For some listeners, music mixed in Spatial Audio (aka, Dolby Atmos) is a solution looking for a problem – they are fine with the stereo music recordings that have been the standard for decades, and don’t need to hear a “spatial” version of the same tracks with instruments and voices wrapping around their head.
For others, the Spatial Audio tracks that can be found on Apple Music, Tidal, Amazon Music HD, and other services are a refreshingly new way to listen, bringing a sense of excitement by immersing you in the music so you feel like you’re within it, as opposed to sitting in front of it.
Having listened to a fair amount of music mixed in Dolby Atmos, primarily on Blu-ray disc and on Apple Music, which is the best streaming service by far when it comes to organizing and presenting Spatial Audio tracks for easy access, I’ve created numerous playlists of my favorites. Many of these come from the classic rock era – not just because I’m a classic rock devotee, but a fair number of albums from that time have been remixed in Dolby Atmos by top producers and engineers who specialize in immersive audio such as Steven Wilson and Giles Martin.
How to Listen
Listening to Apple Music Spatial Audio tracks is easy and can be done using any old headphones. You’ll first need an Apple Music subscription, which is free for one month to try out and then $9.99 per month after. The next step is to configure the app’s Dolby Atmos Audio settings on your iPhone, iPad, or Mac computer as “always on.” (Android phones can also be used – as long as they support Dolby Atmos.)
If you own recent-model AirPods and Beats that feature an H1 or W1 chip, Atmos will play automatically. With those headphones, you’ll also get to experience Spatial Audio head-tracking, an effect where up-front elements in a sound mix like vocals stay centered, even as you move your head around.
If you’re lucky enough to have both an Apple TV 4K streamer and a Dolby Atmos speaker system, you’ll get an even more immersive experience than with headphones – though I can’t say I have much to complain about when listening to my Atmos playlists through Apple’s AirPods Max. So, while any headphones will work with Spatial Audio, you’ll get better mileage when using the best headphones.
The Beatles: Come Together (2019 Mix)
The Beatles’ full Abbey Road album was remixed in Dolby Atmos for its 50th anniversary release in 2019 by Giles Martin, son of the original Beatles producer, George Martin. Martin’s magic touch illuminates every Abbey Road track in Atmos, but to my ears Come Together is the one that benefits most from an immersive mix.
John Lennon’s voice towers from above while Ringo Starr’s hi-hat cymbals and drum fills snake around you, making it seem like you are inside his set. And when the guitar enters during the chorus, it has a riveting presence that locks everything in. Come Together would sound great played on an old AM radio in a basement and listened to from one floor up. Heard on good headphones in Atmos, it’s a sheer delight.
Fleetwood Mac: Go Your Own Way
Rumours is the album where things went a bit crazy personally for Fleetwood Mac, but they nonetheless managed to channel that craziness into making what has become one of the most beloved and admired albums of the classic rock era.
Go Your Own Way storms out of the gate in Atmos. Chiming guitars ring out at either side of your head and the drums create a powerful foundation. Lindsey Buckingham’s vocals remain firmly centered in the mix, and when Stevie Nicks and Christine McVie join in during the chorus, the blended trio of voices soars high and wide. And that guitar solo: it seems to emanate from everywhere, and it’s glorious.
The Doors: Riders on the Storm
The Atmos version of Riders on the Storm on Apple Music starts off in the studio with band banter – and it sounds like you are standing right there beside them in 1971.
A thunderstorm rolls in and swirls around. Next, there’s a warm wash of bass and drums and the keyboard embraces your head like a soft pillow. You are fully immersed. At one point, Jim Morrison can very briefly be heard clapping and yowling – yes, it’s the Lizard King, poking through the mellow musical tempest to make his presence known.
Those who were fortunate enough to catch Rush play live not just during their Moving Pictures peak, but at any show ever, will appreciate this dynamic Atmos mix of Limelight, a top track from the Moving Pictures album, which was executed by the album’s original engineer, Richard Chycki.
There is a strong sense here of being in the same space as the musicians, with guitar and bass embracing your ears as Neil Peart’s ferocious drumming is conveyed with full-throttle energy. When we finally get to the track’s famous guitar solo, it swerves and takes flight, making the most of the freeform Atmos sound space.
Kraftwerk: Nummern / Computerwelt
Okay, so this one is a bit of an outlier in my list. Kraftwerk is more of an electronic act, and this cut is actually from 3:D Der Katalog (Live), a 2017 recording. But the original album that both tracks appeared on, Computer World, came out in 1981 – the tail end of the classic rock era, which Kraftwerk tends to get bunched with despite being its own unique out-of-time entity.
The fully synthetic nature of electronic music makes it perfect for the surround sound remixing playground, and Nummern / Computerwelt is one of the best examples of Atmos music I know of. The mix pushes things to the limit, with sampled voices blaring out from all directions, synths floating up into space, and a massive electronic beat sealing everything together. A seamless transition between the two tracks leaves you waiting breathlessly for the drop, and when it hits, it’s like a rapid sonic slide into a 3:D Computerwelt.
The Beatles: Strawberry Fields Forever
Strawberry Field may have simply been a Salvation Army children’s home that John Lennon played on the grounds of in his youth, but the rich, psychedelic ambience of Strawberry Fields Forever makes you want to wander through those fields, whatever they may be. Fortunately, a Giles Martin Atmos mix of the Strawberry Fields Forever / Penny Lane single (not the Magical Mystery Tour album version) gives us that opportunity.
Mellotron, backwards tape loops, and orchestral accompaniment create a dense sonic environment here, but Lennon’s clear vocals and Ringo’s precise, deliberate drumming hold down the fort and offer some orientation. Even as the song builds to its psychedelic peak, the sense of layering is clear and, although you’ve definitely been on a trip, you feel rooted in a reality outside the Strawberry Field gates.