Saturday, 10 July 2021

Apple TV 4K, 2nd Generation (2021, A12 Bionic SoC, 6th Gen Apple TV): A look and listen (to "Spatial Audio" on Apple Music)...



So guys and gals, let's jump from the lo-tech "audiophile boutique" passive AudioQuest JitterBug FMJ last week to talk about something hi-tech this time.

As I mentioned a few weeks back, I've been listening to some of the "Spatial Audio" music streaming off Apple Music these days. Easy to give it a shot with the 1-3 month trial period they're offering.

As I mentioned before, while I enjoy the content on headphones and can experience the difference Atmos streaming makes, as one who enjoys excellent high fidelity sound quality (ie. "audiophile"), the best, most natural way of listening to multichannel content is in the sound room where I have my multiple speakers set up. I have a modest surround system with the ELAC Debut 2.0 A4.2 Atmos speakers (previously measured) adding a bit of that height effect with Paradigm Signature S8 v.3 fronts, matching C3 center channel, full tower Studio 80 v.3 for rears and dual subs to make basically a 5.1.2 arrangement.

The trick with getting the multichannel content out to the room has to do with whether Apple Music allows the bitstream to pass through the playback device into the AV receiver that can handle Atmos. As I mentioned in that previous article, I can get the "bed" channels out (ie. 5.1, 4.0, etc...) using my wife's M1 MacBook Air running the recent macOS Big Sur release, but this is with the machine decoding the DD+ (E-AC3) + Atmos stream into 24/48 5.1 PCM sent to the receiver over HDMI.

For bitstream passthrough including the full Atmos encoding, at least at this point in time, the Apple TV works and let's talk about this box today for audio/home theater usage... As you can see above, I have the Apple TV 4K, Gen 2, 64GB here - this was released just recently April/May 2021 with the "A12 Bionic" 7nm SoC which actually was first used in the iPhone XS series back in late 2018. Certainly energy-efficient and plenty fast for non-multitasking media playback. If you don't need the storage, the 32GB model saves you US$20 - as usual, Apple has no SD card expansion for their devices. Internally, the machine has 3GB RAM.

I. In The Box


So there's the box opened up for inspection. We see the all-black Apple TV with the shiny logo over the otherwise matte finish. It's small with dimensions of 1.4" high x 3.9" x 3.9". There are some vents at the bottom for air circulation.

The included white Lightning cable is for charging the new "Siri Remote (2nd Gen)" which is compatible with previous Apple TV models (Bluetooth 5.0 and IR transmitter) and can be purchased separately for around US$60.

Here's a look at the back - note reflective, shiny sides of the box:


A very simple rear I/O layout with just a power plug, the HDMI output, and gigabit ethernet port. The box also has dual-band (2.4 + 5GHz) 802.11ax WiFi 6 with MIMO (should be great with one of the new WiFi-6 routers) and Bluetooth 5.0 connectivity. It recognizes my Bluetooth-enabled Steam Controller (you might need to update the firmware to enable Bluetooth) but I haven't been able to get it working with games even though it will recognize the joystick for navigating around the OS.

HDMI 2.1 for 4K/60fps and eARC function is nice; make sure your receiver/TV accepts HDCP for protected content.

The remote control feels reasonably comfortable in the hand. It's a sturdy piece of aluminum with dense plastic buttons/controls. The large round control section provides directional input as well as a touch-sensitive center section for clicks to register responses plus sliding your thumb/finger for touchpad-type gestures.

Here's another look with the Lightning connector for charging. I've found the battery life remarkably good, the company claims "months" of battery life with normal daily usage on a single charge. So far so good!

Notice the side button when you want to talk to Siri for voice input and we can see the microphone at the top of the controller. I found the voice input invaluable for search entries. Sometimes I do miss a keyboard (eg. when entering passwords with odd characters) but for daily use with searches, this is more convenient than typing and voice recognition accuracy is good (YMMV of course depending on accent).

Plugging this device into my Yamaha RX-V781 receiver (which feeds the Vizio P-Series 75" TV) was a breeze. Capabilities like Dolby Vision was picked up and the remote automatically allowed me to change the receiver volume without any special intervention. This ease of use is certainly a big part of why Apple has such consumer acceptance and market share!

Although during the set-up process when you first turn on the machine it asks if you want to use Dolby Vision (DV) as default for menus and video, the typical wisdom is to stay with SDR, turning on "frame rate match" and "dynamic range match" in the menus. There's a feature to perform color balance with an iPhone (I used my wife's iPhone 11) that looks pretty good to me. In this way, the Apple TV will switch frame rate and HDR/DV modes based on the playback content; reducing potentially inaccurate tone mapping into DV.

For those who just want convenience, sticking with Dolby Vision resampling for everything does reduce the few seconds it takes to change screen modes between different content and this will make the experience smoother.

In preparation for color calibration this is what it looks like. You put your iPhone, front face, in that blue rectangle and the system will go through some R, G, B, and grey level testing. Cool.

After color correction, you can easily A/B the effect. On my TV, Apple's calibration seemed to be a bit more saturated, slightly warmer.

"Best practice" setting with 4K SDR format as default after calibration for both SDR and HDR(10). Match "Range & Frame Rate" so the TV goes into the native setting for the video. I actually find the black screen when switching frame rates rather annoying because often content will fluctuate between 30fps, 24fps, 60fps, so I typically will just do a color range match and keep frame rate at 60fps.

To be honest, the Dolby Vision mode looked great on my Vizio P-Series TV even without the calibration so either way I don't think it's a big deal.

I'm not going to say much about the GUI and usage of the Apple TV as I'm sure that's covered all over the internet and in various reviews over the years. From a hardware perspective, I don't think there's anything out there that really competes with this box + tvOS (the Apple TV's software/operating system) other than maybe the nVidia Shield Android TV Pro.

By the way, the Apple TV 4K Gen 2 only gets a little bit warm after an hour of use. If you zoom into the side right of the box in the very top picture, you'll see the claim that this machine is highly energy efficient at 5W.

II. Apple Music "Spatial Audio" and Streaming Apps... No direct bitstreaming of DTS or lossless Dolby TrueHD.

As per the discussion above, for Apple Music "Spatial Audio" / Atmos streams, the Apple TV does the job of getting the E-AC3+Atmos content over to my Yamaha receiver for decoding without difficulty. Here's Billie Eilish's "Your Power" (from upcoming album Happier Than Ever) playing - an excellent demo track for surround and bass by the way. I have a 5.1.2 set-up as you can see:


Apple Music - simple, clean playback screen. If you like Moby, check out his latest - Reprise (2021, DR8), a retrospective with orchestral arrangements.

As you might expect, there's nothing really to say about sound quality other than it works without a hitch since this is digital transmission over HDMI to the receiver that's decoding the reasonably high bitrate lossy E-AC3 "bed" (typically 5.1) with Atmos "objects". As you know, "Bits Are Bits" and all that. Sound quality depends way more on your AV receiver, speakers and room than a digital box like this.

As usual, "garbage in, garbage out" so the sound will also be a reflection of how well the artist and production team created the Atmos mix and master. I'm having fun with this listening in the evenings and my family clearly notice the difference that multichannel / Atmos makes.

Since I try to be agnostic about music services, here's Amazon Music's Apple TV app:


Not as clean or simple as the Apple Music app overall. The UI also isn't as good looking with the color scheme. The lyrics are there and it provides a bit more information I guess although I would prefer a larger cover image. Notice that although this song is on the "Best of Dolby Atmos" playlist, it's not bitstreaming an actual Atmos signal (just 2.0). Silly for Amazon Music to only have Atmos available for the Echo Studio speaker.

I'm not sure Amazon Music is even playing lossless through the AppleTV app. The "Settings" screen has no mention of lossless or ability to play hi-res even if it's just up to 24/48.

I believe Tidal can send Atmos to the Apple TV. However I don't have a subscription at this time to try since I generally will not support MQA-affected content.

I suspect like many families these days, the main point of owning a machine like this is simply to watch TV. Basically with a popular box like the Apple TV, you'll have access to everything you're likely ever going to stream:

NetFlix, Disney+, Amazon Prime Video, YouTube are the ones I use and they're all functioning well on this box. I haven't had weird issues like crashes. In fact, it's nice to see 4K, HDR, 60fps YouTube on this device thanks to the faster A12 CPU.

There is however one issue that "power users" do need to be aware of. While the hardware firepower is clearly there, Apple in their infinite wisdom has prevented direct audio bitstreaming except for lossy multichannel (E-AC3) since late 2018. This means that the Apple TV is a 48kHz/24-bit, multichannel PCM device unless you're sending lossy Dolby E-AC3+Atmos content like with Apple Music through the approved app.

There's a great fork of Kodi on the Apple TV called MrMC (try out the Lite version, but upgrade to the $10 paid version for all features) which I use for streaming from my Server computer here at home over the Samba network. It's able to see the TrueHD and DTS HD-MA soundtracks of my MKV Blu-Ray rips, but since it cannot directly stream these to the receiver, they're decoded by the software and sent to the receiver as multichannel 24/48 PCM. Since these are lossless formats, there are no quality issues. However, if you have Atmos or dts:X metadata, sadly this will be lost and the playback will "just" be the "flat" 5.1 or 7.1 bed layout.

Sadly, Apple has a tendency to do this kind of stuff with their software. Remember the lack of FLAC support in iTunes? Hopefully Apple can listen to the more technically-oriented consumers out there since I believe they're just hampering the potential of the hardware for really no good reason! Even if they make bitstreaming of lossless audio content as something for "expert users" only, with a warning that the feature may not work to dissuade folks who don't know what they're doing, it would be fine. But taking away a feature that used to be present while releasing even more capable hardware is rather absurd! In fact, I think it's a bit disingenuous to have "Atmos" be a headline feature for Apple when the best lossless format to use with Atmos (TrueHD), and one which has been available in Blu-Rays since 2017 is not even supported simply because none of Apple's own money-making streaming services support it (let's not be na├»ve about Apple's financial Prime Directive ;-).

So, with a TrueHD 7.1-Atmos soundtrack on an MKV file playing through MrMC, this is the output from the Apple TV into my receiver:

Let's use this Blade MKV with TrueHD 7.1-Atmos soundtrack (MrMC not showing the fact that this does have Atmos metadata).

As you can see, the TrueHD signal has been converted to 24/48 multichannel PCM by MrMC (in this case it should be lossless since I know the TrueHD data was 24/48). We've lost the Atmos data in the input stream unfortunately.

My receiver is converting this 7.1 input to 5.1.2 to fill out the height information using Dolby Surround mixer or DTS:Neural X. Generally, I think most will find the DTS:Neural X to be a bit more "aggressive" while Dolby Surround is more subtle. Not as good as actual Atmos/dts:X, but the remixing algorithms are certainly reasonable sounding.

Here's a petition to sign if you want to add your voice to see if Apple will do something about this. If Apple can open up audio bitstreaming to support TrueHD-Atmos and dts:X, I have no doubts that this would make the new Apple TV the best hardware not just for Internet streaming but also stored LAN content. nVidia's Shield Pro has the lead in this regard but the hardware has not been upgraded since 2019.

By the way, other than MrMC, there is another app called Infuse which appears to be quite popular. I note that there is quite a price difference with the "lifetime" cost being US$75.

III. The bottom line...

Like 'em or not, Apple does make great hardware. They also run a highly profitable business model which integrates the hardware, software, and now content provision (Apple Music, Apple TV+) to compete with other streaming services. That "in house" model allows for cool stuff to be done like using your iPhone for doing the color balancing feature - impressive.

The Apple TV 4K, 2nd Gen appears to be a nice update to the previous 4K model. There's a new remote controller which works well, and the A12 processor is fast, capable of 60fps 4K content like on YouTube. The HDMI 2.1 output has eARC implemented as well if you have a need. Gigabit ethernet is plenty fast, and incorporation of WiFi 6 is good for future compatibility and potential performance boost. 

Buttery smooth 4K, 60fps, HDR, YouTube video of terrible movie, but good demo. Will Smith, Gemini Man. I still need to psychologically get over the "Soap Opera Effect" even with native content and not interpolated 60Hz.

On the software side, tvOS is good for its simplicity and range of apps. The primary use case for this box is as a streaming AV platform which it succeeds very well at. It's easy enough for any family member to use - even my wife who previously would never turn on my main system to watch TV when I'm not there is using this for her shows.

As a multichannel music lover, it's nice to have Apple Music "Spatial Audio" playing as a true Atmos bitstream to my receiver. I maintain that a multichannel speaker system in a sound room remains the best sound quality you're going to hear from the 3D audio format even though virtualized headphone playback has become the primary technology for most listeners.

Come on Apple. Even that cheap Tanix AmLogic S905X2 Android box with CoreELEC allowed passthrough of TrueHD-Atmos and dts:X.

Really, I hate to harp too much on one thing, but lack of lossless multichannel bitstreaming - again, no passthrough of Dolby TrueHD 7.1-Atmos, no DTS (including dts:X) - is rather unfortunate. It's really painful when a company appears to be holding their hardware capabilities back for no good reason. If audio bistreaming is essential to your home theater experience, I'd look to the nVidia Shield Pro or even just hack a box like that AmLogic above with CoreELEC as the OS and stream your local videos on that.

While not as annoying as the above, one final "wish list" item if Apple wants to take the step towards world-class audio performance: why not allow the user to choose between 48kHz or 96kHz as the base audio sampling rate (like on Mac OS changing Audio MIDI Setup to 96kHz)? I'm sure this will not pose a problem for the CPU using a good resampling algorithm of course (like with MacOS) and almost all modern receivers/DACs will have no issues. Feel free to issue a warning and a timer to return to 48kHz if sound stops working like they do with video mode switching. In fact, if they want to truly do it right, then allow bit-perfect samplerate switching of bit depth and samplerate sent through the HDMI (like video "Match Content" setting) when listening to music apps like Apple Music or Amazon Music with lossless hi-res content; why discriminate against audio?

With multiple audio streaming services capable of lossless and up to true 24/192 quality, I believe we have reached the final stage of digital stereo music distribution (until we move beyond the Internet I suppose). With this amount of resolution, I believe there's nothing more we need as music lovers/audiophiles and the only thing beyond this is multichannel which we're now starting to see (still can be lossless and higher resolution streaming if there's an appetite).

In a way, Apple Music has opened up Pandora's Box for Apple. By providing hi-res content, surely consumers would be expecting that their hardware will also enable them to experience the best quality content from the service. As their current top-of-the-line device that seeks to be the "hub" of the home AV system, Apple must recognize that the Apple TV box is likely going to be connected to the best playback system their customers will have. On the video side, I have no complaints! Dolby Vision, HDR, color calibrations, 60fps 4K YouTube, dynamic range / framerate matching are all fantastic. But in 2021, when we're stuck at 48kHz audio samplerate, preventing Apple Music customers from using the hi-res feature at least to 96kHz, and not allowing developers to just pass along lossless TrueHD Atmos or DTS streams, those are clearly steps away from delivering the best, much less "magical" experience for audiophiles and cinephiles. (Yuck... I hate it when Apple uses words like "magical", "transformative" and similar superlatives in sales hype.)

I do hope Apple can step up their game on the audio playback side to match the streaming video support. Compared to all the work they must have implemented on the video side, I suspect this will not be difficult for their software geniuses. :-)

The main issue and hope is that they will want to get things done right to satisfy the enthusiasts.

Take care audiophiles! Enjoy the music... And video!

12 comments:

  1. The biggest issue with the new Apple TV is that it doesn't support HDR10+, which Amazon is using for its 4k streams and is supported by a lot of Samsung and Panasonic screens. That's just sloppy, but I suspect it's a result of some behind-the-scenes deal-making with Dolby. I suspect the same is true for the lack of DTS pass-through, though the situation with TrueHD is bizarre. Personally I find it hard to get upset over 48kHz decoding, as long as the resampling is done properly, but I agree that you should be able to expect an expensive box like this to come without such artificial limitations.

    "the remote automatically allowed me to change the receiver volume without any special intervention" I.e. it implements HDMI CEC just like the cheapo Amlogic boxes? :)

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    1. True Charles, CEC is pretty common these days ;-).

      Yeah, HDR10+ isn't there and I'm pretty OK with 48kHz so long as it's done right. I just find the inevitable industry fights between competing standards tiring whether it's DVD-A vs. SACD, HD-DVD vs. Blu-Ray, or HDR10+ vs. DV...

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  2. Thanks, Arch
    Sensible critique all round, as always, even without object data :)
    Also thanks for the MrMC tip; I've used the VLC app on the Apple box, and it works pretty well playing my files on Drobo (but stutters badly on some subtitled content), so will check out MrMC.

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    1. Hey there Phil,
      Thanks. Yeah, give MrMC a try and see if you like the way it works. Basically a Kodi port without some of the parts that would get it in trouble with Apple (like various skins and addons). It works pretty smooth & fast for me and looks clean. Good to have the movies indexed and easy to access...

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  3. Hi Archimago!

    Good for you to complement your Home Cinema to get Apple’s Spatial Audio with the Apple TV 4K. It’s worth it in your case even though you hit, as I do, the limits of what Apple lets you have, in its « infinite wisdom (and greed) ».

    I own a 2019 MacBook Air that I would like to keep under Mojave, so I’m stuck with going through iTunes and I have no idea if what I get from Apple Music is really Spatial Audio (or lossless) or the usual compressed output since I see no icon associated with the tracks. I seem to find improvements in some of the Spatial Audio stuff, but never to the point I hear in Dolby Atmos demos on YouTube. My MacBook’s little speakers can also function as soundbar and I hear the same surround effects as with headphones so the hardware seems to be there but it seems Apple wants me to upgrade to Big Sur to get everything. :-(

    I am stuck with the non-beta version of the Apple Music app on my Android phone, I don’t know if the beta will be released before the free trial ends and I’m not even sure that my Motorola G Power will be supported or if Apple will only grant permission to Samsung and other higher priced phones.

    On the good side, I still found enough good stuff in the streaming offer (even tough 99% of it is of no interest to me) to think of going on with it, Spatial Audio or not.

    By the way, I have an older Apple TV (HD) that I use for AirPlay from the laptop to my HD TV and the internal Music app limits me to iTunes buying, I can’t stream with it directly, I have to go through the laptop! Again, arbitrary software limits to a capable hardware.

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    1. Hey Gilles,
      Wondering on the Android side, did you login to Google with your phone user ID and join the beta here?
      https://play.google.com/apps/testing/com.apple.android.music/join

      It worked for me to register my interest in the beta program so I had access to the beta app download. Still works with Spatial Audio playback currently.

      Yeah, don't know if iTunes is sending out the Spatial Audio stream on your Mac. At least on my PC, iTunes did not the last time I checked about a month back.

      I think Apple's pretty sticky about upgrading to Big Sur for Spatial Audio as per their document here:
      https://support.apple.com/en-us/HT212182

      It works on my wife's M1 MacBook Air as I tried last month but output unfortunately PCM multichannel through HDMI without the Atmos content.

      Grrrr... These arbitrary software limitations are a real pain. Whatever the rationale, whether it be some kind of content protection, legal red tape, licensing $$$, I think the pirates of this world already can access whatever they want... Leaving a lot of these limitations to be just hassles for the common consumer and especially to the enthusiast just pissed off that something as "simple" as asking them to leave the bitstream alone isn't available. :-(

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    2. Yes I did try to join the beta but they already had the maximum testers they wanted. Since I was mostly interested in the Android version using headphones, I'll wait for that release if it works for my phone. Having no multi-channel decoder I can be content with streaming for stereo speakers either through my Chromecast or by Airplay. I find though that the rendering of Spatial Audio for stereo speakers tend to emphasize panning and I'm getting wide sound with no depth, sometimes one instrument per speaker...not good.

      My rant about the arbitrary software limitations come from the greediness of it, forcing users to buy new stuff or upgrading software for functions that could easily be part of a normal OS update because the hardware is already capable.

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    3. Gotcha. That's too bad with the max beta testers though! ;-(

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  4. Does it handle YouTube Music separately from standard YouTube?

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    1. Hi tnargs,
      Alas, I don't see any specific Apple TV app for YouTube Music.

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  5. There is also https://firecore.com, which makes let you use own content on apple tv a snap. One of the best apps on ATV, it is in #1 slot on my home screen for years!

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    1. Yeah, hi biku, that's Infuse that I mentioned above.

      It does cost $75 so hopefully feature-wise and performance good. Wondering if anyone reviewed it compared to something like $10 MrMC.

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