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Could Sony Drastically Change Music With Its 3D Audio Format?

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Could Sony Drastically Change Music With Its 3D Audio Format?

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Sony has integrated 360 Reality Audio into headphones using binaural technology, which leverages sound waves. The headphones are the company’s own hardware, and claim to be tailored to users’ particular hearing characteristics

At CES 2019 Sony revealed its new 3D audio format. But the details are still pretty vague and there’s no promise it will be widely adopted

At CES this year, Sony’s press conference distinctly lacked any major new announcements. Instead, the focus was on its ambitious plan to link high-quality video and audio tech.

Sony did, however, reveal it is taking on 3D audio, in a new format branded “360 Reality Audio” and reminiscent of the already much-hyped, surround-sound technologies employed by Dolby Atmos and DTS:X.

The concept? According to the company, it “makes listeners feel as if they are immersed in sound from all directions”. In this sense, 3D audio is a stepping-up of surround-sound: instead of hitting the listener with sounds coming from their right, left, back and front, which is what surround sound does, 3D Audio expands the hearing field by including sounds coming from above and beyond.

Sony actually claims its speakers can emit sounds in all possible directions, which means they hit the listener from a whole new range of different angles. The point being to make listening more immersive and realistic – as if the music was being played live in front of you.

In practical terms, this means using multiple speakers surrounding the listener to distribute individual sounds from the same piece of audio across a space, and “throwing” them in different directions. This is called “object-based spatial audio”, because the listener can perceive the spatial distribution of tracks as they play. Another way to picture it is to imagine what it would be like to feel like you are inside of the scene that you are watching or listening, rather than in front of it.

To do that, Sony is using the MPEG-H 3D audio format, a standard audio format that supports multi-channel encoding/decoding on up to 64 loudspeaker channels and 128 codec core channels. In addition, the company is announcing an app to bolster the experience: based on a home-made inner ear diagnosis, carried out from a picture of your ear that you can take and send with your phone, it claims that it will deliver sound that is tailored to the listener’s particular hearing characteristics. Something between Snapchat and HRTF, or so it seems.

Sounds a bit too good to be true, and not scientific enough? We’ll have to wait and see – Sony has not yet given the exact details of how it plans to bring audiology to your phone.

Multi-channel technology is not new: DTS and Dolby Atmos have both already converted to surround sound, using their own audio processors that manage sound output across different speakers. In fact, the formats developed by both companies have become the new norm in film-making. So what is Sony offering that is so brand-new, given that it is basing its new format on an already well-established audio-coding standard?

The answer is that Sony is promising – or rather, hoping to achieve – an eco-system in which the creation of music, its distribution and its playing, are all powered by its own technology. And it starts right in studio rooms: the company says that it is already working with artists and labels to get its 360 Reality Audio format started, by giving them the technical tools to map their audio tracks in space, working on vocals and instruments as “objects” evolving in a 360 environment surrounding the listener.

When placed at the centre of Sony’s 360 Reality Audio speaker system, the listener is hit by sound coming from all directions and angles. This is meant to recreate the impression of attending a live event

It continues on your laptop: Sony has partnered up with four streaming platforms that are already backing the project. Deezer, Tidal, nugs.net and Qobuz will be the first to provide 360 Audio content to their subscribers. Which you will be able to play, for example, on your Sony speakers. The company, while not completely rejecting the potential to expand the technology to other devices, has been firm in establishing that its focus for the time being will be to develop in-house hardware for 360 Audio.

A new Sony-controlled premium audio format is on its way to take over the entire chain of music creation – at least that seems to be the company’s plan for the future. Dolby Atmos and DTS:X may have to start watching their backs.

Where Sony can differ from Dolby Atmos or DTS, however, is in the quality of the sound it delivers. And of course, it is thinking at the consumer level, too; different ears, indeed, want different things. During the show, the company measured the hearing characteristics of listeners before starting the new technology’s demo, to customise the mapping of sound to each individual. And it announced that it is working on miniaturising the process so it can be carried out directly from customers’ phones. An app that lets you take a picture of your ear and work it through its software to tailor soundtracks to your specific hearing preferences is also allegedly coming.

This sounds like a very simplified HRTF diagnosis, but Sony has remained nebulous on the details of the new technology. The idea, in principle, would add a significant bonus for its technology; but whether it will deliver on it is reason enough to be skeptical.

Important to note, too, however, is that Sony has already answered the question that was likely to arise: what about older soundtracks that were not designed for object-based spatial audio? There is no reason for concern, according to the company: all audio in multitrack format should be convertible to 360 Reality Audio.

Compatibility is the oil of 21st century audio and video technology. During its demo at CES, Sony showcased its 360 Reality Audio format on no less than 13 speakers, all from the company’s own catalogue, of course. And it was made clear that the priority would be to make the technology work on its own speakers – but Sony said that it was planning on making it compatible with other devices as well in the future.

Another issue is that of space: the large booth in which the demo took place at CES was not representative of typical living room space. To counteract such criticisms, Sony showcased the use of 360 Reality Audio on headphones, using binaural reproduction – a technology that plays on sound waves to convert surround sound into tracks that can deliver 3D sound even on the usual two headphone speakers. Again, Sony’s new headphones can be tailored to the listener’s particular ear characteristics.

Prices and details of a launch date are yet to be released, but, in addition to streaming platforms, Sony has already secured partnerships with industry names including The Wombats, Kodaline or AJR. Much more needs to be done, however, before the music business can be seen to be “on side” with the new technology, which will be key to winning over consumers and Sony being able to deliver on its promise of bringing a “live concert experience” to your living room.

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