What Is Apple Spatial Audio, and How Does Head Tracking Improve It?

Closeup of headphone cup on woman's head

Apple’s spatial audio is an evolution of surround sound, creating an interactive and dynamic soundscape to bring music, TV, and movies to life. Beginning with iOS 15, Apple Music makes this feature even more compelling with head tracking on compatible headphones.

So how do you use it and can it live up to the hype?

What Is Spatial Audio?

Spatial audio is a new way of experiencing audio that uses a combination of sensors and gyroscopes in your headphones alongside a source of surround sound audio to construct a virtual 3D space.

If you move your head while listening to standard stereo audio, the sound moves with you. With spatial audio, the channels stay where they are as if you’re standing in a surround sound booth with speakers all around you. In TV shows and movies, spatial audio can be used to ensure that the “center channel” (i.e. your TV or iPad) remains in the same position, even if you turn your head.

Illustration of spatial audio in Apple AirPods

The technology works with standard 5.1 and 7.1 surround sound mixes but sounds best when paired with newer formats like Dolby Atmos (particularly for music). Where a standard surround sound mix might use five or seven main channels and a stereo recording would use two, Dolby Atmos uses 128 channels to give producers and sound directors much more room to play.

To be clear, Dolby Atmos and Apple’s spatial audio are two separate technologies. Atmos is a surround sound format that can be used convincingly with spatial audio features like head tracking. Dolby’s new format has all sorts of benefits outside of spatialized audio, like in soundbars and home cinema setups that don’t depend on headphones.

RELATED: What Is Spatial Audio, and How Does It Work?

Which Devices and Headphones Support Spatial Audio?

At present, an iPhone 7 or later and the iPad Pro 12.9-inch (3rd generation or later), iPad Pro 11-inch, iPad Air (3rd generation or later), iPad (6th generation or later), and iPad mini (5th generation) support the feature. iOS 14 is required for spatial audio to work, but head tracking for Apple Music is limited to iOS 15 and later.

AirPods Pro

In addition to a compatible device and sound source, you’ll also need headphones that can take advantage of head tracking. At present, only the AirPods Pro and AirPods Max are supported. While other headphones are compatible with Dolby Atmos (including the original AirPods), not all have the gyroscopes and sensors required for head tracking.

You can use compatible head-tracking headphones with an Apple TV running tvOS 15 to take advantage of the feature in video content. Just pair your AirPods Pro or AirPods Max and watching movies or TV shows from a supported source like Disney+ or Apple TV.

RELATED: You Can Now Experience Spatial Audio in Netflix on iPhone and iPad

What Services Support Spatial Audio?

While many services are adding Dolby Atmos support (like high-resolution streaming service TIDAL), only Apple Music has made progress in implementing spatial audio with head tracking right now. Apple Music has already made a few thousand recordings available in Dolby Atmos, and iOS 15 adds spatial audio head-tracking to take advantage of those additional channels.

Apple Music Spatial Audio Classical Playlist

There are dedicated playlists for music with native spatial audio support, with a dedicated “Now In Spatial Audio” section under the Browse tab in Apple Music. There is a good blend of old tracks that have been remastered in Atmos and new music that has been produced from scratch in the format.

The feature is also useful for watching movies and TV shows, with services like Disney+, HBO Max, Hulu, Discovery+, Paramount+, Apple TV, and Vudu offering spatial audio on surround sound streams.

What Does It Sound Like?

Spatial audio with head tracking is quite different from a standard “flat” stereo stream, and it won’t always appeal to everyone. Generally speaking, mixes feel wider, with more room to breathe compared to stereo. This can make for a less fatiguing listening experience but it can also lessen the impact of some mixes.

Depending on the music you are listening to, the effect can be subtle or pronounced. On older tracks that have been remastered for the format, like Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” or Jackson 5’s “I Want You Back,” the main vocals really stand out. By moving your head you can clearly hear the vocals coming from a particular direction, and the same is often true of lead guitar and melodies too.

I Want You Back by Jackson 5 playing in Dolby Atmos

In this regard, it’s a bit like watching a live show where higher pitches feel more directional but bassy rhythm sections reverberate around you. Live music might be one of the best uses for the technology since it captures the essence of being surrounded by a crowd.

Modern pop and hip hop tend to take things even further, with directional audio applied to a range of sounds and frequencies. The opening bars to Glass Animals’ “Heat Waves” sound like the music is coming from behind you, making for an impactful juxtaposition when the track properly kicks in.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t work well everywhere and it’s not going to please purists. Some tracks, like the Atmos remaster of Guns N’ Roses “Welcome to the Jungle,” lack serious punch compared to the flat stereo mix. You might want a track like this to sound like you have your face pressed up to the PA at a stadium show, but in Atmos it sounds more like a bad car stereo. This isn’t necessarily a genre thing, since Sublime’s “Santeria” sounds great, like you’re sitting in a grimy Long Beach practice space circa 1992.

Santeria by Sublime playing in Dolby Atmos

Head tracking makes for a more dynamic soundscape and an arguably more interesting listening environment. But this can change the way music sounds. Not everyone is going to see this as a good thing. Some tracks that sound almost claustrophobic in stereo are just easier to listen to in Atmos, and they sound less “overproduced” too.

Classical music might be the one genre where the results are most predictable. It’s the closest thing you’ll get to being at the orchestra without actually going to watch an orchestra, and the results are almost always better than a (by comparison, dull) stereo mix.

How Does Head Tracking and Movement Work?

Head tracking is arguably best enjoyed while you’re sitting still. If you’re watching a TV show or movie, your device (e.g. an iPad) will remain the center channel, regardless of where you look. With music, things are a little different.

If you’re walking around outside while listening to spatial audio with head tracking, the music will react to your movement. The good news is that the stream will correct itself when you’ve faced the same direction for a few seconds.

If you turn 90º to go around a corner, the audio will gradually adjust a few seconds later so that the direction you are facing becomes the new “center” position. It takes some getting used to, and you can disable it if you want to.

Can You Turn It Off?

On an iPhone or iPad, you can turn off spatial audio via Control Center. Swipe down from the top-right corner of the screen (or swipe up on older devices) then tap and hold the Volume slider.

Tap Enable Spatial Audio

The option to enable or disable Spatial Audio can be found in the bottom-right corner. You can also access your AirPods options under Settings > Bluetooth by tapping the “i” next to your headphones and disabling Spatial Audio.

What Does “Spatialize Stereo” Do?

Your iPhone and iPad will offer to convert regular stereo audio to spatial audio using the Spatialize Stereo option in Control Center. You’ll find this option in the same spot you usually use to enable or disable Spatial Audio.

This feature is a mixed bag. It’s essentially a virtual listening booth with a basic stereo recording pumped into it. While it might make some tracks sound a bit more dynamic and interesting, it’s also not a great representation of the original track. Even a track that has been remastered for Dolby Atmos maintains some of the producer’s intent.

Tap Spatialize Stereo on iOS 15

You should turn it on and have a listen to decide for yourself, but the “bad car stereo” analogy we alluded to earlier might apply here too.

Curious? Try an Apple Music Free Trial

If you’ve got the prerequisite headphones and an iPhone running iOS 15 or later, you can jump in and experience spatial audio with head tracking for yourself via Apple Music. The service has a free 30-day trial and includes access to lossless audio streams for all subscribers (just make sure you can take advantage of lossless audio first).

RELATED: When Is Lossless Audio Streaming Actually Worth It?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *