How to Listen: The Guide to Playing Music in Immersive Audio

The switch from Mono (audio coming from one source) to Stereo (a left and right audio field) was a historic step forward for music and entertainment. Then surround sound technology came along, bringing new heights – literally – to listening ears in cinemas and eventually at home. Now immersive audio, the successor of surround sound, is taking a monumental leap ahead.

To listen to music in immersive audio is to see moving pictures in technicolor for the first time. It is a fundamental change in reality, much like the prisoners in Plato’s Cave turning around to see that life is actually full of bright light and not just grubby dark shadows. Stereo is the old reality; immersive audio is the new sensorial destiny.

Immersive audio recreates depth-of-field and captures the full fidelity of real-life acoustical experiences, allowing you to encounter all the subtleties, nuances, and inflections in a multi-dimensional soundscape. Once you listen to music in immersive audio, you’ll never want to go back into that dark cave again.

How Does it Work?

Surround sound requires multiple audio channels. If you are using two speakers, this is a 2.1 stereo setup. As you add more channels, the number changes, with common configurations including 5.1, 7.1 and 9.1. More channels strengthen the3D field, and the opportunities for sound to hit from a number of angles.

The “one”  in “5.1,” or the other setups, refers to low-frequency channels. As these bass frequencies expand to  fill spaces, there is normally only the need for one..

Many systems use an audiovisual (AV) receiver to process the sound and distribute it across multiple channels. The AV receiver processes, amplifies, and sends the audio signals to the appropriate speakers.

Some sound bar systems don’t require a receiver. Neither do recent HDMI ARC systems. These can simply use the HDMI output to do the heavy lifting. You need to check that your TV or other device is HDMI-ARC compatible before using this setup, though.

Codecs and Decoders

A codec is a file format. Dolby Atmos, DTS:X and DTS:X Pro, and Auro-3D are all examples of these technologies. Codecs have been best described by Storm Audio, “each format has its own upmixer, processing a number of channels and turning it into a greater number of audio channels.”

Think of the decoder as the software that helps the receiver understand certain audio file formats and styles. Many of these use Dolby Digital, in fact, all DVDs and HD broadcasts use Dolby, and this means your system will be compatible if it can process and encode Dolby Digital audio. For sounds systems bigger than 5.1, opt for something with Dolby Plus compatibility.

Dolby is not the only option for 3D audio, such as MPEG-H, but Dolby is the most commonly-used.

DTS employs a higher bit rate which means that it can deliver more audio information. True audiophiles might want to go for a DTS system to ensure that they are getting the maximum quality.

Using Your Computer

Playing 3D audio from your computer is becoming easier, too. Windows 10 computers now include access to spatial audio by default, and are compatible with surround sound systems. You can find a more detailed guide on this here.

To summarize the article, you can use your computer, linked to speakers or immersive audio compatible headphones, to listen easily via Windows.

If you are running a Dolby system and you want to run the audio through an AV receiver that works with Atmos, use the Dolby Access app. This can be purchased for a nominal fee, and allow the audio from your computer to be broadcast to a Dolby-enabled system.

Hardware to Play Surround Sound Audio

Besides using your computer, you can make use of certain hardware options to play immersive audio through your surround sound system. Common options like Blu-Ray or DVD players make sense when you consider the fact that immersive audio was originally designed for accompanying visuals.

LG’s range has some models of Blu-Ray players that can be used to play FLAC files, which can contain immersive files. LG UBKM9, UBK90, UBK80 all have the capacity to play these files through DVD’s and USB sticks.

Other DVD/Blu-Ray and media players that can be used to play FLAC files include Panasonic BDP-BD77 and BDT500, Roku Ultra, and the Sony BDP-S1200,  DP-S3200, BDP-S4200, BDP-S5200 players.

If you are a gamer, you can also play FLAC files natively on the PS4, and on the XBox One via the “Simple Background Music Player” app.

“Binaural” Audio and Immersive Headphones

Binaural audio is a slightly different approach. Technically, the fully immersive soundscape is rendered into stereo, and models a 360 degree soundscape. You can hear audio in every direction with binaural audio. Due to its simplicity in creation, it is beginning to be used on phones and other portable devices.

Listening to surround sound on headphones either creates a virtual model of a 360 degree soundstage, or HRTF (Head Related Transfer Function) to provide information on the distance of sound sources, model the audio based on the shape of your head, and respond to how audio moves around within the headphones. For a more technical overview of this, you can explore this guide.

SACDs

One of the ways a lot of people access their immersive audio content is through an SACD. These use a DSD-encoding. You need a specific SACD player (or compatible SACD player) to play the files.

Historically, a CD format has a 44.1 kHz sampling rate; SACDs jump to 2.8224 MHz and use a 1bit depth. The discs can store far more data, allowing audio engineers to mix down separate six-channel mixes, enabling loads of audio information for your surround sound system.

Conclusion

There are many different ways that you can play immersive audio music, ranging from an AV receiver to your computer to your gaming device. As immersive audio music continues to get mainstream adoption, the technology solutions will multiply further and listeners can expect the configurations to simplify in parity. Despite the plethora of present solutions, audiophiles often find that playing immersive audio music can be a bit more difficult than it sounds (pun intended), but once you have it in hand, it is definitely worthwhile.