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Apple spatial audio: what is it? How do you get it? And is it like Dolby Atmos?

Apple spatial audio: what is it? How do you get it?
(Image credit: Apple)

During its typically slick, but pre-recorded, WWDC keynote briefing in June 2020, Apple announced something that really piqued our interest and sounded like a potential game-changer: spatial audio.

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 superior fashion through the AirPods Pro and AirPods Max.

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 at Apple's 2021 WWDC conference. Since the summer, Spatial audio has been extended to tvOS for use with the new Apple TV 4K with AirPods Pro and Max, and it can now also be used 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? And how does it compare to Dolby Atmos? Answers to those questions are just a short scroll away...

What is Apple spatial audio?

Apple spatial audio: what is it? How do you get it?

(Image credit: Apple)

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. It 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.

How do you get Apple spatial audio?

Apple spatial audio: what is it? How do you get it?

Apple AirPods Pro (Image credit: Future)

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 on 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. As of August this year, Netflix also supports spatial audio, meaning that owners of a compatible iPhone or iPad and either a pair of AirPods Pro or Max 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.

Once you've updated your device and the AirPods Pro/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.

Apple spatial audio: what is it? How do you get it?

(Image credit: Future)

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.

Apple spatial audio: what is it? How do you get it?

Apple AirPods Max (Image credit: Apple)

Is Apple spatial audio any good with movies?

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."

How about Spatial Audio with Dolby Atmos for Apple Music?

Apple spatial audio: what is it? How do you get it?

(Image credit: Apple)

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 on Apple Music.

There are thousands of Dolby Atmos-powered spatial audio tracks available in the catalogue and Apple says more are being added on a daily basis. Curated Dolby Atmos playlists have been created by Apple, too. We've spent hours listening to these tracks on Apple Music, and here are some of the best we've experienced.

As with movies and TV shows, you can listen to Dolby Atmos music in spatial audio with dynamic head tracking on AirPods Pro and AirPods Max 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.

So, 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.

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.

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.

MORE:

11 of the best spatial audio tracks in Dolby Atmos on Apple Music to get you started

These are the best wireless earbuds money can buy

And the AirPods alternatives: Best true wireless earbuds

Best headphones in all styles

Bring that Beat(s) back! Best Beats headphones

Get gaming: What is PS5 3D Audio?

Tom Parsons

Tom Parsons has been writing about TV, AV and hi-fi products (not to mention plenty of other 'gadgets' and even cars) for over 15 years. He began his career as What Hi-Fi?'s Staff Writer and is now the TV and AV Editor. In between, he worked as Reviews Editor and then Deputy Editor at Stuff, and over the years has had his work featured in publications such as T3, The Telegraph and Louder. He's also appeared on BBC News, BBC World Service, BBC Radio 4 and Sky Swipe. In his spare time Tom is a runner and gamer.

  • HappySounds
    Excellent article, much more informative and thorough than coverage from the dedicated Apple and technology commentators.
    Reply
  • God of Biscuits
    I think you have it wrong: there's nothing in spatial audio on AirPods that requires processing at the source, other than for the source to provide its relative position in local space/coordinates. no signal processing going on at all. Spatial audio works, as specified by Apple, on Dolby 5.1, 7.1 and ATMOS..and perhaps other multi-channel sources.

    Processing to make the listener believe that two drivers sound like 6, 7 or more, and perhaps more importantly, to make it sound as if no matter how you turn your head, or move your iPad, iPhone, etc, that the audio still feels like it's coming directly from the device instead of staying constant relative to your own face's front-and-center is done using both psycho-acoustics and more straightforward inverse gyro compensation in the signal as a whole.

    I've heard form others that it does in fact work on tvOS beta -- it's likely that the iOS 14 beta hosts the firmware update for the AirPods Pro -- though I don't know how the original position of the tv screen is established relative to the listener: the Apple TV box isn't guaranteed to be nearby enough to center-screen on the TV, and simple Bluetooth positioning isn't enough anyway.
    Reply
  • Sliced Bread
    I tried this for the first time over Christmas using AirPods Pro and for me it’s a bit mixed but I think it is more a limitation of the AirPods Pro than Spatial Audio per se.
    The tracking is clever, although less pronounced and “surroundy (tm.)” than I was expecting. However the AirPods Pro have a bit of a boom tizz balance and when spacial audio is activated, that boom tizz is exaggerated further resulting n a very thin midrange. Watching Last Jedi some of the action scenes were positively uncomfortable to listen to. If I turn spatial audio off the same scene becomes a little more listenable but still not great. Plugging in my beloved Shure SE425’s and the same scene is very natural and enjoyable. This makes me feel this is more a limitation of the Pro buds rather than the spatial audio tech and maybe it works much better on the AirPods Max headphones.
    It’d be interesting to hear if anyone else has the same experience of it and if they find the experience via the Max is better balanced than the Pro’s.
    In either case, I have a set of Max headphones on order (due in about a million years due to the waiting list), so I will post up what I find once they arrive.
    Reply