What Is Spatial Audio and How Does It Work?


If you’ve bought a new iPhone like the iPhone 15 Pro Max or a new pair of Apple headphones or earbuds in the past year or two, then you’ve probably heard the sales pitch about spatial audio. But what exactly is spatial audio, how do you use it, and do you really need it? If you’ve been looking for the answers to these questions, then look no further.

What is spatial audio?

Spatial audio first started appearing on the original AirPods Pro and AirPods Max as a way to make your movies and videos more immersive. Now, though, Apple and others have extended spatial audio content to other apps, including Apple Music. At its root, spatial audio is how Apple brands its approach to immersive 360-degree audio. Apple isn’t the only one to refer to the tech as spatial audio, so it can get a little confusing when you hear it in other places. But the basic idea is still the same.

If you’re thinking, “this just sounds like regular old surround sound,” then you wouldn’t be wrong. At its core, that’s all spatial audio is. However, with the tech that Apple has been putting in the newest AirPods Pro and AirPods Max in recent years, it offers a bit more than that, allowing you to actually have an anchor in place for sounds so that you can move around and actually experience 3D audio instead of having the sounds surround you.

How does spatial audio work?

While some content will act just like regular surround sound, providing you with different levels of sound for different effects depending on which direction they are coming from, spatial audio can also use your smart device as an anchor and then create a virtual 3D environment that is meant to make you feel like you’re directly within the sounds that you’re listening to.

As such, some content that has full spatial audio support will allow you to turn your head and change where the sound is coming from. For example, imagine you’re watching an action movie, and you hear yelling and running off to the right. Well, with spatial audio on, you could turn your head to the right and the direction of the sound would change from being off to your right to being in front of you.

This creates an immersive experience that mimics 3D surround sound, allowing you to turn your head and listen as the audio moves to the left, right, or up and down, depending on how you move your head. We’ve also seen this tech utilized in Dolby Atmos, which is what Apple’s spatial audio is built on.

In some headphones, like the newest AirPods, this movement is tied to sensors and gyros in the headphones themselves. Others rely on a completely virtual system to pull off the 3D audio. It’s likely we’ll see more headphones and earbuds launching with full gyros in the future to provide an even more immersive listening experience.

What Apple devices support spatial audio?

If you want to experience spatial audio for yourself, there are a myriad of Apple devices that support the system: The AirPods Pro, AirPods Max, AirPods 3rd Generation, and Beats Fit Pro. Apple also says that any devices running iOS 15.1 or later will be able to play spatial audio through their integrated speakers, including the HomePod 2, iPhone 7 or later, and the following iPads:

  • iPad mini 5th generation and later

  • iPad 6th generation and later

  • iPad Pro 12.9‑inch 3rd generation and later

  • iPad Pro 11‑inch, iPad Air 3rd generation and later

What apps support spatial audio?

It’s about more than just having the right hardware, though. You’ll also need apps that have content with spatial audio. Luckily there are more than a few, including Netflix, Hulu, Apple TV Plus, HBO Max, Disney Plus, and Apple Music. Other apps like Tidal and Amazon Music HD provide Dolby Atmos support, too, but they have it tied to their own speaker systems. In Tidal’s case, it’s tied to Sony’s 360 Reality Audio, so you can’t use it with your Apple headphones.

YouTube also supports two different spatial audio formats. However, keep in mind that any content through these other apps will have to offer Dolby Atmos 5.1 or 7.1 to actually use spatial audio.

How to turn spatial audio on in Apple Music

For Apple and Beats headphones, spatial audio support will be turned on automatically. However, you can turn it on all the time for other supported headphones by heading into Apple Music’s app settings and turning on the Dolby Atmos setting. To do this, navigate to Settings > Music > Dolby Atmos and tick it to Always On.

Is spatial audio worth the hype?

Ultimately, spatial audio is a really cool feature that makes audio more immersive. It isn’t a dealbreaker, though, and if you already have a working pair of headphones or earbuds, I wouldn’t say it’s especially worth upgrading to a new pair for just that. Once more services support it, though, spatial audio will become one of the best ways to watch movies, listen to music, and enjoy a plethora of other types of audio content.

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