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
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.
|"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.|
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 naïve 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!