What is Spatial Audio? A Complete Beginner’s Guide…
Spatial Audio is like 3D for your ears. Here’s what you need to know about how it works, what devices support it, and its many, many benefits for gaming, movies, and music…
Key Takeaways: Spatial Audio Overview
- Spatial Audio is a technology that enables users to experience sound from various directions with compatible AirPods.
- Spatial Audio works differently for movies and music, with music tracks requiring remastering in order for Spatial Audio functionality to work.
- Spatial Audio requires an iOS 14.6 or later device and AirPods, AirPods Pro or AirPods Max.
- Spatial Audio is great for gaming, virtual reality, augmented reality and movies and TV shows.
- To use Spatial Audio on an iPhone, open Settings > Music > Dolby Atmos and select Automatic or Always On
While Apple is primarily known as being a tech company, if you were to be asked to categorize Apple in another category, most would probably say Apple it is also a music company.
After all, it’s got a long history in music. The first iPod in 2001 revolutionized the music industry. The iTunes Music Store in 2003 completely changed the way we found and purchased music. And the Apple Music streaming service, launched in 2015, quickly became one of the biggest streamers in the world.
And the fact of the matter is, Apple makes music innovations almost every year. Their latest innovation is called Spatial Audio, which was first introduced in iOS 14 in 2020, and recently has been extended to content on the Apple Music streaming service.
Spatial Audio can best be thought of as 3D sounds for your ears. But that’s a bit simplified. Here’s what you need to know about Spatial Audio.
What Is Spatial Audio?
When Apple unveiled iOS 14, it officially described Spatial Audio like this:
“AirPods and AirPods Pro gain powerful capabilities with iOS 14. Spatial audio with dynamic head tracking brings a theatre-like experience to AirPods Pro. By applying directional audio filters, and subtly adjusting the frequencies each ear receives, sounds can be placed virtually anywhere in a space to provide an immersive listening experience.”Apple
But just what does that mean? It’s best to describe Spatial Audio this way:
A traditional surround sound system sends different parts of the audio track (like certain sound effects in movies) to different speakers placed around the listener. This can make specific sounds feel as if they are coming from a certain direction – in front of you, to your side, behind you, etc.
But if you are wearing headphones, you dampen that surround sound feel because as your head turns, the sounds turn with you. That’s where Apple Spatial Audio comes in.
What Does Spatial Audio Do?
Spatial Audio essentially locks the “position” of the sound in one place. Because of this, as you turn your head the direction the sound is coming from will sound as if it is locked in place too.
So if you are using Spatial Audio when watching a movie, if you are looking at your TV and it sounds like the laser gunfight is coming from directly ahead of you, if you turn your head to the right, the laser gunfight will now sound like it’s coming from your left.
This gives you a much more immersive audio experience when watching movies or television with your AirPods or compatible headphones in.
How Does Spatial Audio Work With Movies & TV?
Spatial Audio works with movies and TVs as described above. If a movie is Spatial Audio-compatible and you have the right headphones, the direction the various sounds from the movie sound like they are coming from will remain locked in place.
Thus, as you move (track) your head, the sounds will stay locked in place and not shift with your head movement. Altogether this gives you a much more theater-like experience even though you are wearing headphones.
How Does Spatial Audio Work With Apple Music?
Spatial Audio works a little differently with music. Right now, many songs on Apple Music have been remastered to support spatial audio.
These remastered tracks include multiple new channels that make it sound as if various sounds from the music are coming front in front or you, to the side, behind, or even above you.
Right now, Spatial Audio on Apple Music doesn’t support head tracking, but that is rumored to be coming in a future update to the technology.
And Spotify also supports Spatial Audio too, although users have claimed it doesn’t sound quite as good as it does on Apple Music.
What Are Spatial Audio’s Requirements?
Spatial Audio has a few requirements. First is the content:
- Individual movies and TV shows need to be updated to work with Spatial Audio. Some already do, some will add this in the future.
- Apple Music has rolled out Spatial Audio support, but not all songs support it yet.
Now the hardware and software requirements:
- Spatial Audio requires an iPhone or iPod touch to be running iOS 14.6 or later and an iPad to be running iPadOS 14.6 or later.
- For movie or TV content, you’ll need an Apple TV 4K running tvOS 14.6 or later.
- You also need AirPods, AirPods Pro or AirPods Max.
- And BeatsX, Beats Solo3 Wireless, Beats Studio3, Beats Flex, Powerbeats3 Wireless, Powerbeats Pro or Beats Solo Pro also support the feature.
- As for iPhones and iPads and Spatial Audio speaker support, you’ll need an iPhone XR or later (iPhone SE not supported), or an iPad Air 3rd gen of higher, an iPad mini 5th gen or higher, an iPad 6th gen or higher, any 11in iPad Pro, a 12.9in iPad Pro 3rd gen or higher.
- Mac support requires MacBook Air and MacBook Pro 2018 or later and iMac 2021 or later.
What is Personalized Spatial Audio
With the release of iOS 16, Apple introduced a new feature for Spatial Audio, Personalized Spatial Audio. This new feature lets users create a more precise version of Spatial Audio that is tailored to their exact needs and specifications.
And how it works is rather interesting too – not least how it is set up. You see, Apple uses the iPhone’s TrueDepth camera to analyse the shape of your ear in three dimensions. It then uses this mapping to create a more personalized implementation of Spatial Audio.
Interested in Personalized Spatial Audio? Here’s how you set it up:
- With AirPods connected, launch the Settings app on your iPhone.
- Tap on the name of your AirPods, just below your Apple ID banner.
- Under “Spatial Audio,” tap Personalized Spatial Audio.
- Tap Personalize Spatial Audio….
- Next, just follow the on-screen instructions to set it up.
Please note – in order to use Personalize Spatial Audio, you’ll need the following things: an iPhone with Face ID, iOS 1 or later, and either Apple’s AirPods 3, AirPods Pro, AirPods Pro 2, or its flagship AirPods Max.
What Are The Benefits Of Spatial Audio?
The main benefit of using spatial audio is its immersive effect on users — it allows them to feel as if they are inside the space where the music or other sounds were recorded.
This heightened sense of realism makes it ideal for applications such as gaming, virtual reality (VR), augmented reality (AR), and home entertainment systems.
Additionally, this technology can be used in professional settings such as live concerts and recording studios for improved clarity and accuracy when capturing sounds from different directions.
Finally, it enhances user experiences when watching movies with multiple characters speaking simultaneously or when listening to different instruments playing at once in complex musical pieces.
How Do I Get Spatial Audio?
Spatial Audio can be enabled by updating to the latest iOS version and selecting Spatial Audio in the Music settings. Spatial Audio is currently available on Apple Music, however not all songs support Spatial Audio.
Spatial Audio is also available on Apple TV 4K by selecting “Automatic” under Dolby Atmos in the Settings.
Spatial Audio is also supported on compatible Apple devices such as the iPhone XR or later, its AirPods (AirPods 3, AirPods Pro 1/2, and AirPods Max), and select Beats headphones. Apple’s MacBook Air and MacBook Pro 2018 or later and the M1-powered iMac (2021) are also compatible with Spatial Audio.
How Do I Use Spatial Audio?
On your iPhone:
- Open Settings.
- Tap Music.
- Tap Dolby Atmos.
- Tap Automatic or Always On or you can also just tap to turn Dolby Atmos off.
On Apple TV 4K:
- Open Settings.
- Select Apps.
- Select Music.
- Under Dolby Atmos click until it says “Automatic.”
Michael GrothausApple expert and novelist, Michael Grothaus has been covering tech on KnowYourMobile for the best part of 10 years. Prior to this, he worked at Apple. And before that, he was a film journalist. Michael is a published author; his book Epiphany Jones was voted as one of the best novels about Hollywood by Entertainment Weekly. Michael is also a writer at other publications including VICE and Fast Company.
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