The company added a calibration feature to its Headphones app in the fall of 2019. With this tool, Sony says the software can adjust settings after taking pictures of your ears. My experience with this produced some subtle differences from the default 360 Reality Audio sound, but that’s okay. The rig alone is certainly more immersive than standard stereo tracks.
“Everyone has different hearing characteristics when listening to music with headphones,” Okazaki said. “The way they listen is deeply linked to the shape of the ear, which is why we have developed the app that recognizes the best hearing characteristics.” Without giving precise figures, he explained that the use of the personalization function has increased tenfold since the launch.
In October 2019, Sony was ready to launch. Unfortunately, it did so with a tiny library of content: the company only put together 1,000 songs at the time. Plus, it didn’t have any speakers that supported 360 Reality Audio, and the new platform it tried to evangelize the masses on was only available on its headphones – like the flagship of the ‘time. WH-1000XM3. You also needed a high-resolution streaming subscription from Amazon, Tidal, or Deezer to be able to access in the first place.
These services did not wait for more immersive tracks. Since Dolby also does something similar with Dolby Atmos Music, these expensive streaming tiers also give you access to its version of the immersive songs. Obviously, this means that you have more songs to choose from, although Dolby’s library is also limited. On a material level, Amazon Echo Studio was the first speaker to support 360 Reality Audio (it also supports Dolby Atmos Music). Launched in late 2019, the Alexa-enabled voice-activated speaker offered a taste of what Sony had been working on – one you could experience at home.
At CES last year, it looked like Sony was still trying to make 360 Reality Audio a thing. The company had more demos, including a living room setup with a soundbar and another speaker prototype. The latter would end up being the SRS-RA3000: the second speaker that Sony introduced last week and plans to ship this spring. Once again, the company had built compelling demos, but it didn’t seem to have a clear plan for getting its immersive sound to reach mainstream ears.
After being largely silent on the project for a year, Sony revealed his strategy right before CES 2021. The company clearly realizes that limited content selection is a problem (still only 4000 tracks at this point), so it offers tools for creators and producers so they can easily add 360 Reality Audio to their workflows. Sony worked with Virtual Sonics to create the 360 Reality Audio Creative Suite, a software plug-in that works with existing digital audio workstation (DAW) applications such as Pro Tools. This add-on is expected to be available later this month. Dolby is also trying to expand by opening a little, allowing independent artists to access tools and distribution through a partnership with developer Pro Tools Avid. Both companies are doing this in the name of expanding their music library to make the additional investments more convincing.
“As long as there are stems available, or as long as we have multitrack recordings, we can then mix them up,” said Jun Makino, senior manager of Sony Home Entertainment and Sound Products. “The mixing process requires the creativity and intention of the artist, so it requires some discussion.”
Sony Music Entertainment is the parent company of major record labels like RCA, Columbia, and Epic. These labels are home to Travis Scott, Doja Cat, Harry Styles and many other renowned artists. In other words, Sony has contact with the artists and producers who make a lot of new music these days – because it owns several major labels. The company has also increased the number of studios equipped to capture 360 Reality Audio for new recordings. After starting in New York, it now offers high-performance configurations in Los Angeles and Nashville, as well as in Germany, the United Kingdom and Japan.
Sony isn’t just trying to add more 360 Reality Audio content with studio recordings. After all, the idea is to get yourself into the music, so adding live performances – or at least archived concerts on demand – to the pool makes a lot of sense. The company kicked off this push with a Zara Larsson concert this week across the Artist Connection application. As COVID-19 rages on, Sony is hoping this will provide a substitute for in-person participation, as it’s unclear when we can return to arenas and other locations. For now, the company is focused on capturing live performances for on-demand viewing and listening, but using the audio format for live broadcasts and concerts is certainly possible in the future.
“We developed 360 Reality Audio in real time,” Okazaki noted. “It will be available later.” Makino was quick to remind me that many of the “livestreams” we all watch from back home are actually prerecorded, but he also reminded me that applying the platform to real-time audio is something that Sony wishes to do.