Sony Electronics President and COO Mike Fasulo speaks during an event to unveil companys new camera Alpha 7 R III in New York on October 25, 2017. / AFP PHOTO / Jewel SAMAD (Photo credit should read JEWEL SAMAD/AFP via Getty Images)
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When Sony revealed its latest technology, called Sony 360 Reality, there was a lot to explain. Sure, we knew it was a system that used object-based audio (whatever that might be) to create an experience that was new and wholly immersive. Of course, we understood that this was something to change how music sounded. But (was this right?), it was going to work on any headphones? And it needn’t involve any investment in new audio hardware? Really?
Who better to explain it all than the guy who led the presentation, Mike Fasulo, President and Chief Operating Officer, Sony Electronics North America? Fasulo ran through it all, exclusively for Forbes.
Mike Fasulo is a particular breed of Sony executive: earnest, with a forensic level of detail at his fingertips and effortlessly, winningly charismatic. When I spoke to him, he’d occasionally modestly refer to himself as “the old guy” saying, “I love my job: 35 years, I’d better.”
The basic idea behind Sony 360 Reality Audio is that Sony, whose Sony Music division is one of the three major music studios in the world, is remastering tracks so that instead of stereo, they offer a new kind of high fidelity, where the sounds come from specific, numerous places in an imaginary or virtual spherical environment. So, the orchestra’s cello (front right) is recognizably coming from a completely different place from the French horn (rear left).
Object-based audio maps out where instruments and voices are coming from, adding positional information so the sound feels like it’s coming from all around in a realistic way. It requires a different recording set-up or careful remastering of the tracks, but for the consumer, it doesn’t require new hardware: it works with any headphones and selected speakers such as the recently announced Amazon Echo Studio.
These music tracks won’t come on discs, though, they’ll be streamed on services like Amazon Music HD, Deezer and Tidal – three of the first services which will offer the enhanced tracks.
Even outstanding sound doesn’t guarantee the success of a format. However, Fasulo says there are other reasons to be confident about the launch of 360 Reality Audio.
“If you liken it to the television side of business, many people don't remember that high definition started and stopped for almost a decade. Because we never get industry partners all aligned. It was the content side saying ‘There's no installed base so I'm not going to create content.’ Then the manufacturers said there's no content, so why would they build a TV? But then, along comes 4K and the preparation has been done on an entire workflow from acquisition right through to delivery, so it can all work together. That's the case here. This is not a Sony proprietary technology. Yes, our great engineers created the technology, but we want it to be open platform. We want competitors to join: at the launch we had three music studios who compete every day, sitting right next to each other. You know, we had the streaming services who compete every day, sitting together. So, I think the difference is we have industry partners across the entire workflow, supporting it.”
High-quality audio matched with an efficient distribution system, then. After all, tracks mixed in Sony 360 Reality Audio result in files no bigger than, and often smaller than, Hi-Res Audio tracks, so streaming through conventional services is just as possible.
"We’ve been pushing quality all our lives, dating back to working with Philips on the CD. My personal view: the last 15 years has been about access, particularly for younger audiences who wanted to just grab that track. Unfortunately, they lost out on the fidelity.”
In other words, the rise of streaming and immediate access to music seems to have come at the expense of quality. Fasulo mentions Mark Ronson, one of the artists at the Sony launch. “He took two years to create his new record. The artists put in so much blood, sweat and tears, yet to be able to distribute it in the way they intended is quite difficult. So, here's an opportunity and we think the artists are going to just fall in love with it, because it's actually projecting their work in the way that they wanted it to sound.”
Fasulo also talks about his first encounter with Sony 360 Reality Audio. “When I got the demo first, I took the headphones off because I didn't believe it. Because I'm sitting in a room with speakers, so I didn’t believe that what I was hearing was coming from the headphones. Then, when you hear it in a standalone speaker it's remarkable and you can move it around, move the speaker around, and it's all-encompassing.”
To get all this stuff right needs clever engineers, some of whom worked with Mark Ronson on his new album to remaster it for the new format. Fasulo says this relationship is important. “Mark is clearly the artist, and his heart and soul went into the lyrics and the instrumentals. The final product, he said it took him almost two years. I said to the engineer, how does Mark make the final decision? You got 128 opportunities of mapping the sound, right? The engineer said it comes down to instinct. He said, ‘We know, you know, we both look at each other and we're like, that's the version.’ And that’s cool.”
We can expect more speakers to have the capabilities of the just-released Amazon Echo Studio which is compatible with Sony 360 Reality Audio. And some Sony headphones can even improve the sound further with the company’s app which takes a photo of your ear to work out your particular hearing and adjust for that.
Fasulo says Sony’s crafting of the format has been important in making it all come together. “One thing I love about this company is we actually listen, we listen to creators, we listen to professionals, we obviously listen to consumers. So, the tool we provided a year ago, you know, well, an engineer like the guy who worked with Mark Ronson would have probably had a different response. But listening to his pain points, we've improved, it's cool. It’s like, now it's not work. It's ‘Okay, well, now I can get creative.’ ”