Better headphones and speakers make audio sound better, but is there another way to make music listening more immersive? Sony thinks so, and is experimenting in 360.
Audio is everywhere these days, but for the most part, we’re all listening the way things were: a speaker for each ear if you’re listening on headphones, or a speaker for the different points of the room to simulate dimensionality in movies.
Whether you’re happy using the earbuds and earphones that came with your smartphone or have upgraded to something with more impressive audio quality, you’re still probably listening in two channel on a phone, while you might be in four, five, seven, or nine at home.
Two channels is the way most of us hear music, and it works simply in left and right. That’s stereo sound in a nutshell, appealing to the fact that instruments and recordings can be mixed throughout both left and right for a more creative yet wholly balanced experience.
Other forms of entertainment such as movies and games can play to the world around you, and position speakers at different points. Front left, centre, front right, back left, back right, and possibly more, all of these coming together with a surround sound mix to simulate you being inside the action on-screen.
There’s even a level of surround that is more dimensional and includes 3D sound by bouncing audio on the ceiling, there in Dolby Atmos and DTS:X. Some devices like phones, laptops, and headphones can simulate that sense of dimensionality by virtualising the sound, but while these can all make the sound feel like a bubble you’re in, it doesn’t work for music.
Movies and games aren’t mixed the same way as music, which is generally built for two channels: left and right. So how do you make the musical experience more enveloping?
Sony has been dabbling with a concept it calls “360 Reality Audio”, a speaker system that renders a 3D sound field that projects different sounds and elements in a 360 degree arc. The concept sounds similar to Dolby Atmos in that audio bounces around you, but the difference is that this is about firing sound in all directions, not just up and out.
The idea with 360 Reality Audio is to make a music experience feel more like being a concert, with the technology mapping musical elements such as vocals, instruments, and a background chorus to parts of a 360 scope, which in essence might be able to recreate the live experience.
While it’s easy to be apprehensive, the technology doesn’t sound entirely like a gimmick, as Sony is working with Fraunhofer, one of the companies behind the original MP3 codec, developing 360 Reality Audio on MPEG-H 3D Audio, potentially making it a standard.
As for how you’ll be able to listen and where, Sony is developing headphones and wireless speakers that will be able to render 360 Reality Audio, while music distribution services like Deezer and Tidal are the expected places where 360 Reality Audio will be found, with Live Nation’s concert focused website also included as partners.
Right now, there’s no plan for an Australian release of either the hardware or the music services, but when that changes, we’ll let you know.