During its typically slick, but untypically pre-recorded, WWDC keynote briefing in June 2020, Apple announced something that really piqued our interest: spatial audio.
Basically Apple’s take on Dolby Atmos for Headphones and Sony’s PS5 3D Audio, spatial audio is designed to deliver surround sound and 3D audio via your headphones – initially your Apple AirPods Pro and AirPods Max headphones but, soon, any headphones.
The feature arrived for movies and TV shows as part of iOS 14 in September 2020, and it was released on Apple Music on 7th June at Apple's 2021 WWDC conference. During the same event, Apple announced spatial audio is being extended to tvOS for use with the new Apple TV 4K and will also be available on MacOS so you can use it with Macs powered by the company's latest M1 chip.
So how do you get Apple spatial audio? What devices do you need? How does the implementation differ between movies and music? Answers to those questions and more are just a short scroll away.
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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 is unique, though, at least where movie soundtracks are concerned, 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 Pro and AirPods Max in order to position the sound accurately, and even 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.
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How do you get 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.
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 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 and later)
iPad (6th generation and later)
iPad mini (5th generation)
Apple TV (Music only)
Apple TV 4K (2021)
MacBook Pro (2018 model and later)
M1 MacBook Air (2020)
M1 MacBook Pro (2020)
M1 iMac (2021)
M1 Mac Mini (2020)
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 – but Netflix hasn't yet done so.
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 Pro 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.
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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."
Spatial Audio with Dolby Atmos for Apple Music
So far, we've largely been focused on spatial audio as it pertains to movies and TV shows, but Apple has also launched Spatial Audio with Dolby Atmos tracks to Apple Music.
Apple says there will be thousands of Dolby Atmos tracks available and that more will be added on a daily basis. Curated Dolby Atmos playlists will be created, too.
Because this implementation of spatial audio is sound-only, there's no head-tracking involved, and that opens it up to more devices. For example, while the Apple TV can't output spatial audio to a pair of headphones (although Apple has just announced that it will be getting that ability later this year), it will support Dolby Atmos tracks from Apple Music when connected to an Atmos-capable sound system.
What's more, 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 a specific setting. Once you've got the iOS/iPadOS 14.6 update, if you go into Settings on your iPhone or iPad and then to Music, a new Dolby Atmos option will be available. This is set to Automatic by default, which means Dolby Atmos tracks will play correctly when you're listening via any W1- or H1-enabled pair of Apple or Beats headphones (the AirPods Max, AirPods Pro or standard AirPods, for example), but not when you're using third-party headphones. However, if you switch this option to Always On, even these non-Apple headphones will play back the Dolby Atmos tracks correctly.
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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 Pro 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.
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