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Surround Sound Music Is Back, and Now It’s in Dolby Atmos

Illustration for article titled Surround Sound Music Is Back, and Now It’s in Dolby Atmos
Screenshot: Whitson Gordon

60-Day Free Trial | Tidal

When I first upgraded to a surround sound system, I started rewatching all my favorite movies and playing video games. I did not, however, give much thought to music—until recently, when hi-res streaming service Tidal added playlists full of music in Dolby Atmos.

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Surround sound music is nothing new. Quadraphonic mixes go all the way back to the 70s, when music albums were mixed in what we’d now call 4.0 surround sound. The early 2000s brought the trend back on digital media, and while most of those formats were considered commercial failures due to the specialized equipment needed, surround sound is more accessible than ever thanks to affordable speakers and soundbar systems. In other words, it’s a perfect time for the music industry to give it another go. Enter: Tidal.

Dolby Atmos Comes to Tidal

As an audiophile-focused service, Tidal seems a perfect choice for a Dolby partnership, and this June they started releasing tracks mastered with 3D audio in mind. There are a few full albums, but most of the music right now lives in a collection of Dolby Atmos playlists for different genres (like Pop, Classic Rock, Hip-Hop, and Jazz), artists (like Lady Gaga, Shawn Mendes, and Grand Funk Railroad) and decades (like the ‘70s, ‘80s, and ‘90s). You can find all the playlists by searching for “dolby atmos” and clicking View All next to Playlists.

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Atmos-compatible tracks will automatically play in surround sound if you’re running an Atmos-capable receiver or soundbar connected to a supported Tidal device, which includes the Apple TV 4K, newer Fire TVs, Nvidia Shield TVs from 2019 onward, and a couple of Sony’s Android-based TVs. Just make sure you’ve set your surround levels properly if you want the music to sound good, otherwise your rear channels may be too loud (or too quiet).

If you don’t currently subscribe to Tidal, they offer a 60-day free trial for folks interested in Atmos, so I highly recommend checking it out. (It’s $20 a month after that for the premium tier, which is required for Dolby Atmos.) Some of my personal favorite tracks include:

  • Shawn Mendes & Camila Cabello - “Señorita”: The acoustic guitar playing on all speakers fills the room nicely, but the vocals are the star of the show here, with Cabello on the front speakers and Mendes on the rears for a very cool-sounding duet.
  • The Weeknd & Daft Punk - “I Feel It Coming”: The claps on the third and fourth beat hit your rear speakers, along with The Weeknd’s backing vocals later in the song, which adds a fun effect.
  • Ariana Grande - “Break Up With Your Boyfriend, I’m Bored”: A bit more subtle than the others, with vocals mostly sticking to the front of the soundstage—with just a few background lines surprising you from the rear speakers, like the word “care” at the end of the chorus.
  • Halsey - “Graveyard”: If you like modern pop/electronic music but prefer something a bit less gimmicky in terms of surround mixing, this track is where it’s at. Awesome, room-filling sound.
  • Norah Jones - “Come Away With Me”: The same goes here, with the entire Come Away With Me album available in all its relaxing surround glory.
  • Elton John - “Rocket Man”: Elton John’s albums have been available in multichannel for years, and unfortunately Tidal doesn’t have the whole collection—but they do have Rocket Man on their ‘70s Atmos playlist. The backing vocals and instruments on the rear channels add separation that really helps you appreciate everything going on in this song.
  • Marvin Gaye - “What’s Going On”: The mix starts out subtle on this one, with the surround channels filling up more and more as the song builds. Backing vocals like “sister” and “brother” bounce back and forth between the two rear channels for a very cool effect.
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That’s just a small smattering of what’s available, with quite a bit of Atmos-mixed music on the platform. I hope Tidal continues to release more tracks and albums as time goes on, because I’d love for surround music to stick a bit better this time around.

Want More? Explore SACD, DVD-A, and BD-A Discs

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I say “this time around” because the music industry has tried this before—a few times, in fact. In the early 2000s, there was a small format war between two types of audio discs: Super Audio CD (SACD) and DVD-Audio (DVD-A). Both were able to fit higher bitrate audio as well as multichannel music, with DVD-Audio often including a traditional DVD video track for folks that didn’t have DVD-A compatible DVD players. Most music is out of print in these formats, but you can still find copies of your favorite albums on Amazon and eBay, often at reasonable prices. More recently, some record companies have released albums on Blu-ray Audio (BD-A) as well.

Blu-ray Audio is the easiest to play since it should be compatible with any Blu-ray player. DVD-A discs are pretty accessible as well: While only some players will get you the full resolution audio, any DVD player should be able to get you the fallback Dolby Digital 5.1 version of the album. SACD has slightly more limited support, but some Blu-ray players—like the Sony UBP-X700—can play all three types of hi-res audio discs, making a great affordable choice for folks getting into multichannel music.

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Classical, jazz, and classic rock are some of the most well-represented genres here, with Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side of the Moon being one of the most oft-recommended. The latest box set contains both DVD-A and BD-A versions, offering both the 1973 quadraphonic mix alongside the 2003 5.1 mix. It’s truly something to hear: the piano chord leading into “Breathe” surrounds you on all sides, before David Gilmour’s guitar licks spread out from front to back, soothing you into submission. In the 5.1 mix of “On the Run,” the footsteps pan across the room slowly, as if someone’s literally running past you. Even if you aren’t a Pink Floyd fan, it’s worth listening to this album to see what brilliantly mixed surround music can be. Other popular albums include Fleetwood Mac’s Rumors, the Beatles’ Love, Jethro Tull’s Thick as a Brick, Rush’s 2112 and Moving Pictures, and Eagles’ Hotel California, among many many other rock classics. (Some, like Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band on BD-A, can get pretty expensive.)

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Experimental pieces like Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells really shine in a multichannel system, too. In the climax of the song, as Oldfield brings in new instruments one by one, each plays from a different speaker— the grand piano starts in the front right, then the reed and pipe organ comes in on the front left, then the glockenspiel in the back right ... making you feel like you’re sitting in the middle of an orchestra. That comes from the original quadraphonic mix from the ‘70s vinyl, available digitally on a 2001 SACD. There’s also a 2009 DVD with Mike Oldfield’s own 5.1 mix in Dolby Digital (not to be confused with the completely different re-recording on 5.1 DVD-A known as Tubular Bells 2003). The quadraphonic mix is my personal favorite, but it tends to be a bit more expensive on eBay, and the 5.1 mix certainly has its moments.

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You’ll also find some more modern albums out there, like Depeche Mode’s Violator, The Flaming Lips’ Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots, and even Coldplay’s recent A Head Full of Dreams. For my fellow metalheads, there’s Metallica’s black album, Devin Townsend’s Empath, and TesseracT’s Polaris. Middle school me would also like to point out Linkin Park’s Reanimation—their best album (don’t @ me) is available as a 5.1 DVD-A, and it’s pretty great. Hearing extra sound effects and backing vocals pan around the room on tracks like Frgt/10 and 1stp Klosr suits the style of music well.

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Some of these mixes will make more use of those surround channels than others, but it’s worth experimenting to see what kind of approach you like. It’s hard to find a good, organized list of all the albums that have been released over the decades, but if you poke around message boards like the Steve Hoffman forum and Quadraphonic Quad, you’ll probably be able to find some good threads with recommendations. (This section of Quadraphonic Quad has a great list going back to 2009 or so.) Of course, it never hurts to search Amazon and eBay for your favorite album in SACD, DVD, or Blu-ray format—and don’t discount live concerts on DVD and Blu-ray, either. While they don’t always mix the music into the surrounds in the same way a multichannel audio disc might, they still lend a sense of space that makes you feel you’re in the crowd, or right on stage. (John Mayer’s Where the Light Is, an album I’ve listened to hundreds of times, really came alive the first time I watched the Blu-ray with a surround system.)

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For Everything Else: Expand Stereo to Multichannel on Your Receiver

Illustration for article titled Surround Sound Music Is Back, and Now It’s in Dolby Atmos
Photo: Whitson Gordon
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Sadly, the vast majority of music albums are still two-channel stereo, and once you’ve heard a well-mixed surround album, you’ll almost certainly want more. If you want your existing music collection to give you a similarly enveloping experience, your receiver can probably upmix those stereo recordings to 5.1, 7.1, or even an Atmos-focused 5.1.4 setup.

You can find this feature by cycling through the surround modes on your receiver. My Pioneer receiver, for example, supports the following upmixing modes:

  • Dolby Surround: This aims to bring some of the instrumentation into the rear and (if applicable) height channels to fill out the sound just a bit more. You obviously won’t get any cool surround “effects” like you would with a true 5.1 mix, but it does a good job without ruining anything.
  • DTS Neural:X: Just like with movies, DTS’ upmixing approach is a bit more heavy-handed, pulling a bit more into the rears than Dolby’s algorithm. Sometimes it sounds a bit unnatural, while other times it’ll sound pretty good—so don’t write it off if you don’t like it with a certain song or album.
  • Extended Stereo: Instead of processing the signal to “pull out” certain aspects of the sound for the rear speakers, Extended Stereo just plays the standard stereo mix on all speakers. That means your rear left and right channels will play the exact same thing as your front left and right channels (same goes for heights, if you have them). I find this creates a fuller sound than Dolby and DTS do, but some may prefer the more subtle nature of the other two. Try them all to see which you prefer—I go back and forth depending on the album I’m listening to and whatever I’m feeling that day.
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You should be able to find similar options to these on many modern receivers. Popular models with these surround modes include the Yamaha RX-V585 and RX-V685, the Denon AVR-S750H, and the Sony STR-DH790. If you have an older or lower-end receiver, like the Denon AVR-S540BT, you may have similar upmixing abilities through older Dolby Pro Logic or DTS Neo modes, but I haven’t used these myself. Some soundbars may even be able to upmix to 5.1, too. Check your receiver or soundbar’s manual to see what it offers—and if the manual mentions a feature called “Center Spread,” you’ll want to turn that on for better separation between your front speakers.

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So grab some albums, pop them in (figuratively or literally), and listen. If there’s one thing I haven’t done enough of lately, it’s sitting down and listening to an album all the way through, without being distracted by work, my phone, or video games. Multichannel audio is a great way to get back to experiencing music on its own again—even if it’s an album you’ve heard hundreds of times, it’ll be like that first time all over again.

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Whitson Gordon is a writer, gamer, and all-around tech nerd. He eats potato chips with chopsticks so he doesn't get grease on his mechanical keyboard.

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