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

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Sarah Tew/CNET

Apple introduced at its October Unleashed event that its new AirPods 3 and MacBook Pro laptops each characteristic spatial audio for higher motion pictures and music, however what precisely is that?

Encompass sound has existed in varied kinds for many years and is most frequently utilized in movies and gaming. Nonetheless, the corporate is taking its spatial audio idea additional and enabling the characteristic on FaceTime calls and the Apple Music subscription service.

However is Apple’s spatial audio one thing actually completely different, or is it one thing we have seen earlier than? And does it sound any good? This is what you should know.

Learn extra: Apple FaceTime getting spatial audio for ‘more natural’ calls

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What’s spatial audio?

Spatial audio is Apple’s time period for a group of audio applied sciences that convey 360-degree results to video calls, motion pictures and remixed music. Apple first introduced spatial audio on its AirPods Pro earbuds in 2020, and the corporate is now increasing the capabilities of different units within the vary. 

Whereas the know-how that can energy FaceTime calls is completely different, the spatial audio portion of Apple Music and streaming motion pictures comes courtesy of Dolby Atmos. Atmos is a surround-sound commonplace used each in film theaters and the house, and extra lately has been used to remix albums.

Dolby Atmos Music, as utilized by Apple Music, is certainly one of two competing codecs offering {surround} and peak results for streaming tunes, whereas its competitor is Sony’s 360 Reality Audio. Apple says that Dolby Atmos mixes on its Music service provide a greater expertise than lossless music alone.

“Listening to a tune in Dolby Atmos is like magic,” Oliver Schusser, vp of Apple Music and Beats, stated in a news release in Could. “The music comes from throughout you and sounds unimaginable.”

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Apple’s Tim Cook dinner delivering the WWDC 21 keynote.


Apple/Screenshot by Sarah Tew/CNET

At CNET we have tried numerous applied sciences that try and create {surround} sound with stereo headphones — Dolby Headphone, DTS Headphone:X and so forth — however the impact evaporates as quickly as you progress your head. It’s because in on a regular basis life we will cock our ears to assist find the place a sound is coming from, particularly when it is from behind us. This is not a difficulty for bodily audio system, together with the six-speaker array on the new MacBook Pros. Once we put on headphones, although, the sounds observe our motion so the impact is misplaced.

The one factor that separates spatial audio from different applied sciences is that the latest Apple headphones observe your head actions in area, and this helps with immersion in each music and films. The most recent AirPods have an onboard accelerometer that helps audio keep in place once you transfer round. For instance, when a sound seems to be coming from the nook of the room, and also you flip, it nonetheless appears to be coming from the identical path.

Which units can I hear it on?

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The AirPods Professional and AirPods Max.


Lexy Savvides/CNET

Spatial audio is accessible on numerous completely different Apple units, however no audio system… but. Whereas the competing Amazon Echo Studio helps Dolby Atmos music and films, Apple’s HomePod Mini does not but assist spatial audio. Nonetheless, the characteristic is supported by numerous present (and future) Apple merchandise, so here is a listing: 

Whereas spatial audio will work with any headphones plugged into supported merchandise, they will not provide head monitoring. In the meantime, Apple enabled head tracking for Apple Music in September.

Should you’re listening to Apple Music on an Apple TV, you’ll both want to attach it to a compatible soundbar or to an AV system that features Dolby Atmos decoding — for instance, a receiver and a 5.1.2 speaker bundle.

Which music companies do I must subscribe to?

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Angela Lang/CNET

The primary reply to this query is Apple Music. This streaming service is accessible for a $10 (£10, AU$12) month-to-month subscription. At WWDC 2021, Apple’s Gagan Gupta stated a wide range of music was now out there to take heed to in spatial audio on Apple Music.

“It is out there beginning right now with albums from a few of your favourite artists like Ariana Grande, the Weeknd, J Balvin and Kacey Musgraves,” Gupta stated.

Apple Music is not the primary spatial audio service to seem on Apple units, although — Tidal introduced Atmos Music to Apple TV 4K in Could 2020, and Sony’s Actuality Audio 360 is accessible by itself headphones and high-end speakers.

It is vital to notice that customers can take heed to spatial audio for no additional cost. Final month each Amazon and Apple introduced that HD streams, together with “spatial” Atmos audio, could be folded into their regular plans. So in the event you’re an Apple Music subscriber you’ll be able to take heed to spatial audio proper now.

How does spatial audio sound on a house theater system?

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Ty Pendlebury/CNET

Whereas CNET’s David Carnoy has tested spatial audio with the AirPods, I used to be to listen to how the expertise scaled as much as a full house theater system. I commonly take a look at Dolby Atmos playback in motion pictures as a part of my day-to-day work, however music in spatial audio is one thing completely different. I did some listening exams with a Marantz SR6013, an Apple TV 4K and a Klipsch 5.1.2 Dolby Atmos speaker setup. As with DVD-Audio and quadraphonic earlier than it, the success of spatial music (i.e. Dolby Atmos Music) relies upon totally on the standard of the combo itself. Each album for the reason that late ’60s has been blended in stereo, however solely a relative handful have ever been blended for greater than two audio system. It takes additional effort and time to provide an album in Dolby Atmos Music, however when finished effectively the outcomes might be spectacular.

I spent a while listening to the devoted Spatial Music channel on Apple Music and located that the music tended towards two extremes: Both the secondary channels have been used for atmosphere, as with The Replacements’ Alex Chilton, or utilized in a showy, look-at-me approach like with Rush’s Tom Sawyer, the place the percussion appeared above and behind me.

In no less than one case, the Atmos combine was really higher than the unique stereo combine, however this was extra due to an enhanced readability within the vocals. Michael Kiwanuka’s You Ain’t The Drawback, with its fuzzy guitar and deranged la la las, generally is a bit a lot to deal with, however Atmos cleaned it up considerably. His voice hovered within the middle about 6 toes above me, and the wildness of the supporting devices was tamed.

Nonetheless, being blended in 360 {surround} did not assure {that a} tune sounded higher. Whereas spatial mixes of songs like Kanye West’s Black Skinhead have been enjoyable, I discovered that the unique stereo combine had extra energy and was much less reliant on surround-sound methods.

Hear for your self

Dolby Atmos has been a part of motion pictures for a few years, however its progress into music has been getting an enormous push from file firms and producers for the previous 18 months. Whereas creating the musical equal of 8K or HDR in all probability will not work — greater than 50 years of surround-sound music codecs inform us that — it is motion pictures the place spatial audio is most helpful. The massive distinction this time round is that whereas virtually nobody had a quadraphonic speaker setup again within the ’70s, millions of people have each an iPhone and an Apple Music or Apple TV Plus subscription. Whether or not listening to the AirPods 3 or trying out a Dolby Atmos soundbar, Apple followers can now take heed to spatial audio to guage for themselves.

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