Sony’s 360 Reality Audio is the future of music, and I can’t wait

The first half of the demo involved listening to a music track through an elaborate 13.2 channel array of speakers. The second half involved listening to the same track in 360 Reality Audio through a high-end pair of Sony headphones.

My first thought was that the sound wasn’t coming from the headphones at all, but the moment I lifted the earcup and confirmed that it was I was left absolutely floored. It not only sounded better, but was more engaging and multi-dimensional to listen to than the 13.2 channel speaker setup. The soundstage was so wide and detailed that I could easily pinpoint vocals and other nuances of the music track. It truly felt like you were inside the piece of music.

Sony's demo pitted headphones with 360 Reality Audio against a 13.2 surround speaker setup.

Sony’s demo pitted headphones with 360 Reality Audio against a 13.2 surround speaker setup.Credit:Krishan Sharma

Sony had another demonstration where it used a standalone speaker to playback 360 Reality Audio and, while it did a decent job of making the audio feel as though it was coming from various locations around the room, the effect wasn’t anywhere near as convincing as listening through a pair of headphones.

Sony is clearly onto a winner with 360 Reality Audio, but there are some challenges that lay ahead of it.

A major reason the 360 Reality Audio sounded so convincing in the demonstration is that the headphone audio was calibrated precisely to the hearing characteristics of our ears using highly sensitive wire microphones that were placed in each ear. How sound travels to the listening ear is different for everyone so getting this part of the process right is crucial for 3D Reality Audio to work.

Sony says that it’s developing a phone app for users to take photos of their own ears that the app will then calibrate audio to. Going down the app route for calibration might be convenient, but the calibration isn’t going to be as accurate as what we experienced in the demo room so we’ll have to wait and see how much of an impact this has on the end listening experience.

Music will also need to be mastered in 360 Reality Audio and, while Sony has a head start in this regard thanks to the enormous music catalogue it has access to under its Sony Music Entertainment arm, it’s going to take some time to amass a compelling library.

Finally, while 360 Reality Audio should technically work on any pair of headphones, the one we used in the demonstration was an audiophile-grade MDR-Z7M2 that retails for $1300. Just how well 360 Reality Audio scales down to cheaper headphones is likely to remain a question mark until it’s made available to the public.

Still, if this is what the future of music sounds like, sign me up.

The author travelled to Las Vegas as a guest of Hisense.

Krishan is a multi-award-winning Australian technology journalist.

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