What is Apple Spatial Audio?
In October 2001, when Apple released the original iPod, the pitch was simple and clear: pick 1,000 songs, put them in your pocket, and take them wherever you want to go. In June 2021, when Apple Music launched Spatial Audio, the pitch was a lot less straightforward: sort through the seemingly endless music in your pocket, locate compatible tracks, and let them take you somewhere you’ve never been before.
So what is “spatial audio”? How can audio be in 3D? Is this supposedly multidimensional experience worth paying to subscribe to a specific service? Do you need specific equipment to try out virtual surround? Let’s take a look at these questions and more.
Space is the place
In its marketing blitz, Apple likened Spatial Audio to the jump from standard definition to 4K video, but that analogy falls, well, flat (screen). It’s really better to call it what it really is, which is a way to simulate the movie theater experience we’ve known since the introduction of the Dolby Atmos and DTS: X formats in 2012.
Prior to this point, theaters typically projected sound in a 7.1 setup, positioning channels front left and right, center, surround left and right, and rear left and right (all augmented by a bass channel ). Taking it even further, Dolby Atmos, for example, allows sound engineers to mix isolated audio for up to 128 “objects” routed to 64 speakers lined up along walls and ceiling. This ability to map and maneuver dialogue, effects, soundtrack, etc., made for a better sense of depth, breadth, height, evoking sound that seems to come from anywhere in a bubble. 360 degrees.
With no satellite speakers available, the headphones use digital filters to adjust the way the sound bounces in your ear, tricking your brain into thinking the music is coming from a 3D space when it’s just two. pilots attached to your head. Now, the same technology that lets you feel the impacts and emotions as the Avengers fight onscreen can make you feel like you’re in the studio with Black Sabbath as they record “Iron Man.”
Despite the Apple Music branding, Atmos provides the true foundation for Spatial Audio – its not-so-secret directional sauce. None of this is new. Apple has already enabled Spatial Audio on the AirPods Pro Earphones in 2020 to enjoy compatible video services like Apple TV + and Disney +.
There was music mixed in Dolby Atmos previously released outside of Apple’s streaming services (on Amazon Music HD and TIDAL, among others). The difference is that now the ability to render Dolby Atmos is built into the Apple Music pipeline and iOS 14.6 in general (for use in FaceTime calls, among others). It will be a smooth transition for millions of people, for better or for worse.
So how do you try Spatial Audio?
It might sound obvious, but the first thing you need to do is subscribe to Apple Music (or start a free trial). And a basic plan is all you need; unlike some competitors who bundle functionality with more expensive tiers, Spatial Audio is included for all Apple Music subscribers. Then to make things work, go play some music. Locate the Spatial Audio tile in Apple Music and choose a playlist or album that looks appealing.
Apple Music users with an iPhone or iPad and either Apple AirPods Pro Earphones or AirPods Max Earphones, as well as some Beats models, may not notice a thing… until you do. If your personal audio equipment contains one of Apple’s H1 or W1 chips, Apple Music flipped the switch on its optimized set-top boxes so that any Apple Digital Master mixed to Dolby Atmos deploys automatically.
While the original announcements weren’t particularly clear on compatibility, Spatial Audio isn’t limited to Apple hardware. If you want to try it out on third-party headphones and / or earphones, all you need to do is sign up by scrolling through music settings and digging into the Music panel. You will see a section under “Audio” marked “Dolby Atmos”. Just change “Automatic” to “Always On” and you’re golden (conversely, set it to “Off” if you just don’t feel a thing).
One thing you will miss, however, is the head tracking. AirPods Pro and Max use their gyroscope and accelerometer to trace movement, allowing you to move your head around a sound field that seems anchored to your source in the real world. Currently it works with video, but it happens on Apple Music and it enriches the experience. So while any headset can play Spatial Audio, you don’t necessarily get the exact same experience without investing in Apple’s tightly integrated ecosystem.
Will I be able to know if a track is in Spatial Audio and do I want it?
At launch, Apple said there were thousands of tracks available in Spatial Audio, with more to be added daily. Whether that includes your favorites is currently a dice game. The simplest proof that a track is in Spatial Audio is that it will display a “Dolby Atmos” badge on the “Now Playing” screen.
It is important to note that an album page will only display the badge if the all the album is in Spatial Audio. If you download a song with Dolby Atmos listening enabled, the Spatial Audio version will be automatically recorded; however, if you have already downloaded a song that is now in Spatial Audio, you will need to re-download it to get that version.
Once you land on a Spatial Audio track, the actual effect is not difficult to recognize. In its pitch for Spatial Audio, Apple promotes the format’s ability to deepen the emotional connection between artist and fans, but the first thing you notice about Spatial Audio is the distance. The air Spatial Audio gives to a mix is either impressive or off-putting track by track. Rush’s “Tom Sawyer” takes full advantage of echoes and ebbs without sounding dull. But in “What’s my name again?” by blink-182, the tight mix and positive distortion giving the song its presence is lost, leaving the vocals muted rather than emphasized. Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On” already occupies a rarefied tune and loses its painful beauty without Gaye’s voice leading the mix, forcing you to face his angst. Kanye West’s “Black Skinhead”, meanwhile, SLAPS. It looks huge, hungry, like it’s going to consume you. It’s the kind of mix that immediately demands attention and sells the format. One of the biggest winners of the genre overall is the Classic, which has always benefited from the ability to capture scope and trade of position. The nuances of jazz come right after.
If you grew up in the stereo age, Spatial Audio is an interesting contrast that’s fun but not essential. With the ability to export upcoming Atmos mixes to Logic Pro, however, a new generation of producers could harness the format’s potential and make it the go-to standard.
What are the “Lossless” and “Hi-Res Lossless” badges that appeared with Dolby Atmos?
The same day, it went to 3D, Apple Music gave users another free upgrade: uncompressed audio. Until then, anything listened to through Apple Music came in AAC format at 256 kbps, a lossy format similar to MP3 that saved data but sacrificed fidelity. With the rise of 5G and more and more unlimited plans, phones can handle the full spectrum. Apple Music’s catalog has already filled the servers with ALAC (Apple Lossless Audio Codec), so 75 million tracks can finally be streamed in CD quality lossless (16-bit / 44.1 kHz) or high-resolution lossless (various resolutions up to 24 bits / 192 kHz).
Is this important for most users? No. Although Lossless is natively supported on Apple devices, its quality is immediately lost if you use headphones or bluetooth headphones (you better find this wired pair). And high lossless resolution requires an external digital audio converter as well as cables and cables. Still, for anyone old enough to remember what cassettes or VHS tapes looked like, a first-gen copy sure beats a dub from a dub from a dub. Lossless Audio, and particularly Hi-res Lossless, is a niche for now, but a welcome addition and well worth the price of admission for nothing.
Didn’t Sony do something similar?
If you’re just not interested in Apple products but want to experience more spacious sound, there’s another option: 360 Reality Audio, released by Sony in October 2019 with seemingly less fanfare. Currently a top-level feature for around 1000 songs on the TIDAL and Deezer streaming services, as well as the primary vehicle for wrapping live gigs on nugs.net, 360 Reality Audio uses its own platform built on the MPEG standard. H 3D Audio to achieve an object-based effect similar to Dolby Atmos. As with Apple Music, any headset can play 360 Reality Audio, but using the most recent headsets from Sony (like the WH-1000MX4) can take advantage of an app feature that uses test tones to analyze your ear to optimize how the sound matches your personal listening experience. A brief round-up of some live shows from Metallica and Pearl Jam showcased effective headphone virtualization technology that helped bring the band out more “out of my head”, flaunting them and enveloping the crowd.