Let’s say that after years of saving up, you’ve managed to put together an AV system that makes watching movies at home almost as good as watching them in the cinema. Better than the cinema if you don’t like watching films with hundreds of smelly, noisy strangers.
You might have an OLED TV or maybe even a projector, plus a soundbar or, if you’re really lucky, an AV amp and loads of speakers dotted around the room. You’re living the AV dream, aren’t you?
But then you go and start a family and suddenly that AV system isn’t the most important thing in your life – at least that’s what they tell you.
At this point, some people simply give their systems up. Sell their kit or give it away to a friend who’s not yet got children.
I didn’t do that and I don’t regret it, and not just because using AV kit is literally my job. My little boy is now five, and he already loves our movie sessions when we “make it like the cinema” by closing the curtains and eating popcorn.
There is a problem, though, and that’s his 7pm bedtime, at which point the volume has to go down, Night Mode is engaged and, in some situations, subtitles are switched on.
It means that the only “like the cinema” movie sessions I get to really experience these days are those involving kids’ movies. That’s not always bad – Lego Batman is a banger for all ages – but it’s fair to say that I didn’t spend all this money and time building a home cinema system for kids’ films.
The solution, of course, is headphones, and over the years I’ve tried various options, from simple, wired pairs, which can sound extraordinary in terms of detail and clarity (shout out to the Grado SR325e) but can’t possibly deliver the surround sound experience of a speaker package; to ‘proper’ Dolby Atmos solutions such as the JVC XP-EXT1, which works relatively well in some ways but never manages to conceal the processing it’s doing – to an extent that’s quite distracting.
I’d more or less given up on finding a satisfying solution, but then Apple added Spatial Audio support to the Apple TV 4K, allowing it to send 5.1, 7.1 and even Dolby Atmos sound to a pair of AirPods.
As mentioned, I’ve tried various headphone surround sound solutions in the past and they’ve all been, for want of a better word, rubbish – but the Apple solution (I can already hear the anti-Apple crew groaning) actually works.
In fact, it works really, really well, deceiving your brain into thinking that the sound isn't coming from the headphones strapped to your head or stuffed in your ears, but from the space all around you. The dynamic head tracking probably helps here: I didn’t really get the point of having the sound move in relation to your head, but I guess it grounds you and helps to convince you that the sound really is in the room and not just your ears. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve taken the AirPods off in order to check that I haven’t actually got the main system on.
If you want to go down the route I have, and that I really consider the saviour of my late-night movie enjoyment, the AirPods Max are, predictably, the best option, mostly because of the extra bass weight and depth they can generate. But, perhaps more surprisingly, I find the AirPods 3 to be really good for Spatial Audio movie action, too. They can’t reproduce the low end of their over-ear siblings, but their open, non-isolating design helps to contribute to the enveloping airiness required for convincing surround sound.
You will of course also need an Apple TV 4K (any version), but that’s already comfortably the best video streamer you can buy, so if you’re serious about AV you should consider getting one anyway. And most of the apps you probably already use for watching movies (Apple TV, Disney+, Netflix and Amazon Prime Video, to name the obvious examples) will now output in Dolby Atmos to a pair of AirPods.
Look, I’m not arguing that this AirPods solution is as good as a proper AV system, but it’s a really satisfying compromise. And I can keep the proper system for family movie nights, which will get more exciting as my boy gets older and we can introduce him to full-blown blockbusters (the Lord of the Rings marathon is going to be stupendous). Besides, one day he’s going to move out, isn't he? Isn't he?
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