The 360 Reality Audio format by Sony was first showcased at the Consumer Electronics Show 2019. The idea behind it is to create a whole new experience in music playback. This surround sound experience is intended to go well beyond the limiting factors of classic stereo playback or even 5.1 setups. Sony is promising that “with 360 Reality Audio, music has never been so immersive and so real”. With the underlying technology it is possible to provide object-based spatial arragement of different sound elements – such as vocals, instruments, effects or even audiences – in a 360 degree sound field.
With this approach Sony is presenting a new form of headphone virtualization. It’s delivering an audio experience that feels like the different sources of sound come from different directions as intended by music creators. What is even more important (and impressive) is the fact that it feels like the sounds are coming from outside your head. A usual drawback of headphone listening is the impression of a very condensed audio playback that is happening straight in between your ears (aka your head). This limiting effect is widely eliminated with the virtual 3D playback of the new Sony sound format. Music playback sounds airy and detached or quite “immersive” as promoted. To some extent it is comparable to what you are usually able to experience in a modern movie theatre.
How do I get there?
Unfortunately the enhanced listening experience doesn’t come as a gift. A few prerequesites need to be met in order to enjoy the new format. The most obvious one has been mentioned already.
For now you are bound to listen through headphones. At the time being the only exception is the Amazon Echo Studio speaker that is capable of reproducing the MPEG-H encoded signal for 360 Reality Audio. Obviously Sony is working on a very own wireless speaker solution as well. Oddly enough right now the only speaker solution available is provided by Amazon.
To take advantage of Sony 360 Reality Audio you need to have a paid (!) subscription to one of the streaming services that offer the new format. Currently there are only four platforms out there including:
Amazon Music HD
If you got yourself a proper pair of headphones and subscribed to one of those more or less known streaming platforms (nugs.net is solely dedicted to live music with around 250k live songs available) there is one more hurdle to overcome. You need to find 360 Reality Audio encoded content! As simple as that might sound at first it might actually become a challenge. With all its own record labels as well their superb connections into the music industry one should think that Sony would be able to offer plenty of 360 RA content. De facto there is only a very limited number of tracks and albums available right now. With the launch of the new format more than a year ago about a 1,000 tracks were available. For me it doesn’t feel like a lot has happened since then when browsing the RA 360 section in TIDAL. For now a potpourri of different artists like Britney Spears, Johnny Cash, Aerosmith, Billy Joel and Marvin Gaye can be found. This covers a quite divers selection of genres but still is super limited compared to the usual experience you are used to with streaming services offering millions of tracks.
Take it one step further
In general it is possible to enjoy 360 RA tracks with any decent headphone. Whatever headphone you use you will always be able to hear a noticeable difference in your audio experience with the Sony sound format. The illusion of the spatial arrangement of sound sources will come to live and give you a much more three-dimensional impression of the music playback. But Sony is taking it one step further with a limited selection of their own products including amongst others:
their bluetooth flagship headphones WH-1000XM3 and WF-1000XM3
MDR-Z1R and MDR-Z7M2
IER-M9 and IER-M7
With these headphones (not matter if wired, wireless, in-ear, on/over-ear) you can further customize your listening experience. To do so you need to use their Headphones Connect app and follow the instructions to analyze your ears. Based on photos of your left and right ear Sony is generating an individualized soundfield. The calculation of the soundfield takes about 30 seconds and is then used to optimize your 360 RA music playback through one of the participating streaming platforms.
Sony’s very own approach to headphone virtualization certainly adds some extra quality to your listening experience when streaming music. The underlying concept of spatial arrangement of individual sound sources detached from fixed speaker positions is working quite nicely. Some of the tracks I listened to were actually more than just nice. The concept fully came to live and the results were impressive. You feel like being within the soundfield. As a result you don’t have the impression that the speakers (in this case the headphones) are that close to your ears. The room really opens up. Music playback is airy and three-dimensional. You can clearly distinct different directions and distances. My favorite 360 RA track for now is Dave Brubeck – Take Five.
And this is where the limitations of the format come in. The current artist/album/track selection is tiny! The biggest caveat of the whole concept is the underwhelming catalog size. Even if you would like each and every track of the catalog you would quickly get bored of the available tracks. From my point of view the further establishment and possible success of the 360 RA format will all depend on catalog size and the availability of an appealing artist and album selection. For now it’s just a neat, little feature far away from a revolution in music playback.