorded in Spatial Audio over vanilla stereo recordings.

Some audio professionals online, especially smaller studios, believe that Apple’s push for Spatial Audio/Atmos is somehow supported by the major players in the recording industry. Some of these audio pros have even speculated that it may be part of an effort to squeeze-out smaller studios due to the high cost of retooling from stereo to Dolby Atmos mixing—and they’re not happy about it!

One anonymous audio professional commented about the prospect of moving his own production to Dolby Atmos: 

"The horrible truth is that you can NOT create a single master that is immersive and expect it to fold down on stereo to be heard by consumers on stereo devices...mixing and mastering gurus are jumping through ridiculous hoops to master for all bed widths & binaural...it simply must be binaural or just use a separate stereo master because 99.99% of consumers listen on just two speakers or headphones." 

I’m no studio engineer, just a fan of the profession’s best work, but I have questions. I understand that one breakthrough in object-based surround formats is flexible rendering for a variety of audio systems and a binaural for headphones. But can one master in any audio format really bring corresponding levels of immersion to all audio systems?

It seems consistent with my own listening experience that there may be some trade-offs involved when mixing for both a multi-channel speaker system and a pair of headphones. During some online tutorials demonstrating mixing in Atmos, the instructor will often toggle-monitor their work between headphones and speakers, presumably to find a sweet-spot between two very different modes of listening. But does striking that balance really even matter?

Who is 3D-Music Really For? 

As mentioned, I’m a big fan of music-listening over headphones. Although, I put a little more effort into it than the average person streaming Spotify through a phone’s stock earbuds. I believe most would be pleasantly surprised at the sound quality gains using an inexpensive DAC/Amp with even a pair of modestly priced headphones. But there's good reason to suspect that earbuds or headphones connected to a phone are the music accessories of choice for the average music streamer.

How We Listen to Music

According to this Strategy Analytics survey, headphones and a portable device is only the second most popular way to listen to music today. Computer speakers happen to be number one in the survey. The same Strategy Analytics survey puts component audio systems at a distant #6 and Home Theater systems at the bottom of the list at #10.

According to a 2021 Statista report, three of the top five headphone manufacturers are owned by Apple and Sony. Apple headphones and its Beats subsidiary take the #1 and #2 positions, while Sony, proprietor of its own 3D-music format is #5. 

Headphone Market Statista

Following monetary incentives, to whom is mixing Atmos Music (or 360RA) for a multi-channel home audio speaker system a priority?

If these formats are really intended to move headphones, it may be good news for indie recording artists and small studios to know that perhaps they needn't worry about investing in a multi-channel speaker monitoring system. But I have to wonder what we lose when listening to exclusively headphone-mixed tracks over multi-channel speakers? Perhaps this explains sonic inconsistencies I've heard in certain Atmos/360RA tracks.

It’s way too early in the life-cycle of these new object-based music formats to jump to conclusions. In theory, no matter how the mix is monitored, the format’s algorithms are intended to read positional information from metadata to contextually render sound for each audio system and to binaural. I understand that these algorithms and the mixing tools are improving all the time. But as much as I love listening to music on headphones, I’d hate to see these formats become implicitly designed for the earbuds and phone masses. 

Jump onto the forum and let us know about your experiences with Dolby Atmos music or 360RA. Perhaps we can follow-up this article in a LiveStream with Gene and David Frangioni for some expert insights.


About the author:
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Wayde is a tech-writer and content marketing consultant in Canada s tech hub Waterloo, Ontario and Editorialist for Audioholics.com. He's a big hockey fan as you'd expect from a Canadian. Wayde is also US Army veteran, but his favorite title is just "Dad".

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