We reported the other day on Sony Corporation’s plans to use its keynote at the CES technology show in Las Vegas to flag up the importance of its entertainment arms: music, movies and games. As things turned out, one of those plans was “an all new music experience called ‘360 Reality Audio’ that makes listeners feel as if they are immersed in sound from all directions” – complete with participation from streaming services, and other major labels.
It’s a new take on surround-sound music, then, using spatial-audio technology developed by Sony based on the existing MPEG-H 3D Audio standard (an important point, in terms of making it easier for companies and developers to support a new format). Sony will make the tools for musicians and labels to create new 360 Reality Audio content as well as converting existing tracks; and it will also “release a format optimised for music distribution” and ensure that music can be made available “on the premium plans offered by music distribution services”.
That’s a key point too: this is very much something for paying music subscribers – an attempt to use ‘experience’ (including audio quality) as an incentive for free listeners to upgrade. For now, four music services are on board: Deezer, Tidal, Qobuz and nugs.net. As with other hi-res music technologies, the biggest streaming services are conspicuous by their absence, at launch. A penny for hi-res music firm MQA’s thoughts on this: Deezer, Tidal and nugs are among its first partners too.
As for labels, Sony Music is naturally on board with 360 Reality Audio, but Warner Music Group was also part of the announcement. “We are impressed with what we have heard so far, and happy to support the launch of this new technology,” said its chief digital officer and EVP business development Ole Obermann. Sony’s Dennis Kooker offered similarly-positive thoughts: “This three-dimensional sound format is an exciting new option for fans seeking a more immersive way to hear their favourite music.”
Let’s be blunt: pretty much the entire thrust behind the last two decades of digital music has been ‘convenience’ rather than ‘quality’ – whizzy higher-resolution formats and initiatives have come and gone without managing to expand beyond an audiophile audience (and sometimes not even reaching those people). So it’s understandable that artists and labels will relish the idea of 360 Reality Audio, and Sony undoubtedly has potential to push the technology through its devices, from headphones to games consoles.
And yet… if this is going to really matter in the longer term, the key is how it’s presented to listeners, and (as the main interface between those listeners and music) that’ll be the task for the streaming services. We’ll be keen to see how Deezer, Tidal, Qobuz and nugs approach this, but it’s also clear that if 360 Reality Audio was available through Spotify and Apple Music; if it was part of YouTube; if it was integrated into Amazon Echos and Google Homes and hundreds of millions of smartphones… well, then we could start getting properly excited.
That’s not to pour cold water on Sony’s big CES reveal, but more to show that how the company pursues partnerships that have remained elusive to past attempts at hi-res audio innovation will be an important factor in whether we’re still talking about this latest format in two or three years’ time.