Sony has just announced its latest audio innovation.
It's called Sony 360 Reality Audio. A bit of a mouthful, right? Read on to find out everything you need to know.
What is Sony 360 Reality Audio?
Essentially, it's a new high-resolution music platform that aims to make the music you listen to more immersive and realistic. It is designed to make the music sound like it's coming from lots of different directions, not just left and right.
It uses something called object-based audio which means that when the sound that's being recorded is encoded, it saves extra data, called metadata which describes the placement of microphone in a 3D soundfield.
In other words, the microphone recording the violins has data attached saying it's at the front left of the recording studio while the microphone covering the trombones notes that it's towards the back, on the right. Oh, and if the trombones are on a higher platform than the violins, that extra height is encoded in the position, too.
This extra data means that when you're listening to the music, it should sound more like the way the music was originally recorded, with a greater sense of reality – as suggested by Sony's name for this system.
It doesn't just apply to music – a gunshot in the background of a music track could be an object and given its own place in the soundfield.
How can I listen to Sony 360 Reality Audio?
There's no physical format, like a CD, for instance, needed for Sony 360 Reality Audio. The tracks that are mastered, or remastered, to play this format will be streamed on regular services like Tidal and Deezer. In both cases, you'll need a paid-for subscription to hear the right tracks. The third service at launch will be nugs.net, a service that specialises in recording concerts live – which could be an especially cool thing to listen to on this format.
Amazon Music HD will also have Sony 360 Reality Audio tracks, though at first these will only be for playback through its speakers, not other hardware – of which more later.
Sony says it's in talks with Napster, too. There's no mention of the two biggest streaming services, Apple Music and Spotify, but you can guess that talks may be going on behind the scenes to try and get both on board.
Do I need new hardware?
Perhaps the best thing about Sony 360 Reality Audio is you don't need to buy any new kit unless you want to listen through speakers. That's because Sony says its new platform will work with any headphones. Any.
Sure, you'll get better results with better cans but the magic is done in the encoding, not the headphones.
Sony points out that if you are listening via some of its own headphones you can get an enhanced result. That's through its free Sony Headphones Connect app which personalises the audio to your particular sense of hearing. The app is downloadable on iOS and Android.
It works by taking a photograph of your ear on your smartphone (tip: get someone to help you so you get the position of your ear in the photo just right) and working out from that exactly how you hear. It then optimises the playback for your personal hearing.
What speakers are compatible?
If you want to play music in Sony 360 Reality Audio through a speaker then you need one with the right chip embedded in it. So far, there's only one of those announced, the new Amazon Echo Studio, a one-unit smart speaker priced at £189.99.
Expect more speakers to follow, doubtless including some from Sony itself, to be released in due course.
What tracks are available?
At launch, Sony says there will be 1,000 songs in the new format, with more to follow. These include artists such as Mark Ronson and Pharell Williams plus classic tracks from the likes of Billy Joel and Bob Dylan.
When will it be available?
There's no exact date yet, but Sony has said to expect the technology to launch in late autumn.
How much will it cost?
No comment here, either, though it seems likely that if you're on a premium subscription (that is, not a free one) to any of the services, that it will be included in the regular price.
Is Sony the only system to use object-based audio?
No, there are others already in place, the most well-known of which is Dolby Atmos. Dolby's new Dolby Atmos Music service is a rival music platform which also aims to offer a realistic surround sound experience. The two formats are not compatible so studio engineers will be kept busy as more tracks are remastered for the new platforms.