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Sony 360 Reality Audio: What is it and what do you need to know?

Having first revealed its 360 Reality Audio technology at CES 2019, we finally know when it’s coming out. But what exactly is it and how will it work?

We’ve heard plenty people say that stereo sound is old hat, so what’s the future of music? According to Sony, it’s 360 Reality Audio.

The idea is simple – it’s music that you can hear all around you, creating an immersive soundscape to listen to your favourite tunes. But how exactly does it work?

What is Sony 360 Reality Audio?

Everyone loves an interesting, effective audio format? Stereo sound, quadraphonic sound, 5.1-channel surround sound… they all have something to recommend. What everyone loves a lot less is competing audio formats that, on the face of it, do more-or-less the same thing.

At first glance, it might seem Sony’s new ‘3D’ audio format, 360 Reality Audio, falls into the ‘same-thing-different-banner’ category. Object-based audio, where a soundtrack is mastered into numerous channels creating the entire front, rear, sides and overhead of a soundfield, is a marvellous thing – but we already have Dolby Atmos. And home cinema hipsters (plus Americans) have DTS-X too, so 3D audio is already with us.

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Anything from a domestic 5.1.4 system to a state-of-the-art commercial cinema sounds thrillingly complete when it has a Dolby Atmos soundtrack to play with. Four overhead channels of information (in the home), or upwards of 64 overhead channels in a cinema, each receives discrete, carefully positioned information – and the subsequent effect can usually be safely described as ‘satisfying’. The sense of scale, and of wide-ranging, believable movement, is always impressive.

Up to a point, 360 Reality Audio does the same thing, but Sony is putting the emphasis squarely on music with this new format – and it’s making the mobile experience a big part of the story too.

Sony has built 360 Reality Audio around the music streaming-centric MPEG-H 3D Audio codec, which is able to support 64 individual channels. It’s made the format open-source, so smaller companies and even individual artists will be able to get involved.

And Sony has persuaded the Big Three record companies (Sony Music, which admittedly can’t have been much of a stretch, Universal and Warner Bros.) as well as several high-profile streaming services (TIDAL, Deezer and Qobuz among others) to work with them in creating and distributing the content.

How does Sony 360 Reality Audio work?

The idea is to place the listener in the thick of the audio action. Any element of a recording – by which we mean specific individual sounds, like a high-hat cymbal, backing vocalist or Bez-style maraca – can be positioned anywhere in the 360-degree sound field.

It can be finessed to give the impression of a specific angle or distance. So a detailed and expansive audio picture can be painted, with the listener in the front row or even on the stage itself.

The mobile audio experience seems to be well advanced. Sony states its 360 Reality Audio will work with headphones from most manufacturers, so theoretically all that’s required is a subscription to the premium tier of a partnering streaming service (and some headphones).

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When 360 Reality Audio launches, Sony estimates there will be over 1000 tracks available, from artists as diverse as Mark Ronson and Jeff Beck. During a launch event in New York in October, Mark Ronson was – by his standards – extremely upbeat and positive about the possibilities 360 Reality Audio offers to the artist.

If you’re using a pair of Sony headphones (the WH-1000MX3 and WF-1000MX3 are among the best wireless headphones around), you can download the company’s Headphones Connect app. The app can analyse your ears to optimise your 360 Reality Audio experience.

In terms of hardware, the first speaker able to handle Sony’s 3D audio standard is Amazon’s upcoming Echo Studio (you’ll also need an Amazon Music HD subscription, though, obviously). More will follow – Sony’s determination to democratise 360 Reality Audio means many more Alexa-enabled, or Chromecast built-in, devices will be able to support the format.

And Sony’s partnership with chipset companies like Qualcomm makes 360 Reality Audio compatibility across a lot more consumer hardware seem likely too.

What does the Sony 360 Reality Audio sound like?

We had a brief chance to experience 360 Reality Audio during the New York launch event, and it’s safe to say Marvin Gaye’s Sexual Healing via Deezer into a pair of Sony WH-1000MX3s sounded far more open and more spacious than in its traditional stereo presentation.

The impression of height, and width, was impressive. And once the format formally launches, of course, Trusted Reviews will bring you the definitive word on just how effective it is.