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Thursday, March 23, 2023

Streaming audio in Dolby Atmos on headphones

Streaming Music in Dolby Atmos on Headphones

Dolby Atmos mixing is one of the hottest topics in audio these days. You may be surprised to learn that you don’t need a multichannel system to listen to Atmos mixes. You can stream in Atmos on several of the major streaming music services and listen on stereo headphones.

And no, you don’t need to buy special multi-driver headphones—although they can make for a more vivid experience. Atmos’s binaural technology supports conventional stereo headphones.

You can listen to Atmos mixes on stereo headphones.

In the future, we’ll tackle setting up a headphone-based Atmos mixing system. Here, we’ll focus on what you need to stream music in Atmos using headphones.

If you want to learn more about mixing in Atmos, check out Puremix videos such as Start To Finish: Snarky Puppy Dolby Atmos Mix with Fab and Nic Hard or Andrew Scheps Mixing Hozier Movement in Dolby Atmos. Both are available if you have a Puremix Pro membership.

Object of Curiosity

Dolby Atmos uses object-based audio. That allows mix engineers to place sounds in a 360-degree field rather than just the left and right of a stereo spectrum. When you listen to Atmos material on headphones, the software uses head-related transfer functions (HTRF) to fool your brain into thinking it’s hearing those objects where they were placed in the mix. You’ll notice that Atmos mixes seem more spacious and expansive.

From a video on the Dolby website, a graphic depiction of the dimensionality of Atmos.

For the full immersive experience, listen on headphones and stream from devices that support Apple’s Spatial Audio technology with dynamic head tracking. Dynamic head tracking works by changing the audio image in response to the movements of your head, just like the human hearing system does. Without head tracking, images are static because although you move your head, the headphones (or earbuds) move with you.

On specific Apple devices, you can even “Personalize” Spatial Audio to match your head’s size and shape, making the experience more accurate.

Your ability to stream in Atmos, with or without Spatial Audio, depends on which headphones and devices you’re using. There are quite a few possibilities, which we’ll try to sort out here, not just for Apple but for Android devices and Windows computers.

Consider the Source

You first need a streaming service that supports Dolby Atmos, and not all do. At the time of this writing, only Apple Music, Tidal and Amazon Music Unlimited offer Atmos content. Spotify doesn’t

With Apple Music, any subscription other than the “Voice Plan” includes Atmos support. On Amazon, you need a paid subscription, not the free subscription included for Prime Members. On Tidal, Atmos content is available only for those with the Hi-Fi Plus subscription, which costs about twice as much per month as Tidal’s standard “Hi-Fi” plan.

Apple Gear

Device-wise, Apple offers many options for Atmos streaming on headphones. If you want Spatial Audio and its dynamic head-tracking feature, you’ll need either AirPods Pro (1 or 2), AirPods Max, AirPods (3rd generation), or Beats Fit Pro earbuds. Spatial Audio support also requires an iPhone 7 or later, running iOS or iPadOS 15.1 or later, a silicon-chip-based Mac, or an Apple TV 4K with TVOS 15 or later.

Apple’s AirPods Pro are among the earbuds that support Spatial Audio when listening to Apple Music.

Without Spatial Audio, you have many more options for listening to Atmos mixes. According to Apple, you can use any Bluetooth headphones (Apple or other brands). The results won’t be as dramatic, but you’ll still be able to hear more dimensionality—particularly height—compared to a standard stereo mix.

Apple doesn’t clearly state this on its site. Still, according to an article on the site Guiding Tech, the list of older Macs supporting Atmos but not Spatial Audio includes the 2018 and 2019 MacBook laptops, including both the Pro and Air models.

Android, Too

If you have a recent Android device, it may support Dolby Atmos playback through headphones. For example, Samsung Galaxy S22, S9, S10, S20, S21 Note9, Note10, Note20, Fold, and Flip phones all support Atmos.

Samsung has its immersive audio format called 360 Audio, which also features head tracking. To get the full effect with head tracking, you’ll need to listen on a pair of Galaxy Buds2 Pro 360 earbuds.

The best way to find out if your Android device (or one you’re thinking of buying) supports Atmos is to check the manufacturer’s site.

Atmos on Windows

PCs running Windows 10 or later are equipped with Spatial Sound, Microsoft’s version of 3D audio, which allows you to listen to Dolby Atmos content. You’ll also need to purchase the Dolby Access app from the Microsoft site, which you can get for under $15.

The Dolby Access app allows you to listen to Atmos content on your Windows 10 or 11 PC.

Once installed on your PC, Dolby Access makes it possible to listen to audio that supports Atmos, including music, games and video.

Written by Puremix Team