On September 27, 2023, executives from Apple Corps and Universal Music Group held a press event at the Dolby Theater in Manhattan. The event included Dolby Atmos demos of forthcoming Beatles releases. It included some big newsalthough the biggest news wasn’t obvious at first.
The obvious headline: The Beatles are releasing a new song. It’s called “Now & Then,” and all four Beatles play on it. You’ve probably heard about it by now, since there’s a massive marketing campaign. UMG is calling it “the last Beatles song.” For more information, see this article.
Those attending the press event also learned that on November 10, Universal and Apple Records will reissue the Red and Blue albums in expanded, 50th Anniversary form, as 2-CD and 3-LP sets and for streaming, with “demixed” remixes of every song from Magical Mystery Tour backward. (The remixes of The Beatlesaka the “White Album”and Abbey Road have already been reissued, and some of the Let It Be multitrack tapes and live recordings were “demixed” for the Let It Be reissue.)
For audiophiles, the most important information revealed that day was not really about the Beatles. It came in response to a question Stereophile directed at Apple Corps CEO Jeff Jones. (Apple Corps Ltd., the Beatles’ umbrella corporation, is of course not related to Apple Computer’s Apple Music, which is also involved in this story.)
A bit of background. Soon after Apple Music’s 2021 press event announcing its embrace of Dolby Atmos and “spatial audio” (also lossless stereo, though that was deemphasized), one of us (JCA) poked around to see what he could learn about the technology. JCA learned that Atmos in its lossless, hi-rez “TrueHD” form is capable of excellent technical qualitybut Apple Music’s streaming version of Atmos is quite lossy, maxing out at a bitrate of 768kbps for loudspeaker deliveryroughly equivalent to one channel of CD-quality audioand a disappointing 256kbps if you’re using headphones (footnote 1). When you consider that Atmos is a multichannel technologythe specification allows up to 128 audio channels for inputyou realize how lossy it is in this distribution format.
We’re primarily two-channel guys for music listening, but we’re open-minded. TF enjoys his collection of four-channel “quadraphonic” recordings. We’ve both long appreciated the theoretical advantages of multichannel audio and the experience of well-produced multichannel music.
Those lossy-compression rates, though, are scary. If we want to experience these new Beatles records in Dolby Atmosthat’s all they played at the press conferencein real high fidelity, where should we turn?
It has been clear for a while to anyone paying attention that elements in the recorded-music industry are pushing hard for Atmos. Audio engineers provide an Atmos mix as a deliverable for many new albums and remasters. Many of those mixes are probably very good, and no doubt they are mixed, mastered, and archived in lossless formeven in high resolution. But there’s a serious distribution problem: The only way most people can access an Atmos mix is via a streaming servicemainly Apple Music, although Tidal, Qobuz, and Amazon Music offer some Dolby Atmos tracks. As described above, the streaming version of Atmos ishighly lossy. We’ve seen very few sources of high-quality Atmos downloads, and anyway, downloads appear to be going away and thus are not the long-term answer. How, then, can we access better immersive versions of this musicbetter than what’s provided by the streaming servicesnow and in the future?
One of us (JCA) has been asking this question ever since Apple Music’s Dolby Atmos debut and has rarely received a straight answer. Jonesthe Apple Corps CEOprovided one. In the past, higher-quality Atmos files (and other multichannel formats) were stashed on Blu-ray discs in a few deluxe edition box sets, including some of the earlier Beatles 50th anniversary “super deluxe” boxes. Jones’s news: Those Blu-ray discs are going away. Why? Because they raise costs hence the retail price, and, as Jones put it, “very few consumers care.” The streaming version of Atmos spatial audio, Jones said, “made the Blu-ray obsolete.” Neither the new Beatles tune nor the new remixes will be available in high-quality Atmos. What you stream on Apple Music is what you get.
Jones is probably correct: Few consumers care. Streaming Atmos is good enough for most folks. Older audiophiles have lived long enough to remember previous generations of record executives telling us that no one cares about better sound. We, of course, are those “very few consumers.” We do care.
Jeff Jones doesn’t speak for the whole music industry. One suspects, though, that the opinion he expressed is widely held, and he seems to be right about Blu-ray discs: They’re hardly thriving as a music-distribution format. (We’re less sure about movies.) Except for vinyl, physical formats in general are fading (footnote 2). The only thing likely to be left standing is streamingplus, maybe, vinyl.
How much does this matter? The key thing for us is that stereo versions will continue to be available at the usual high quality, streaming and otherwise. Indeed, recent Beatles reissues have streamed at 24/96.
We suspectbut of course we can’t be surethat Apple Music’s lossy Atmos will slowly fade away under the weight of higher production costs, lack of consumer interest, and inferior technical quality in this distributed form. Experience shows that people don’t exactly notice a reduction in quality. They simply stop listening.
Jones’s comments made one thing clear: For those of us who care about perfectionist audio, Atmos, as conceived by record-company executives, is not the answer. We should hope for its demise.
Footnote 1: See professional.dolby.com/events/dolby-atmos-music-specifications/#gref. Atmos also has other disadvantages. It doesn’t “fold down” to stereo very well; a dedicated two-channel stereo mix is superior (especially when it’s lossless). And Atmos is proprietary, not an open format. Those who use it must pay royalties to Dolby. If you were opposed to MQA on those grounds, you should, for consistency’s sake, oppose Atmos.
Footnote 2: See riaa.com/u-s-sales-database. If anything, downloads are fading even faster.
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