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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. It was called 5.1 and, while it sort of worked, its biggest benefit was to sell more speakers. Another version called 7.1 added two more speakers.

Then there was DSP or digital sound processing built into some stereo receivers that manipulated the digital music files to delay certain frequencies and create the effect of reverberations and echos. We’d select the venue we’d want to simulate, but the technology was more of a gimmick than an accurate rendition. Neither of these technologies take off as some 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 surround sound. It’s a much more advanced technology that creates sound all around us and even above, and even when there’s 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 can sound great. 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 a crowd cheering behind or a helicopter flying above across the room. Now Apple Music has added a growing library of Dolby Atmos recordings and has become one of the big drivers in the industry for Atmos. Of course, Apple likes to put their name on everything, so you may see it referred to as Spatial Audio.

If you many of the recent generation of AirPods, you can experience Dolby Atmos recordings and see for yourself.

I’ve been trying out Dolby Atmos on both 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. The Era 300 has 9 speakers in each unit, some firing upward, causing some of the sound to eminate from the ceiling.

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 in the noise reduction 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. 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.