During its typically slick, but untypically pre-recorded, WWDC 2020 keynote briefing in June, Apple announced something that really piqued our interest: spatial audio.
Basically Apple’s take on Dolby Atmos for Headphones and Sony’s upcoming PS5 3D Audio, spatial audio is designed to deliver surround sound and 3D audio via your headphones – specifically your Apple AirPods Pro and AirPods Max headphones. The feature arrived as part of iOS 14 in September.
So how do you get Apple spatial audio? What devices do you need? And what other upgrades are included in the latest iOS 14 update? Answers to those questions and more are just a short scroll away.
What is Apple spatial audio?
Apple spatial audio takes 5.1, 7.1 and Dolby Atmos signals and applies directional audio filters, adjusting the frequencies that each ear hears so that sounds can be placed virtually anywhere in 3D space. Sounds will appear to be coming from in front of you, from the sides, the rear and even above. The idea is to recreate the audio experience of a cinema.
This is not the first technology of its type. Dolby Atmos for Headphones has been around for some time now, while Sony has its 360 Reality Audio format for music, delivers 3D audio in some PS4 games via its Platinum Wireless Headset, and has gone big on 3D audio for the PS5.
Apple’s spatial audio has a unique feature, though: it not only tracks your head movement using accelerometers and gyroscopes in the AirPods Pro and AirPods Max in order to position the sound accurately, it also tracks the position of the iPhone or iPad that you’re watching on, so that sound is also placed relative to the screen. This means that even if you turn your head or reposition your device, dialogue will still be anchored to the actor on the screen.
Apple has apparently been working on spatial audio for years and it was always part of the plan for the AirPods Pro earbuds – that’s why they’ve got gyroscopes (which were never previously mentioned, by the way).
How do you get Apple spatial audio?
Apple spatial audio comes as part of the newly released firmware update for the AirPods Pro. You’ll also need the new iOS 14 or iPadOS 14, which is now available. All of these updates are free of charge.
The next-gen Apple operating system is available to all iPhones from the iPhone 6S onwards, and iPadOS 14 works on every iPad since, and including, the iPad Air 2. Does this mean that all of these devices will also support spatial audio? Unfortunately not. Here's the full list of devices that can handle spatial audio:
iPhone 7 or later
iPad Pro 12.9‑inch (3rd generation) and later
iPad Pro 11‑inch
iPad Air (3rd generation)
iPad (6th generation) and later
iPad mini (5th generation)
It’s also worth noting that Dolby Atmos is only available on Apple devices launched since 2018. While you don’t need Atmos for spatial audio, the two working together will likely produce the best results.
On the software side of things, as long as an app supports 5.1, 7.1 and/or Atmos, it will work with spatial audio. That already includes apps such as Vudu, HBO Go, Hulu and Amazon Prime Video. Netflix does not currently support surround content via iOS devices, but stereo content can also be converted to spatial audio. All a developer needs to do is allow stereo spatialisation via an Apple plug-in.
Once you've updated your device and the AirPods Pros/AirPods Max, spatial audio will be automatically enabled. To check, open Settings on your iOS device, tap on Bluetooth, and then tap on the 'i' icon next to your AirPods Pros in the list of Bluetooth devices. If the icon next to Spatial Audio is green, it's enabled. There's also a neat little demo of the tech included just below this.
To test it out, fire up a supported video (See on Apple TV+ is a good example), open up your device's Command Centre by swiping down from the top-right corner of the screen, then press and hold the AirPods Pro volume icon. On the page that opens you will see a Spatial Audio icon. A bright blue icon indicates that Spatial Audio is enabled, but if the sound waves are static it's not supported by the content you're watching. If the waves are pulsing, Spatial Audio is enabled and working. You can tap the icon to turn it off and experience the difference it makes.
Is Apple spatial audio any good?
Having given spatial audio an initial whirl with the AirPods Pro and a more thorough one since during our AirPods Max testing, we're certainly impressed.
The way the audio is tied to the screen is incredibly effective and the extra openness and spaciousness to the sound makes for a much more cinematic and engaging experience. There appears to be a slight drop off in terms of directness and punch, but it's not huge and, broadly speaking, spatial audio so far appears to be a very worthwhile upgrade.
To quote our AirPods Max review, "All told, the effect is superb. The whole presentation is very open, spacious and convincing, and the tracking is amazingly smooth and accurate as you move your head.
"The opening of Gravity is recreated brilliantly by the AirPods Max. The placement of the various voices coming through the radio is brilliantly precise and convincing, there’s excellent weight to the dull thumps against the satellite and the heavy bass notes of the soundtrack, superb all-round clarity, and excellent dynamics as the peaceful scene turns threatening and then catastrophic. It’s easy to forget that you’re listening using headphones, such is the spaciousness of the delivery. It’s terrifically cinematic.
"Simply put, combining an iPad with a pair of AirPods Max headphones gets you the most convincing portable cinema experience that we can think of."
Will music be available in spatial audio?
There’s no reason that this stereo spatialisation can’t be added to the many music apps available on iPhone and iPad, but there have been no announcements on that front yet.
One suspects that now Apple has the technology, it may well look to add music with full-fat spatial audio to its own Apple Music service but, again, that’s not been officially announced.
What about spatial audio gaming?
There’s no reason that other apps can’t also benefit from spatial audio, and we’d be amazed if it’s not picked up very quickly by game developers. Again, there’s nothing official on that yet.
We do know, though, that the movement data provided by the AirPods Pros will be made available to app developers, and that could open up some interesting opportunities such as head-tracking in games and more accurate sensing of movement for fitness apps.
What about spatial audio on Apple TV 4K?
Here’s something of a surprise: despite having also had a software update (to tvOS 14), the Apple TV 4K does not currently support spatial audio. That seems odd to us. True, AirPods are more often connected to a portable device than an Apple TV, but spatial audio seems a perfect way for those people without a surround sound system to get a taste of cinema-style sound while watching on their lounge TV.
Apple’s not explained why the Apple TV 4K isn’t getting spatial audio. We had wondered if it was a power issue, but the A10X chip in the Apple TV 4K has more grunt than the standard A10 chip in the iPhone 7, which does support spatial audio, so that can't be it. Perhaps it needs to be implemented in a different way for Apple TV 4K and will come later, or perhaps Apple has decided to save this feature for the next Apple TV. After all, it's rumoured that the next-gen Apple TV, expected to arrive in 2021, will be more gaming-focused. Only time will tell.
What other new features are in the AirPods update?
Spatial audio isn’t the only new feature included in the AirPods autumn update.
Automatic switching between Apple devices is also part of the package, so you no longer need to manually connect your headphones when turning your attention to a second device. Let’s say you’ve just stopped listening to a podcast on your iPhone and you open Netflix on your iPad - the audio coming from the AirPods is going to automatically switch to what’s coming out of the iPad. Switch to your MacBook for a FaceTime call and it will automatically switch again. An incoming phone call will always take precedence.
Low battery notifications are here now too, with a pop-up notification appearing on your iPhone, iPad or iPod Touch to tell you when it’s time to charge.
Audio sharing, which already allows two people to connect their headphones to a single iPhone or iPad, has been expanded to work with Apple TV 4K. Each listener gets independent volume control, which is rather cool.
Finally, there’s something called ‘Headphone Accommodations’, which allows audio to be adjusted to account for hearing differences. This involves going through a guided listening experience that will help select an audio profile that’s tailored to your specific needs. Interestingly, this profile also works in Transparency mode, so can boost the sounds around you as well as those coming from your device.
Best of all, these other new features are available on more headphones than just the AirPods Pros. Automatic switching is available on the 2nd Gen AirPods and the Beats Powerbeats, Powerbeats Pro and Solo Pro. Headphone Accommodations work with all of those models and the standard EarPods that come bundled with new iPhones. Sharing audio, meanwhile, works with all versions of the AirPods and all Beats headphones that have the Apple W1 or H1 chip inside.