Sony's audio tech explained as its first compatible speakers open for pre-order
Sony has opened pre-orders for a pair of new speakers that use the company's 360 Reality Audio sound technology for the first time.
Called the SRS-RA3000 and SRS-RA5000 (Sony has never been one for snappy names), the speakers are priced at $300 and $700 respectively, and are intended to act as premium wireless speakers for the home.
What's most interesting is their use of Sony's 360 Reality Audio technology, which is an object-based sound system designed to surround the listener with a sphere of noise, instead of pumping music through the left and right channels of stereo. The technology was previously available on the Amazon Echo Studio smart speaker.
How does Sony 360 Reality Audio work?
360 Realty Audio doesn't take regular stereo music and turn into a form of surround sound. Instead, it requires the music to be encoded in a way that a speaker or headset compatible with the technology can understand.
This encoding gives music producers the freedom to assign a location in space to each channel of sound. For example, the vocals of a singer can be placed in the center and at the front of the sphere of sound created around the listener's head. Or, a backing chorus could be located off to one side.
Each instrument on the track can be assigned a location on the x and y axis, so they can sit to the left of center but also higher or lower than the listener. Other sounds can even be placed directly above or behind the listener. Sound can also move from one location to another, creating a more dynamic and immersive experience.
All this adds up to create a listening experience closely related to the original recording. The precise location of each instrument in a recording studio, or on a stage, can be coded into the audio track, and so too can any other piece of audio in the track, like vocals and special effects.
You would be right in saying this all sounds a lot like Dolby Atmos, the object-based surround sound system that is predominantly used for movies but can also be applied to music – and you would be right. These technologies work in a similar way, but are not compatible with each other, so music producers must create an object-based track in Atmos and 360 Reality Audio to make it available to all listeners.
Where is 360 Reality Audio available?
Streaming services like Deezer, Tidal and Nugs.net, which records live concerts, include tracks created using 360 Reality Audio, and so too does Amazon Music HD, but only through the company's own hardware – like the aforementioned Echo Studio. This audio technology isn't available on Spotify or Apple Music at this time, but we hope given the size of these services this changes in the future.
The number of tracks encoded to work with 360 Reality Audio is fairly small for now, with just 4,000 at the last count. With its own speakers now available, hopefully this will see Sony increase that number fairly quickly.
360 Reality Audio works with any headphones
One of the remarkable things about 360 Reality Audio is how it works with any regular pair of earphones or headphones. No fancy hardware is required to create a sphere of object-based sound around your head. A higher-quality and more powerful pair of headphones will create a better sound, but because it's the software that provides the audio, the quality of the hardware doesn't necessarily matter.
Naturally, Sony says the system sounds best through its own headphones, and especially those that work with the Sony Headphones Connect app. This smartphone app lets you take a photo of your ear, then tailors the sound output of your headphones to best suit your hearing ability.
You can hear examples of 360 Reality Audio on Sony's website here, which has demonstrations for both headphones and speaker systems.
Speakers that work with Sony 360 Reality Audio
As well as the Echo Studio, Sony now has two compatible speakers of its own, in the firm of the SRS-RA3000 and SRS-RA5000. These are available to pre-order now and ship from March 29. They offer "ambient room-filling sound," according to Sony and use 360 Reality Audio to create object-based sound.
The pricier and larger RA5000 can also handle Hi-Res Audio, meaning it can play higher-performance audio files available from services like Amazon Music HD. Both have a calibration system to make them sound their best no matter where in a room they are positioned, and there's integrated Chromecast and Spotify Connect.
Both also work with Alexa and Google Assistant, but the voice butlers aren't fully integrated. Instead, you'll need to fire a voice command at a Nest Audio or Amazon Echo, which will then instruct the Sony speaker to play the music you asked for.