Audio parlor tricks

Over the years, the home audio industry has attempted to come up with ways to replicate the sound we hear in concert halls, theaters, and intimate venues. Decades ago the industry promoted adding more speakers to create sound all around us. It was accomplished by adding a pair of speakers behind us and a bass speaker off to one side. Called 5.1, it sort of worked, but its biggest benefit was to sell more speakers. Another version called 7.1 added two more speakers.

Then there was DSP (digital sound processing) built into some audio receivers that manipulated the digital music files to delay certain frequencies and create the effect of reverberations and echos. You’d select the venue to simulate, but the technology was more of a gimmick than an accurate rendition of the locale. Neither of these technologies took off as the industry had expected.

More recently Dolby Atmos sound, originally developed for surround sound in movie theaters, has come to the home in a new attempt to create more realistic surround sound. It’s a much more advanced technology that creates sound all around us and even above, and even with as few as 2 speakers. The technology requires the original audio recording to be produced following the Atmos specifications that involves creating many individual tracks from the master recording. A Dolby Atmos album played on Dolby enabled speakers is far better than the older technology. Atmos is able to simulate sound coming from locations where there are no physical spekers.

Dolby Atmos is now being built into TVs, soundbars, home receivers, and powered speakers. The audio source can be Dolby Atmos-enabled audio recordings, movies and live TV.

Dolby Atmos is most noticeable when we’re watching a movie or sports event on TV. You’ll hear the crowd cheering behind or a helicopter flying above across the room. Apple Music has become one of the major proponents and is adding a growing library of Dolby Atmos recordings that work well with its products. Apple also refers to this as Spatial Audio, their own terminology for surround sound. You can experience Dolby Atmos listening to these albums on recent models of AirPods.

I’ve been trying out Dolby Atmos on my TV and with Apple streaming music. My setup consists of a Sonos Beam soundbar and 2 Sonos Era 300 speakers behind me. When listening to TV audio, most of the audio dialog comes from the soundbar, while the surround sound is created mostly from both rear speakers. Listening to music, you are often placed in the midst of the musicians. The Era 300 has nine speakers in each unit, some firing upward, causing some of the sound to eminate from the ceiling.

Another clever trick from Apple

While flying I’m constantly removing my earphones to hear an announcement or interacting with the staff. Apple has now solved that problem. While listening to audio on our iPhone with recent AirPod Pro earbuds in its noise cancellation mode, you are normally isolated from those around you by design. But if you start speaking or someone speaks to you, the new Conversation Awareness feature will quickly lower the volume and the noise reduction switch off so you will be able to converse. Amazingly it seems to ignore a cough or non-vocal audio. This new feature will be automatically enabled when you download the new OS 17 for the iPhone. And yes it also works at home when your wife asks you a question while engrossed listening to a podcast.

by Phil Baker