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What is Spatial Audio?

At WWDC 2020, Apple announced two new features for its AirPod range: auto-switching and spatial audio.

Spatial audio is the feature that intrigued us the most. It’s exclusive to iOS – you won’t find it anywhere else, although other formats and brands have their own interpretations – and it piggybacks on the wave of interest in expansive and experiential audio experiences.

A year after the announcement of the audio format, and it seems to have finally taken off as spatial audio with Dolby Atmos launched in conjunction with WWDC 2021.

So what is Apple’s spatial audio? How does it work and what devices is it available on?

How does spatial audio work?

Spatial Audio Apple

Spatial audio brings a dynamic head-tracking for a ‘theatre-like’ experience to your home video watching.

It uses the accelerometer/gyroscope in iOS devices, along with directional audio filters and subtle adjustment of the frequencies each ear receives, to place sounds “virtually anywhere” within a hemisphere of sound.

The effect is an immersive one when it works, with sounds placed around the viewer. The sound field also stays mapped to the iOS device so, for example, when you move your head, “the voice stays with the actor or action on-screen.”

Spatial audio support includes soundtracks in 5.1, 7.1 and object-based audio in Dolby Atmos.

Spatial audio with Dolby Atmos works slightly differently when paired with Apple Music in that it doesn’t use head tracking. As a result, you don’t actually need a pair of Apple headphones to enjoy the feature.

Apple Music will default to automatically play Dolby Atmos tracks on all AirPods and Beats headphones that feature the H1 or W1 chip. In order to get spatial audio with Dolby Atmos working on any pair of headphones, it appears that you just need to enable Atmos to ‘always on’ in the settings.

What iOS devices and apps support spatial audio?

Since spatial audio is restricted to iOS devices, you won’t find it outside of the Apple ecosystem. Thus, you’ll need the following hardware/software to listen to content in spatial audio.

  • AirPods Pro / AirPods Max
  • 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)
  • iOS or iPadOS 14 or later

Spatial audio with Dolby Atmos support arrived on Apple Music on 7 June. In terms of video streaming apps, support isn’t particularly wide at the moment. However, Apple TV+ (naturally), Disney+, as well as US-based streaming services HBO Max and Hulu support it.

TvOS is set to support it later in 2021, bringing it to the Apple TV 4K box.

Netflix support had been rumoured, but the video streaming giant debunked that in early 2021.

How to turn on Apple spatial audio (for films and TV)

Since the AirPods Pro and AirPods Max are the only headphones that support Apple’s spatial audio feature with films and TV, when you pair one of those pairs with an iOS device, you’ll be asked whether or not you want to enable spatial audio.

If you do enable it, you can adjust the volume slider to reduce or maximise the effect.

If you decided not to enable it during the initial pairing, but have decided you do want to see what it’s like, you can do so by following these directions.

  • Heading to Settings > Bluetooth
  • Locate your Pro or Max headphones
  • Tap the info button
  • Turn on spatial audio

And it’s as simple as that. You can also listen to a demonstration of the feature by tapping the See & Hear How it Works, swapping between stereo audio and spatial audio.

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