Headphones with Tidal Atmos. Worth it?

Jonkers

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Nov 15, 2022
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I stream Tidal Atmos tracks, but am wondering whether it is worth buying headphones to get that surround sound experience. Thinking of the Grado SR 325x, but before shelling out hoped someone could tell me if headphones are good with Tidal Atmos, and is there a particular type to look for? All the noise seems to be about Apple atmos, but I don't use their service. thanks.
 

EvShrug

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Mar 4, 2022
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I stream Tidal Atmos tracks, but am wondering whether it is worth buying headphones to get that surround sound experience. Thinking of the Grado SR 325x, but before shelling out hoped someone could tell me if headphones are good with Tidal Atmos, and is there a particular type to look for? All the noise seems to be about Apple atmos, but I don't use their service. thanks.
Dolby Atmos is a Digital Signal Processing (DSP) technique to create a spatial sensation (better direction and depth, like Dolby Surround). It’s actually just another part of the signal chain… you have your source with the music files on it, the player, a DSP (even if the DSP is just equalizing, or doing something more advanced like spatial audio), a Digital to Analog Converter (DAC), Amplification, and transducers (the headphones or speakers).

Tidal and Apple both have Dolby Atmos mastered tracks re-processed for headphones in their libraries. The neat thing is you just enable it in settings, and the pre-processed Dolby version of the track plays instead of the stereo version mastered for stereo speakers. I use Dolby Atmos processed music all the time with many brands of headphones (lately, the Ultrasone Signature X, Apos Caspian, and Sennheiser HD 560S). Generally speaking, a headphone that sounds very clear is usually better at replaying the subtle nuances that give you directional and distance cues.

It’s also worth mentioning that the new generation of gaming consoles, the PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series, have built-in spatial DSPs as well, and some games from the previous generation also had “headphone surround” modes. Even PUBG Mobile for smartphones and tablets has a pretty good headphone surround mode that is automatically enabled when you plug in headphones.

The thing that Apple AirPods Pro, AirPods Max, and some other headphones like the Audeze Mobius do that is special and next level, is that even with stereo music, they can apply a spatial audio DSP to make the music (or games, movies) have the illusion of sounding like they’re coming from outside your head, further away than the cups (or shells) of the headphones, AND they track the motion of your head to keep the location persistent. It’s sort of like a Virtual Reality or Augmented Reality headset, but just for audio. What’s cool about that is even small shifts or tilts of your head help your brain “recalibrate” where the sound is coming from, even subconscious movements. The result is more natural like musicians playing in your room, and more immersive. If it’s a typical stereo music track, it will just sound like listening to two speakers placed in front of you, but even that is more natural and IMO pretty cool. Now, to do this, the headphones have to have gyroscopes and accelerometers and little computers (like like VR headsets), but I have seen products from Redscape Audio and Smyth Research that allow you to strap a motion sensor to any headphones and use your windows PC or a standalone processor.

The counterpoint to all this is that headphones have been around for many decades and people still enjoy Grados and other brands without all this extra tech. Dolby Atmos is also not perfect… as I said, it’s one example of a couple spatial audio DSPs on the market, and it’s a “one size fits all” type of design that sounds ok and almost real for 70% or so of people, but for the remaining 30% (especially the first time they hear it, before they adjust, and without head-tracking aids) it can just sound like more reverb and slightly weird instead of 3D. One thing I like about Apple’s (and the PlayStation’s) approach is they have a few different sound profiles to get closer to natural for your ears, so it’s kind of like having a few different “fit” options.

However, I feel that spatial “headphone surround” audio is catching on, and it’s going to be more widely adopted than 3D Televisions. If you would like to try out spatial audio with whatever headphones or earbuds you have now, I highly recommend checking out the album https://songwhip.com/ottmar-liebert/up-close through whatever streaming service you like :)
 
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Jonkers

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Nov 15, 2022
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Dolby Atmos is a Digital Signal Processing (DSP) technique to create a spatial sensation (better direction and depth, like Dolby Surround). It’s actually just another part of the signal chain… you have your source with the music files on it, the player, a DSP (even if the DSP is just equalizing, or doing something more advanced like spatial audio), a Digital to Analog Converter (DAC), Amplification, and transducers (the headphones or speakers).

Tidal and Apple both have Dolby Atmos mastered tracks re-processed for headphones in their libraries. The neat thing is you just enable it in settings, and the pre-processed Dolby version of the track plays instead of the stereo version mastered for stereo speakers. I use Dolby Atmos processed music all the time with many brands of headphones (lately, the Ultrasone Signature X, Apos Caspian, and Sennheiser HD 560S). Generally speaking, a headphone that sounds very clear is usually better at replaying the subtle nuances that give you directional and distance cues.

It’s also worth mentioning that the new generation of gaming consoles, the PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series, have built-in spatial DSPs as well, and some games from the previous generation also had “headphone surround” modes. Even PUBG Mobile for smartphones and tablets has a pretty good headphone surround mode that is automatically enabled when you plug in headphones.

The thing that Apple AirPods Pro, AirPods Max, and some other headphones like the Audeze Mobius do that is special and next level, is that even with stereo music, they can apply a spatial audio DSP to make the music (or games, movies) have the illusion of sounding like they’re coming from outside your head, further away than the cups (or shells) of the headphones, AND they track the motion of your head to keep the location persistent. It’s sort of like a Virtual Reality or Augmented Reality headset, but just for audio. What’s cool about that is even small shifts or tilts of your head help your brain “recalibrate” where the sound is coming from, even subconscious movements. The result is more natural like musicians playing in your room, and more immersive. If it’s a typical stereo music track, it will just sound like listening to two speakers placed in front of you, but even that is more natural and IMO pretty cool. Now, to do this, the headphones have to have gyroscopes and accelerometers and little computers (like like VR headsets), but I have seen products from Redscape Audio and Smyth Research that allow you to strap a motion sensor to any headphones and use your windows PC or a standalone processor.

The counterpoint to all this is that headphones have been around for many decades and people still enjoy Grados and other brands without all this extra tech. Dolby Atmos is also not perfect… as I said, it’s one example of a couple spatial audio DSPs on the market, and it’s a “one size fits all” type of design that sounds ok and almost real for 70% or so of people, but for the remaining 30% (especially the first time they hear it, before they adjust, and without head-tracking aids) it can just sound like more reverb and slightly weird instead of 3D. One thing I like about Apple’s (and the PlayStation’s) approach is they have a few different sound profiles to get closer to natural for your ears, so it’s kind of like having a few different “fit” options.

However, I feel that spatial “headphone surround” audio is catching on, and it’s going to be more widely adopted than 3D Televisions. If you would like to try out spatial audio with whatever headphones or earbuds you have now, I highly recommend checking out the album https://songwhip.com/ottmar-liebert/up-close through whatever streaming service you like :)
Thank you for that brilliant, comprehensive and helpful reply. I really appreciate it.

I have a pair of AKG K92s that are only playing through one side, and sony wf1000 XM3s. I want to replace the headphones and use them with my Cambridge Audio DAC magic 2, where I can steam Tidal tracks via bluetooth ( if I can find a way to connect the iphone directly to the dac that woukd be even better!)

As I have mild hearing loss and wear hearing aids, I need to have headphones that sit around the ears (gutted as I‘d got set on Grado sr 325x, but they definitely sit on the ear). The aids have a brilliant music setting, so listening without the aids is a non starter, so be it.

Based on the above, do you have any recommendations? The AKGs fit perfectly, so something of that size would be ideal, and my budget can go up to the Grado sr 325x, or thereabouts. Hopefully black friday will get be even more bang for my buck.

thanks again. 🙏
 

EvShrug

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Mar 4, 2022
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Glad it helped Jonkers, I hope it wasn’t intimidating… I just write a lot! 😅 Journalistically, I wanted to also report on what I’ve read from naysayers and challenges for different people.

Before I got a part-time job consulting for Sennheiser, I started out seeking headphones to have as much of a “speaker like” experience as possible, which led to researching headphone surround (which is/was also called binaural stereo before, and just now it’s starting to be called spatial audio). I had some Audio Technica, AKG, Beyerdynamic, and other headphones, the Sennheiser HD 800 was my Holy Grail “Wouldn’t it be wild if I could justify/afford one of those some day” type of headphone. Even before I left Sennheiser a year ago, I continued trying many other brands and I have quite a collection (including the Audeze I mentioned before, and I now have two versions of the HD 800 haha!). Within a high buck value / modest price bracket, my personal favorites with spatial audio processing (your mileage may vary) picks were the AKG K612 Pro and K712 Pro, Sennheiser HD 560S, Fostex T50RP or T60RP, the Audeze Mobius… but those are just the ones I owned and enjoyed from personal experience. Feel free to ask about any of them, but I would also like to teach you what to look for when you read headphone reviews in general to understand what works well with Spatial DSP.

Let’s take the HD 560S as an example of features that benefit that holographic sense of sound. For one, low distortion. When there’s less extra noise from the enclosure vibrating, less driver wobbling or having less difficulty coming to rest inbetween notes, then it is clearer to hear each detail in a recording, easier to separate out sounds, and therefore the Cues that inform our brains about distance and direction are more easy to pick out. Thankfully, it’s a subconscious thing 😁. A smaller driver is easier to keep stiffer and piston forward and back in a linear fashion without warping or, as I said earlier, wobbling, but a compromise is needed because a large driver has the benefit of presenting a more flat wave of energy that can hit your whole outer ear at once. The HD 560S is larger than your ear’s concha (the bowl around your ear hole, with a fold in it), and the HD 800 has an even larger dynamic driver, so it presents a flat plane of sound to the entire surface of the outer ear, so the sound waves can then bounce around in all the folds of your ear which filters the sound and is one key thing to understand direction which we have become accustomed to since birth. Our ears are angled, so either headphones rest directly on your ears (like your Grados), try to pin back the ears flat (like the Grado L-Cush “bowl” pads you could try), or have the drivers angled to match (like the HD 560S or HD 800). Some headphones use angled pads instead of angling the drivers (like the AKG K701… you can put those pads on the K712 and K612 if you felt like trying it). Oval earcups are less picky about ear relative placement than circular cups, but it’s still worth playing around to find your sweet spot 👍. The tuning is important too… this is super in-depth, but suffice to say too much emphasis/amplitude of any one frequency will mask 😷 and obscure other frequencies, so something that sounds balanced and evenly presents all frequencies will seem more natural and be better able to reveal those details. That’s not to say a headphone with a perfectly flat graph will sound balanced to you… we’re more sensitive to the sound pitches used for talking and hunting (mids) and of course it will be a little more uneven with hearing loss. The gear upstream… distortion can also come from the music files, DSP, DAC, and amp. Low res music files (and poor recordings) and amps with distortion are usually the first and most obvious chokepoints. You also need enough amping voltage and current to drive the whole frequency range up to spec (often improves bass!), but conversely, an efficient and high sensitivity headphone will have lower power requirements (the HD 560S sounds pretty good from an Apple iPhone dongle, plenty of power, though your Cambridge Audio DAC probably will have less glare and more pleasant sound).

One last thing… spatial audio is an illusion, suspension of disbelief, and poor comfort can make you painfully aware of the headphones, so I really like the soft foam and non-itchy velour wrapped earpads and headband of the HD 560S… with a special nod to the notch right in the center of the headband padding, this prevents a hot spot where the weight of a headphone would normally rest. Now, the HD 560S does have a firm clamping pressure, especially on wider heads, but some people like this clamp because the headphones stay secure and it helps more to distribute the (admittedly very light) weight.

If you find some or all of these aspects in other headphones that appeal to you, and reviews mention great clarity or resolution, chances are they’re a good candidate for Dolby Atmos or other DSPs.

If you have some hearing loss, I recommend you play some music and then check the iPhone Settings> accessibility > audio/visual, and then I would recommend playing with the Left/Right balance slider until the stereo music seems centered between your ears. This will help with the perception of soundstage. Also, back out to Settings > Music (it’s the red Apple Music icon) > Dolby Atmos > and set it to “always on.” I think Tidal has a similar setting somewhere inside the app itself. Finally, if you get the Apple Camera Connection Kit, the one with USB and an extra lightning port for power, you should be able to use a USB cable to connect to your Cambridge Audio DAC. Some DACs require that extra power to be able to work with iPhone. The iPhone’s operating system is actually a bit better optimized for audio than Windows or Mac OS, so you may actually enjoy a small lift in quality :)

Best wishes Jonkers, welcome to high end audio 😁
 

Jonkers

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Nov 15, 2022
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Hi Ev. Thanks again for an AMAZING reply, or actually a tutorial!

I'd already narrowed down my revised list (based on a lot of YouTube reviews) to the HD 560 s, or the hifiman Sundara. I was concerned about comments made regarding hifiman durability, and so was already leaning to the 560s when I got your message. As you mentioned them in very positive terms, relevant to my needs, I bought them and just tried them today, firstly directly from iPhone and then with the DAC. They are amazing, and such good value!

Do they need running in? Or rather can I expect even better performance after... how many hours?

Finally, I'm new here, so is there any way I can give you a vote/points etc?

Many thanks again Ev.
Best wishes
John
 
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EvShrug

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Hi Ev. Thanks again for an AMAZING reply, or actually a tutorial!

I'd already narrowed down my revised list (based on a lot of YouTube reviews) to the HD 560 s, or the hifiman Sundara. I was concerned about comments made regarding hifiman durability, and so was already leaning to the 560s when I got your message. As you mentioned them in very positive terms, relevant to my needs, I bought them and just tried them today, firstly directly from iPhone and then with the DAC. They are amazing, and such good value!

Do they need running in? Or rather can I expect even better performance after... how many hours?

Finally, I'm new here, so is there any way I can give you a vote/points etc?

Many thanks again Ev.
Best wishes
John
Haha, glad to help! At the end of the day, you having fun was the only reward I was looking for. Feel free to subscribe to my YouTube if you want, I have the same username there and having more subscribers always helps. I’m getting over some depression, and I think I’ll be back making videos again soon.

I don’t think the HD 560S needs much burn-in, doesn’t change as much over time as AKG headphones or BLON BL-03, for example. The ear pads will break in over time: I don’t think that makes the sound better, but eventually they stay somewhat molded to the contours of your head. After a few years, they may have flattened enough that you may want to replace them (but that’s easy, no tools needed, they just pull off and push on!).
 
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Jonkers

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Nov 15, 2022
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Haha, glad to help! At the end of the day, you having fun was the only reward I was looking for. Feel free to subscribe to my YouTube if you want, I have the same username there and having more subscribers always helps. I’m getting over some depression, and I think I’ll be back making videos again soon.

I don’t think the HD 560S needs much burn-in, doesn’t change as much over time as AKG headphones or BLON BL-03, for example. The ear pads will break in over time: I don’t think that makes the sound better, but eventually they stay somewhat molded to the contours of your head. After a few years, they may have flattened enough that you may want to replace them (but that’s easy, no tools needed, they just pull off and push on!).
Ahh that’s great; I just subscribed and hope you feel well enough to do the things you like to do soon. I know all about depression; it’s a ****** while you have it, but you definitely will get over it. Be kind to yourself!
Thanks again Ev. See you on the Tube 👍
 

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