During its typically slick, but untypically pre-recorded WWDC 2020 keynote briefing, Apple announced something that really piqued our interest: spatial audio.
Coming (along with a number of other new features) to the AirPods Pros this autumn, spatial audio is designed to deliver surround sound and 3D audio via your headphones. It’s basically Apple’s take on Dolby Atmos for Headphones and Sony’s upcoming PS5 3D Audio.
So how do you get Apple spatial audio? When will it be available? What devices do you need? And what other upgrades are included in the autumn 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 is looking to go massive 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 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 will be included in a firmware update coming to AirPods Pro this autumn. You’ll also need the new iOS 14 or iPadOS 14, which should be released around the same time. All of these updates will be provided free of charge.
Apple has announced that iOS 14 will be made available to all iPhones from the iPhone 6S onwards, and that iPadOS 14 will work on every iPad since, and including, the iPad Air 2. Does this mean that all of these devices will also support spatial audio? Apple hasn’t said otherwise but we would be a little surprised. Our assumption is that spatial audio will require a fair amount of processing power and it may be that some of Apple’s older devices simply don’t have the grunt.
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. Stereo content can also be converted to spatial audio. All a developer needs to do is allow stereo spatialisation via an Apple plug-in.
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: spatial audio is not coming to the Apple TV 4K, or at least not in the first instance. 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. The only reason we can think of is that it’s not powerful enough. The A10X chip in the Apple TV 4K dates back to 2017. Could it be that it doesn’t have the processing muscle for spatial audio? It’s possible, but that would also presumably preclude all pre-2018 iPhones and iPads from getting spatial audio. If this proves to be the case, it could be the best indication yet that a new, more powerful Apple TV is on the way.
What other new features are coming 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 on the way, so you’ll 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 also on the cards, 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, is also being expanded to work with Apple TV 4K. Each listener will have 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 will involve going through a guided listening experience that will help select an audio profile that’s tailored to your specific needs. Interestingly, this profile will also work 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 coming to more headphones than just the AirPods Pros. Automatic switching will also be 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.