Forget 5.1 audio surround. Sony Corporation is introducing something far more immersive.
For those at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas, this is one of the more interesting innovations — at least for those into audio. And alongside its announcement, Sony’s ‘360 Reality Audio’ already has a number of important partners lined up. That includes Deezer, nugs.net, Qobuz, TIDAL, Live Nation, Warner Music Group, and Sony Music Entertainment, all of whom are either collaborating on the format itself or planning to offer it in the future.
So what is 360 Reality Audio, anyway?
We haven’t heard it — yet — though as the name suggests, this format is all about immersive surround sound. According to Sony, the goal is to replicate actual live experiences using object-based spatial audio technology. The net result is a spatially-mapped audio experience that mirrors the reality of experiences like live concerts.
Of course, it’s hard to tell if consumers are actually clamoring for this. And if history is a guide, they aren’t — at least not in large numbers. But that hasn’t stopped a seemingly-endless parade of higher-end audio formats and experiments.
At this stage, Sony Corporation has revealed plans to work with the major labels to develop and expand 360 Reality Audio.
As you might expect, that includes Sony Music Entertainment, though Warner Music Group is also solidly on board.
“Sony’s immersive audio tier will add a new dimension to streaming services and offers music lovers a high quality experience they won’t get elsewhere,” relayed Ole Obermann, Chief Digital Officer & Executive Vice President of Business Development at Warner Music Group.
“We are impressed with what we have heard so far, and happy to support the launch of this new technology.”
Sony wants to facilitate recordings in 360 Reality Audio, which allows artists and producers to spatially map sounds. That sounds like 5.1 and other surround sound technologies, but ostensibly with a higher level of spatial sophistication.
“360 Reality Audio makes it possible for artists and music creators to create a 360-degree musical experience by mapping sound sources such as vocals, chorus and instruments with positional information of distance and angle to suit their creative and artistic purpose,” Sony Corporation explained during a CES demo.
“When listeners play back the resulting content, they can enjoy a music experience that immerses them in sound from every direction as intended by the content creator.”
Also in the mix: Live Nation, which is collaborating with Sony to enable 360 Reality recordings of shows. The Wombats, AJR, Good Charlotte and Kodaline are already on the shortlist, with many slated ahead.
Sony also says that 360 Reality can be created from multi-track recordings, with audio engineers taking care of the spatial mapping.
“Existing music that is already in multitrack sound format will be able to be converted into a 360 Reality Audio compatible format using the production tools that Sony will provide,” Sony explained.
We’re assuming that those tools will be released later this year, though the rollout schedule is unclear. Also unclear is how much work is involved, and how expensive it will be to create a 360 Reality product.
Perhaps most interestingly, several streaming services are on board.
As previously mentioned, early adopters include Deezer, nugs.net, Qobuz, TIDAL. All of these services are currently offering higher-end streams, with TIDAL recently expanding its higher-end MQA format into Android mobile devices.
Already, those companies are working with at least one major label to start offering 360 Reality. “We are long-running believers in high quality audio solutions that enhance the listening experience for consumers, and this three-dimensional sound format is an exciting new option for fans seeking a more immersive way to hear their favorite music,” explained Dennis Kooker, President of Global Digital Business & U.S. Sales at Sony Music Entertainment.
“We look forward to working with a growing number of digital service providers to make songs from our artists available for streaming in 360 Reality Audio.”
There’s also a familiar name in the mix: Fraunhofer IIS, which created the earth-shattering MP3 format.
Thanks to Fraunhofer, Sony’s format is based on the MPEG-H 3D Audio standard. “Thanks to the underlying support of MPEG-H object-based audio, the vocals, instruments and effects can be placed all around the listeners, immersing them like never before,” explained Bernhard Grill, Director of Audio and Media Technologies at Fraunhofer IIS.
On the hardware side, Sony has indicated that its initial focus will be on its own headphones and speakers. At some point after that, the company may seek to expand compatibility. But it looks like Sony is aiming to build compatibility with various headphone manufacturers using app-based approaches. That could include customized results for the listener’s ear, mapped by the app.
“For headphones, in particular, it will be possible to enjoy the content simply by using apps offered by the participating music service providers,” Sony stated.