What is spatial audio? The AirPods 3 and MacBook Pro surround sound trick

Sarah Tew / CNET

Apple announced during its October Unleashed event that it is new AirPod 3 and MacBook Pro Laptops both have spatial sound for better movies and music, but what is it exactly?

Surround sound has been around in various forms for decades and is most often used in movies and games. However, the company takes its concept of spatial audio a step further and activates the feature on FaceTime calls and the Apple Music subscription service.

But is Apple’s spatial audio really any different, or is it something we’ve seen before? And that sounds good? Here’s what you need to know.

Read more: Apple FaceTime gets spatial sound for “more natural” calls


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What is spatial audio?

Spatial audio is Apple’s term for a collection of audio technologies that bring 360-degree effects to video calls, movies and remixed music. Apple first introduced spatial audio on his AirPods Pro headphones in 2020, and the company is now expanding the capabilities of other devices in the line.

While the technology that will power FaceTime calls will be different, the spatial audio portion of Apple Music and streaming movies is courtesy of Dolby Atmos. Atmos is a surround sound standard used both in movie theaters and at home, and more recently has been used to remix albums.

Dolby Atmos Music, as used by Apple Music, is one of two competing formats providing surround and pitch effects for streaming songs, while its competitor is Sony 360 Reality Audio. Apple says Dolby Atmos mixes on its music service provide a better experience than lossless music alone.

“Listen to a song in Dolby Atmos is like magic, “Oliver Schusser, vice president of Apple Music and Beats, said in a press release in May.” Music comes from all around you and sounds amazing. “

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Apple’s Tim Cook at WWDC 21 keynote.

Apple / Screenshot by Sarah Tew / CNET

At CNET, we have tried countless technologies that attempt to create surround sound with stereo headphones – Dolby Headphone, DTS Headphones: X and so on – but the effect evaporates as soon as you move your head. This is because in everyday life we ​​can strain our ears to help locate where a sound is coming from, especially when it is coming from behind us. This is not a problem for the physical speakers, including the six speaker array on the new MacBook Pro. However, when we wear headphones, the sounds follow our movement and the effect is therefore lost.

The only thing that separates spatial audio from other tech is that the latest Apple headphones track the movement of your head in space, making it easy to immerse yourself in music and movies. The latest AirPods have a built-in accelerometer that helps sound stay put as you move. For example, when a sound seems to come from a corner of the room and you turn around, it always seems to come from the same direction.

What devices can I hear it on?

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The AirPods Pro and AirPods Max.

Lexy Savvides / CNET

Spatial audio is available on a number of different Apple devices, but no speakers … yet. While the competition Amazon Echo Studio supports Dolby Atmos, Apple music and movies HomePod Mini does not yet support spatial audio. However, the feature is supported by a number of current (and future) Apple products, so here’s a list:

While spatial audio will work with all headphones plugged into supported products, they will not offer head tracking. Meanwhile, Apple has activated head tracking for apple music in September.

If you are listening to Apple Music on an Apple TV, you will need to either connect it to a compatible sound bar or to an AV system that includes Dolby Atmos decoding – for example, a 5.1.2 receiver and speaker set.

What music services should I subscribe to?

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Angela Lang / CNET

The main answer to this question is Apple Music. This streaming service is available for a monthly subscription of $ 10 (£ 10, AU $ 12). TO WWDC 2021Apple’s Gagan Gupta said a variety of music is now available to listen to in spatial audio on Apple Music.

“It’s available starting today with albums from some of your favorite artists like Ariana Grande, the Weeknd, J Balvin and Kacey Musgraves,” Gupta said.

Apple Music isn’t the first spatial audio service to appear on Apple devices, however – Tidal has brought Atmos Music to Apple TV 4K in May 2020, and Sony’s Reality Audio 360 is available on its own headphones and high-end speakers.

It is important to note that users can listen to spatial audio at no additional cost. Last month, Amazon and Apple announced that HD streams, including Atmos “spatial” audio, would be folded into their regular plans. So if you are an Apple Music subscriber, you can listen to spatial audio right now.

How does spatial audio sound on a home theater system?

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Ty Pendlebury / CNET

While CNET’s David Carnoy has spatial audio tested with AirPodsI was interested to hear how the experience turned into a complete home theater system. I regularly test Dolby Atmos playback in movies as part of my daily work, but music in spatial audio is something different. I did listening tests with a Marantz SR6013, a Apple TV 4K and a Klipsch 5.1.2 Dolby Atmos speaker configuration. As with DVD-Audio and quadraphonic before it, the success of spatial music (i.e. Dolby Atmos Music) depends primarily on the quality of the mix itself. Every album since the late ’60s has been mixed in stereo, but only a relative handful has been mixed for more than two speakers. It takes more time and effort to produce an album in Dolby Atmos Music, but when done right the results can be impressive.

I spent time listening to the dedicated Spatial Music channel on Apple Music and found that the music tended to two extremes: either the secondary channels were used for ambiance, like with Alex Chilton from The Replacements, or used in a flashy-me look like with Rush’s Tom Sawyer, where the drums appeared above and behind me.

In at least one case, the Atmos mix was actually better than the original stereo mix, but it was more due to increased clarity in the vocals. Michael Kiwanuka’s You Ain’t The Problem, with its fuzzy guitar and deranged weariness, can be a bit difficult to deal with, but Atmos cleaned it up considerably. His voice hovered in the center about 6 feet above me, and the savagery of the supporting instruments was tamed.

However, being mixed in 360 surround does not guarantee that a song will sound better. While the spatial mixes of songs like Kanye West’s Black Skinhead were fun, I found the original stereo mix to have more power and less reliance on surround sound tricks.

Listen for yourself

Dolby Atmos has been in the movies for many years, but its growth in music has been heavily encouraged by record labels and manufacturers over the past 18 months. While creating the musical equivalent of 8K Where HDR probably won’t work – over 50 years of surround music formats tell us – these are the movies where spatial audio is most useful. The big difference this time around is that while hardly anyone had a quad speaker setup in the 1970s, millions of people have both one iPhone and an Apple Music or Apple TV Plus subscription. Whether it’s listening to AirPods 3 or checking out a Dolby Atmos soundbar, Apple fans can now listen to spatial audio to judge for themselves.


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