In June of 2020, during its Worldwide Developers Conference keynote briefing, Apple introduced a new feature called spatial audio that caught our interest and seemed like it may be a game-changer. In the intervening three years, this 3D audio technology has become increasingly popular in the Apple ecosystem and beyond.
Apple spatial audio is essentially Apple’s answer to Dolby Atmos for Headphones and Sony’s PS5 3D Audio, and it’s made to transmit surround sound and 3D audio through headphones, and in the best possible way (with dynamic head tracking) through certain AirPods and Beats models.
The function initially debuted in September 2020 with the release of iOS 14 and was later made available on Apple Music on June 7 of this year.
Since then, the company has added support for spatial audio to tvOS so that the new Apple TV 4K (when paired with the Beats Fit Pro and AirPods, Pro and Max ranges) can take advantage of it, and the latest M1 chip-equipped Macs may as well.
Also, all HomePods smart speakers will be equipped with spatial audio by 2023 (including the upcoming Sonos Era 300 speaker).
What is Apple Spatial Audio?
In order to position sounds in any location in 3D space, Apple’s spatial audio system applies directional audio filters to 5.1, 7.1, and Dolby Atmos signals. There will be a plethora of false directions that sounds can appear to be coming from, including straight ahead, to the sides, behind, and even above. The goal is to produce an atmosphere similar to that of a movie theater.
A prior technology of a similar nature has already existed. Sony, with its 360 Reality Audio format for music and the delivery of 3D audio in some PS4 games via the Platinum Wireless Headset, and Dolby, with its long-standing Dolby Atmos for Headphones, have both put a strong emphasis on 3D audio for their upcoming console, the PS5.
However, Apple’s spatial audio stands out from the crowd, at least in terms of movie soundtracks, because it not only provides virtualized surround and Atmos sound, but also tracks your head movement with accelerometers and gyroscopes in the AirPods 3, AirPods Pro, AirPods Pro 2, AirPods Max, and Beats Fit Pro.
It can also detect where in space your iPhone or iPad is, matching the audio to the visuals. You can move your head or device around, and the dialogue will still follow the on-screen performer.
How Do I Use Spatial Audio?
Having the proper tools at your disposal is of paramount importance. The current crop of headphones that can play spatial music includes the Beats Fit Pro, the AirPods Pro, the AirPods Max, the AirPods 3, and the Beats Solo3.
In the case of older models, spatial audio was not included at launch, however it is now automatically enabled by the most recent firmware upgrade. Apple, however, claims that any headphones will be able to play music with spatial audio on Apple Music.
If your headphones don’t have a W1 or H1 chip from Apple or Beats, you can still enjoy spatial audio by setting Dolby Atmos to “Always On” in the Apple Music app’s preferences. If you’re using an iOS 15.1 or later device, you may listen to Apple Music’s take on spatial audio through the device’s built-in speakers.
How Does Spatial Audio Work?
Spatially-referenced sound requires a few additional components. First, the content’s dialogue, sound effects, music, and so on will be mapped by sound engineers to discrete locations in a digital 3D space.
Just picture a sphere centered on the listener and including all of the potential sound sources. This makes it seem as though the noises are coming from all directions, including above, behind, and to the sides. The “distance” of sounds can also be changed by the engineers to make them seem closer or further away.
Unlike Dolby Atmos, which uses satellite speakers to create the illusion of height, headphones can only produce sound in a horizontal plane. Hence, a completely digital surround sound effect is required for spatial audio. This is when things start to become a little trickier. If you want to listen to audio in a virtual 360 degrees on headphones.
You’ll need to use a technology called Head Related Transfer Function (HRTF) filters, which digitally alter the way sounds are played so that they bounce into your ears in a way that makes them seem to come from a specific direction.
The technology necessitates the use of both ears so that the brain may form the impression that the sound is coming from all directions, rather than simply from two drivers on either side of the head.
You’ve found the ideal place if you’ve ever wanted to know what Apple spatial audio is and if you really need it. Spatial audio is a format for reproducing a surround sound experience with just two speakers, such as headphones or even earbuds.
Though initially introduced for use with Apple’s high-end AirPods Pro earbuds and AirPods Max headphones to improve video playing, Apple Music now also offers spatial audio content.