During its WWDC keynote briefing in June 2020, Apple announced something that really piqued our interest and sounded like a potential game-changer: spatial audio. Three years on, and this 3D audio technology has really gained traction in the Apple and wider world.
Essentially Apple’s take on Dolby Atmos for Headphones and Sony’s PS5 3D Audio, Apple Spatial Audio is designed to deliver surround sound and 3D audio through headphones – and in optimal fashion (with dynamic head tracking) through specific AirPods and Beats models.
The feature first arrived for movies and TV shows as part of iOS 14 in September 2020, and then it was released on Apple Music on 7th June 2021. Since then, spatial audio has been extended to tvOS for use with the Apple TV 4K, with Macs powered by the company's latest M1 chip and in conjunction with select AirPods headphones and earbuds. As of 2023, Apple's HomePod 2 and HomePod Mini smart speakers also have spatial audio support, as does Sonos's latest five-star Era 300 speaker.
So how do you get Apple Spatial Audio? Which products support it? How does the implementation differ between movies and music? And how does it compare to Dolby Atmos? Answers to those questions are just a short scroll away, folks...
- Already keen to try it for yourself? Here are 11 of the best spatial audio tracks on Apple Music to get you started
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 own 360 Reality Audio format for music (available on Tidal and Amazon Music, for instance).
Apple’s spatial audio is unique, though, in that it doesn't only provide virtualised surround and Atmos sound, it also tracks your head movement using accelerometers and gyroscopes in the AirPods 3, AirPods Pro, AirPods Pro 2, AirPods Max and some Beats headphones in order to position the sound accurately. It even tracks the position of the iPhone or iPad that you’re listening to music or watching videos 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 (or vocals) will still be anchored to the person on the screen.
There are other brands that are now implementing their own version of this spatial audio effect – JBL's Tour Pro 2 and Bose's Immersive Audio in its new Ultra Headphones and Ultra Earbuds, for instance – but they aren't tied to a specific audio format.
- Read our full review of the AirPods Pro 2
- I spoke to Apple to find out the secret behind the AirPods Pro 2’s audio success
What devices support Apple Spatial Audio?
Apple Spatial Audio was initially launched as part of iOS 14 and iPadOS 14, and Apple released the newer Spatial Audio with Dolby Atmos feature for Apple Music on the 7th June 2021 as part of the free iOS and iPadOS 14.6 software updates.
But not all devices with the 14.6 software update can support spatial audio. Here's the full list of products and iOS devices that can handle Apple Spatial Audio:
- AirPods Pro (1st and 2nd generation), AirPods Max, AirPods (3rd generation)
- Beats Fit Pro, Beats Studio Pro
- iPhone 7 and later
- iPad Pro 12.9‑inch (3rd generation and later)
- iPad Pro 11‑inch
- iPad Air (3rd generation and later)
- iPad (6th generation and later)
- iPad mini (5th generation and later)
- iOS or iPadOS 15.1 or later
- The built-in speakers on a Mac computer with Apple silicon
- Apple TV 4K with tvOS 15 or later
- Apple HomePod (1st and 2nd generation), HomePod Mini
- Audiovisual content from a supported app (e.g. Apple TV+, Disney+, Netflix)
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.
There are newer products from Apple (including the top Beats models with an Apple silicon chip) that support spatial audio, and we imagine that any future headphones (such as the upcoming AirPods Max or the AirPods Pro 3) will include spatial audio as standard.
As of March 2023, Sonos has announced support for Apple Music's spatial audio tracks on the following products:
- Sonos Era 300
- Sonos Arc
- Sonos Beam Gen 2
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 list already includes Amazon Prime Video, Netflix, Disney+, HBO Go, Hulu and of course Apple TV+. This means that owners of a compatible iPhone or iPad and AirPods can watch TV shows and films with surround sound and the spatial audio effect. Stereo content on an app can also be converted to spatial audio; all a developer needs to do is allow stereo spatialisation via an Apple plug-in.
How do you turn Apple Spatial Audio on?
To listen in spatial audio when using an iPhone or iPad, make sure you're wearing compatible AirPods and are connected to the device, with an app open (Disney+ or Apple Music, for instance). Open up your device's Command Centre by swiping down from the top-right corner of the screen, then press and hold the headphone volume icon. On the panel that pops open, you will see a Spatial Audio icon in the bottom row.
Press the Spatial Audio (or Spatialise Stereo when playing Apple Music) icon to choose between three further options: Off, Fixed and Head Tracked. Choose Head Tracked if you want to deploy spatial audio and dynamic head tracking, while Fixed refers to spatial audio only. If you want to stick with good old stereo, simply tap Off.
On Apple TV, follow the same process of connecting your AirPods to the Apple TV, then head into Settings > Remotes and Devices > Bluetooth, select your AirPods, and then choose either Spatial Audio while you’re playing multi-channel video content (e.g. on Disney+), or Spatialise Stereo while you’re playing two-channel stereo content.
Additionally, if you want to listen to Spatial Audio with Dolby Atmos songs on Apple Music, you have to turn the option on in the app first. On your iPhone, head to settings > Music and then scroll down to the Audio section. You'll see a Dolby Atmos setting and can choose between Automatic, Always On and Off. Automatic means that the Dolby Atmos version will play correctly and automatically whenever connected to the compatible AirPods or Beats and with the Spatial Audio (or Spatialise Stereo) turned on. Crucially, don't use this setting if you're using third-party headphones. If you switch this option to Always On, the non-Apple headphones will play back the Dolby Atmos tracks correctly.
For listening to the Dolby Atmos tracks in Apple Music on a HomePod, Apple TV 4K, MacBook or Android device, simply find the settings for the Apple Music app (or just Music settings) and turn on Automatic or Always On accordingly.
- Lossless audio has arrived on Apple Music: see which devices support spatial audio and lossless
Is Apple Spatial Audio good with movies?
Having given spatial audio an initial whirl with the AirPods Pro and a more thorough one since during our subsequent AirPods Max and AirPods 3 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."
Even with the more modest AirPods 3, we found the feature worthwhile when watching TV shows and movies. "In reality, there will probably be few occasions where you have to move your head or screen much while watching a movie or TV show, but when you do, the technology is true to its word, keeping voices and action tied to the screen regardless of movement. We watch See on Apple TV+ on an iPhone 13 while cooking, and as we move our head to the right the soundscape tilts towards the left earbud – subtly but effectively," we said in our review.
- Get knee-deep in Apple: Apple One subscription bundles Apple TV+, Apple Music and more
How do 'Spatial Audio with Dolby Atmos' tracks sound on Apple Music?
There are now thousands of Dolby Atmos-powered spatial audio tracks available in Apple Music's catalogue and Apple says more are being added on a daily basis. Curated Dolby Atmos playlists have been created by Apple, too. Apple Music Classical features songs in Spatial Audio as well.
As with movies and TV shows, you can listen to Dolby Atmos music in spatial audio with dynamic head tracking with the supporting AirPods and Beats models with a compatible iPhone or iPad. However, because the implementation of spatial audio on Apple Music is sound-only, head-tracking doesn't have to be involved – and that opens it up to more devices. Basically, you don't need a pair of Apple or Beats headphones in order to listen to Dolby Atmos tracks from an iPhone or iPad – any headphones will work, as long as you enable the correct option in the Apple Music settings as stated above. But, crucially, if you do want the dynamic head tracking or personalised spatial audio elements of Spatial Audio, you will need the specific Apple AirPods or Beats headphones listed above that support these features.
You can also listen to Spatial Audio with Dolby Atmos tracks through the built-in speakers of your iPhone or Pad – but not the older models. As we reported in July 2021, an updated Apple support document confirms that playing Spatial Audio out loud requires, "the speakers built into an iPhone XS or later (except iPhone SE), 12.9-inch iPad Pro (3rd generation or later), 11-inch iPad Pro or iPad Air (4th generation)".
Whether it's connected to AirPods or an external Atmos-supported surround sound system, the Apple TV 4K can output Spatial Audio with Dolby Atmos tracks through its Apple Music app too.
We've spent hours listening to these tracks on Apple Music, and here are some of the best spatial audio tracks we've experienced. Our appreciation of spatial audio with music is more muted than it is with video, mind you. In our AirPods 3 earbuds review, we said: "We spend hours delving into Dolby Atmos-powered spatial audio tracks – from Kraftwerk and Lorde to Ludovico Einaudi and the Beatles – and find ourselves preferring stereo presentations for some, spatial audio for others. You lose some of the directness, immediacy and often musicality that the stereo presentation delivers, but in return, especially when tracks are mixed well, you can get a truly unique (and sometimes exceptional) atmospheric boost from the immersive surround-sound mix that’s much more than a gimmick – just as you can with Atmos tracks on Tidal."
We found the same still during the flagship AirPods Pro 2 review: "As before, some tracks fare better than others, and overall we still prefer the stability and tight cohesion of the original stereo mix."
The spatial audio delivery on the HomePod 2 speaker fared better. We said in our review: "A stereo pair of HomePods is particularly beneficial with Dolby Atmos tracks, which sound even more open and three-dimensional, with very impressive spatial placement of voices and instruments."
- Opinion: Apple’s Spatial Audio is a music revolution, but you'll need to ditch the headphones
- Read our full Apple HomePod 2 review
What about Apple Music spatial audio support on Sonos products?
With the announcement of Sonos's new Era 300 smart speaker, which supports playback of spatial audio with Dolby Atmos tracks, it was inevitable that the question would be raised: will Apple Music's spatial audio tracks be available to play on another brand's product?
In short, yes. Sonos confirmed on 28th March 2023 that the Era 300 speaker, Arc and Beam Gen 2 soundbars will be the first products outside of Apple's ecosystem to support spatial audio tracks on Apple Music. It's a welcome confirmation: the Arc and Beam Gen 2 already supported Dolby Atmos playback with TVs and movies and the Era 300 was originally set to launch with only Amazon Music Unlimited's Dolby Atmos tracks supported. With Apple Music's large library of spatial audio tracks available, it's great to see both brands come to an agreement to deliver more choices to their listeners.
The Era 300 was designed specifically for the playback of spatial audio and is a direct (albeit more expensive) rival to Apple's own HomePod 2. Sonos's effort has impressed us even more when playing Dolby Atmos tracks, with the Era 300 delivering the most convincing spatial audio experience with music yet. It's more immersive, with the HomePod 2 sounding small-scaled in comparison when using the same spatial audio tracks.
We said in our Era 300 review: "The ‘spatial audio’ effect, for the most part, doesn’t feel separate from the original musical intent; it simply sounds more immersive – something we’ve not encountered before with so much enthusiasm. How well the effect is communicated does vary depending on the song and how it’s been mixed for spatial audio, however."
That's a crucial element we've found when playing spatial audio tracks on Apple Music: how the songs are mixed has a big impact, whether you're listening on headphones or through speakers. There will, inevitably, be some songs where the Spatial Audio effect is far more effecting and entertaining; while in others it will feel far too removed from the original stereo mix.
As Apple's Spatial Audio becomes more and more ubiquitous (and is inspiring many other brands to adopt this immersive format in different ways), we can see it becoming a fixture in future products from now on.
Read the full Sonos Era 300 review
And the Apple HomePod 2 review
Read the five-star Apple AirPods Pro 2 review
These are the best wireless earbuds money can buy