Apple’s spatial audio is a 360-degree sound format that can be reproduced with a set of headphones as small as a pair of earbuds. It’s largely been utilized to improve video playback with the AirPods Pro and AirPods Max, but Apple Music is getting a new, stripped-down version of spatial audio.
What is Spatial Audio?
Apple refers to its immersive, 360-degree sound technology as “spatial audio,” however the notion is also referred to as “spatial audio” in more general ways. It’s a type of digital surround sound in which the origin sites of various sounds can engulf you from all sides. Isn’t that just regular old living room surround sound? Except in specific cases, such as on headphones like the AirPods Pro and AirPods Max, spatial audio can retain those origin points in situ even when the speakers themselves move.
The effect of the spatial audio, which is a type of 360-degree audio, isn’t restricted to a flat axis either. Spatial audio, such as Dolby Atmos or DTS:X, may impart a feeling of height to TV and movie playback, making them even more realistic.
Spatial audio and its uses
The most crucial aspect is to ensure that you have the appropriate hardware. The AirPods Pro and AirPods Max are currently the only spatial audio-compatible devices for video playback, so get one of those unless you want to wait for the anticipated AirPods Pro 2. The AirPods Pro didn’t come with spatial audio capabilities out of the box, but it should automatically download and install the necessary hardware.
However, for Spatial audio, Apple states that any pair of headphones can play a song in Spatial audio, as it appears in Apple Music. Spatial audio is automatically enabled on Apple and Beats headphones with a W1 or H1 chip, but for all other headphones, simply switch Dolby Atmos to “always-on” in the Apple Music app settings.
Compatible hardware is almost complete. Remember that you can turn spatial audio on or off as needed. To turn it off when you’re already watching a video, open Control Center, hold down the volume slider, and tap the spatial audio option to turn it off.
Apple also says that Apple Music’s spatial audio content will be playable through the speakers of the “latest versions of iPhone, iPad, and Mac,” though we’d be surprised if the effect was nearly as strong as if you were wearing headphones.
How does it work?
There are a few things that are needed to make spatial audio happen. First, sound engineers will map the individual audio parts of a piece of content — dialogue, sound effects, non-diegetic music, and so on — to specific points on a digital 3D space. Imagine a sphere build around the listener, with each sound source placed around it. This allows for those individual sounds to seemingly come from either side, behind, above, or below you. Engineers can also adjust the “distance” of sounds so that they seem closer or further away.
Obviously, headphones don’t have a series of satellite speakers for “true” surround sound, and they can’t achieve a sense of height by bouncing sound off ceilings as Dolby Atmos does. So spatial audio’s surround sound effect needs to be purely digital.
However, you’ll find Apple Music’s implementation of spatial audio altogether simpler. Because the content is pure audio, it makes less sense to use the source device as an anchor point, and more importantly, most headphones don’t have gyroscopes and accelerometers for head tracking.
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