The New Sonos Era 300 May Herald a Tipping Point for Spatial and Dolby Atmos Music

The New Sonos Era 300 May Herald a Tipping Point for Spatial and Dolby Atmos Music

The dimensions in which we listen to music haven’t really changed in almost 100 years. That’s not to say that there haven’t been huge leaps and bounds in quality and music reproduction, obviously. For better or worse, access to music has never been higher and even a $150 Bluetooth speaker now gives you a richer listening experience than anything a millionaire could buy back when stereoscopic sound was introduced. But the vast, vast majority of music, has been mixed in stereo, for two-channel audio, for the better part of a century.

However, there is now a possibility that the new Sonos Era 300, and speakers like it, including Apple HomePod, might be about to change that – if you believe some of the world’s top music producers.

A history lesson

But, before we get to music producers talking about why Dolby Atmos and Spatial Audio matter for music, let’s take a step back in time to understand how we got here.

Back in 1877, Thomas Edison invented the Phonograph. Technically, this wasn’t the first device that could record sound (that was in 1857 by Edouard-Leon Scott), but it was the most impactful, and was essentially the invention of mono sound. Mono sound is when all the sound comes from one speaker channel facing in one direction, like a cheap Bluetooth speaker.

Then, in 1931, EMI employee, Alan Blumlein saw a movie with his wife in England and got annoyed that the actors’ voices were coming from the opposite side of the screen to their picture, and thus got to work on inventing the modern version of stereo sound.

Stereo is a two-channel audio system that gives a more 3D version of audio, with sound coming from the left and right. Most stereo sound is designed to sound like it’s coming right from the middle, yet still surrounding you, but some producers also place instruments on the left and right in the mix to create different effects. Again, Blumlein wasn’t the first to come up with stereo, that was Clément Ader in Paris in 1881 using telephone transmitters for people to listen to the Paris Opera, but for this story, it’s the stereo recordings that matter more than stereo transmission.

Then, for decades after that, there really wasn’t a revolutionary new invention that’s changed the dimension of music. Sure, Dolby Labs created 5.1 surround sound in 1976, but that was more for movies and TV than for music.

The next significant step in music dimension comes in 2012, when Dolby Atmos is introduced in LA with the Disney film Brave. In 2017 REM released a remastered version of their classic album Automatic For The People in Atmos, and later (in 2019) Dolby released Dolby Atmos for Music, which was adopted by Tidal and Amazon Music. Apple’s Spatial Audio (introduced in 2021) then built on that to also take the position of your headphones into account when playing back the 3D effect on certain Apple headphones.

How Dolby Atmos and Spatial Audio works is as a more object-based sound, which uses a currently unspecified number of channels (usually somewhere between 10-128) to place sounds above and around you – basically every direction but down. It takes a lot more work to produce and master, but the effect on the right song or movie can be impressive.

But why does this matter, and how is the Sonos Era 300 involved?

Six people sitting on a stage at the Sonos Era 300 launch
L-R Said Blount. Giles Martin, Emily Lazar, Manny Marroquin, Terrace Martin, and Daito Manabe. Image: Sonos

It was Apple making Spatial Audio-compatible AirPods that took Spatial Audio music mainstream, with 80 per cent of Apple Music subscribers listening to Spatial audio in 2022. But, affordable ways of getting that surround effect for out loud, communal listening haven’t been readily available, and that kind of listening is just as important as personal headphone listening.

When I recently visited Sonos’ Santa Barbra headquarters, as a guest of Sonos, to learn more about their new speakers, in addition to all the usual tours of various nerdy workspaces, there was a panel with music producers from Sonos’ ‘Sound Board’. The Sound Board is an advisory panel of producers from around the world who give their opinion on Sonos speakers and affect how they’re designed and tuned.

This panel was a who’s who of music producers, who between them have definitely produced at least one album you loved: Giles Martin (The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Paul McCartney), Manny Marroquin (Lizzo, Kanye West, Lil Nas X, Paramore), Emily Lazar (Fall Out Boy, Tegan and Sara, Foo Fighters), Terrace Martin (Snoop Dogg, Kendrick Lamar, Travis Scott) and Daito Manabe (Bjork, OK Go, Squarepusher).

The main takeaway I got from that panel was that producers are really buzzing about having Spatial as a tool in their toolkit, and artists are coming on board. Obviously, a panel at a product launch isn’t going to say “actually, this seems kinda pointless”, but the enthusiasm and excitement from the panel about Spatial was palpable.

It was Terrace Martin who seemed the most enthused about Spatial.

“As a songwriter, I feel like I’ve always been searching for this without realising what ‘this’ was. Even as a kid growing up, when my father was rehearsing with his band, I would crawl into the [open] bass drum for hours and listen… because I’m hearing all the different instruments come into this little thing. It’s like its own little Spatial thing in the bass drum. Then, as I got older to a teenager, I can only write music in the middle of the band. I have to surround everything around me,” he said.

Building on a point Lazar made about how the fight to make music louder ended up just distorting it, Marroquin told a long story about how he visualises mixing and making music.

“I just pretend it’s a big clear box, right? You have a big teddy bear and that is your 808 right, and you stick it in, and then you have a medium-sized teddy bear and you put it in there, that’s your snare. And then you have your more and more and the next thing you know that big teddy bear gets smaller and smaller. So, everything starts to sound really small. We’ve been fighting that – all of us,” he said.

“Now, in music creation, we don’t have to think about this box anymore, we have to think about space. How emotional is the space? What does it mean if I have a guitar here? What does it mean if I have it there? Before it was two: stereo left and right. We were never able to go up, down, above us. Now we are creating emotion based on space… That to us is like an early stage of a sonic revolution that we haven’t had since going from mono to stereo.”

Giles Martin had plenty of stories about his work remixing all the old Beatles albums in Spatial and working out where to place things around the room. But his reason for working with Sonos in general, and particularly on the Era 300, was pretty simple: “Listening to music out loud with people that you love, and even with people that you don’t love, sharing that experience is so much better than headphones.”

Where does the Sonos Era 300 come into all of this?

As I said above, at the moment there really aren’t many affordable solutions to listen to Spatial Audio and Dolby Atmos Music in ways that are tuned for music. You can listen to your soundbar, but that’s tuned for movies and it might not be in the room you where want to listen. Having speakers like the Sonos Era 300 and, to a lesser extent, the second-generation Apple HomePod, more available in the market are a sign that these extra dimensions to sound are on their way to becoming more available so more people can listen. Then more music will be mixed in Spatial, and then we can be more fully immersed in songs and hear them the way artists did while they were making it.

I haven’t had enough time with the Sonos Era 300 yet to know how good it is (my review is coming soon), I don’t know if the Era 300 is going to be a revolutionary speaker on its own. Maybe it won’t live up to the hype. This isn’t about one speaker, but the potential of what it represents is truly thrilling.

Only time will tell if Spatial will be able to become as influential as Stereo, but it’s clear that it’s something music lovers should be excited about.

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