Apple Music launched a major update to its service Monday, rolling out a lossless service offering high-fidelity music and enabling Spatial Audio, a feature supported by Dolby Atmos that provides a surround sound-like experience for music listeners, at no additional charge to its subscribers.
Although lossless music has been thought to be the next big thing in the music industry for years, Apple sees it differently, positioning high-fidelity music as a “pro” feature for a limited group of audiophiles who have the proper equipment (lossless music can’t be streamed over Bluetooth which means Apple’s AirPods don’t support it) and talking up Spatial Audio as the great leap forward for consuming music. Apple is putting Spatial Audio wherever it can — it has been available for TV and films on iPhone devices since last year, and on Monday during its Worldwide Developers Conference the company announced it would bring Spatial Audio to FaceTime, its Apple TV 4K and its Macs.
Billboard had a chance to listen to Spatial Audio in Apple Music before it was released, and the quality of its offering exceeds similar services from Tidal and Amazon Music, which both offer 3D Audio tracks from Dolby Atmos and Sony 360 Reality Audio. But Apple has an uphill battle on its hands to make surround sound in music stick. With a limited selection of Spatial Audio tracks (Apple says Spatial Audio tracks number in the thousands, while the service offers over 75 million tracks in total) and a lot of work to do to convince the public that there’s a leap to be made in music outside of better audio quality.
Billboard spoke with Eddy Cue, Apple’s senior vice president of internet software and services, whose responsibilities include Apple Music to discuss the streaming service, lossless music, and what Spatial Audio may mean for the future of music consumption.
We saw some of your competitors launch their own versions of immersive music, which have had varying levels of success. What makes Spatial Audio different?
I’ve been waiting for something in music that was a real game-changer. The quality of audio has not been able to really rise because there hasn’t been anything out there that when you listen to it, it truly is differentiated to everybody. It doesn’t matter whether you’re eight years old or 80 years old, everyone can tell the difference and everyone knows this one sounds better than the other one.
And the analogy to that is obviously the first time you ever saw HD on television: you knew which one was better because it was obvious. And we’ve been missing that in audio for a long time. There really hasn’t been anything that’s been substantial. We’ll talk about lossless and other things, but ultimately, there’s not enough difference.
But when you listen for the first time and you see what’s possible with Dolby Atmos with music, it’s a true game-changer. And so, when we listened to it for the first time, we realized this is a big, big deal. It makes you feel like you’re onstage, standing right next to the singer, it makes you feel like you might be to the left of the drummer, to the right of the guitarist. It creates this experience that, almost in some ways, you’ve never really had, unless you’re lucky enough to be really close to somebody playing music.
So we said we want to get behind this in a huge way and that revolves around a bunch of different things. One is it revolves around devices that can play it. One of the other problems with new technology is, for example, when HD gets introduced for television, you have to buy a whole new television. It takes many, many years for that to take place. We’ve got the opportunity of being able to do this with our AirPods, or phones, or MacBooks that people have had, so we don’t have the problem of people having the hardware to be able to listen to it. We didn’t have the problem on our side of basically taking Dolby Atmos and doing all the right things to play it back from a technology point of view. What we had is the issue of getting artists, and the labels, and publishers excited about what the possibility of Dolby Atmos was.
One of the first people that told me about Dolby Atmos was Adam Levine. I happen to know him, and we were in the same place, so he was like, “Have you listened to this?” And he sends me this song and he was really excited. He said, “I can’t believe what I can do with this.” It’s going to be really exciting to see how this evolves, and all of what artists are going to be able to do with this, and how exciting it is for fans and listeners to be able to do this.
So we went after the labels and are going to the artists and educating them on it. There’s a lot of work to be done because we have, obviously, tens of millions of songs. This is not a simple “take-the-file that you have in stereo, processes through this software application and out comes Dolby Atmos.” This requires somebody who’s a sound engineer, and the artist to sit back and listen, and really make the right calls and what the right things to do are. It’s a process that takes time, but it’s worth it.
I think we’re going to see certainly every new song that comes out very quickly here in Dolby Atmos, and you’re going to see people going to their back catalogues. We’ve already seen that. We’ve seen it with Taylor Swift and, obviously, Ariana Grande, J. Balvin, The Weeknd, Kacey Musgraves, and Maroon 5. We’re really excited about this.
You talk about Spatial Audio being the future. Does that mean that you want to add this to CarPlay and in third-party speakers like Sonos? How do you look at making this available on all those devices?
Yeah. My belief is Spatial Audio will go everywhere because it’s that big of a deal. It’s going to take time because, as I said, it takes time with things, it’s no different in television. On cars, it’s not just the simple thing of putting it into CarPlay. The car has got to have the right systems because CarPlay plays back to the stereo in the car around it. But there’s no doubt. I’ve listened to cars already with Spatial Audio — not from a factory, but modified — and it’s incredible. To me, when I look at Dolby Atmos, I think it’s going to do for music what HD did for television. Today, where can you watch television that’s not in HD?
One of the advantages of the music has over television is you can’t take an old TV show and truly up-res it to HD because it was shot on low-quality cameras. But in the case of audio, all these things were recorded on multiple tracks, and so it’s possible to go back to a lot of the songs and be able to do this.
I think this is going to take over everything. It’s the way I want to listen to music when I’m in my car. It’s going to be the way I listen to music immediately with my AirPods. It’s going to be the way I listen to music in my house. In a way, it won’t feel very good when I’m listening to something that’s not Dolby Atmos because it’s so good. It’s like when I’m watching HD, it’s hard to go back.
The music industry, for a few years now, has been talking about lossless. It has said it will be the next-gen technology that’s going to change everything. And you seem to think Spatial Audio is going to be that. Was that initial thinking around lossless incorrect?
There’s no question it’s not going to be lossless. Because the reality of lossless is: if you take a 100 people and you take a stereo song in lossless and you take a song that’s been in Apple Music that’s compressed, I don’t know if it’s 99 or 98 can’t tell the difference.
For the difference of lossless, our ears aren’t that good. Yeah, there are a set of people who have these incredible ears, and that’s one piece of it. There’s the other piece of it, which is do you have the level of equipment that can really tell the difference? It requires very, very high-quality stereo equipment. What you find is, for somebody who’s a true, for example classical connoisseur, they may be able to tell the difference in lossless. I can’t tell personally — I do the blind tests all the time with the team — I can’t tell. That’s a problem. That’s not going to work because that’s a marketing play, not a true customer play. Dolby Atmos, Spatial Audio? You can tell. I can tell, everyone can tell. That’s going to make all the difference in the world.
Now, we’re supporting lossless and we think there’s a set of customers. It’s a small set of customers, but they want it and we’ll certainly give it to them, and they’ll have it as part of this. The good news is they’ll have lossless and they’ll have Dolby Atmos and Spatial. It really does work very well for that [set of customers], but it’s not going to be lossless [leading the way].
Does your focus on Spatial Audio over lossless present a marketing issue? When you announced the new features in May, people were upset that AirPods Max (Apple’s $550 headphones) didn’t support lossless.
Well, I think most people don’t understand what lossless is. When you hear the word lossless it sounds better than loss. If you hear, “Hey, do you want to listen to this lossless, or do you want to listen to a lossy?” I don’t know. I’ll take lossless. That sounds pretty good. I think there’s that part of it, but I don’t think it will matter.
99.9% have never heard Spatial and when they get to hear it for the first time, that’s what it’s going to be all about. The problem with lossless is you can tell somebody, “Oh, you’re listening to a lossless [song],” and they tell you, “Oh, wow. That sounds incredible.” They’re just saying it because you told them its lossless and it sounds like the right thing to say, but you just can’t tell.
So, yeah, I think there’s a small problem with that, but it’s a niche problem because, again, most people never have even heard of lossless to begin with and it’s only when you tell them [they acknowledge it]. When they hear Spatial Audio and they get to listen to it, I think it’s game over.