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Spatial Audio and Apple Music: What You Need to Know



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Jide Akinrinade / CNET

This story is part of Apple event, our full coverage of the latest news from Apple headquarters.

Earlier this week, Apple unveiled its spatial audio feature for use with Apple Music on WWDC, but what exactly is it?

The ability to listen to audio on more than one plane, or dimension, has been around for decades and is most often used in movies and games. However, next to FaceTime calls, this is the first time you can hear spatial audio on Apple’s music subscription service.

But is spatial audio on Apple Music really something different, or is it something we’ve seen before? Does it sound good? The answers are a little more complicated. Here’s what you need to know about Apple Music and spatial audio.

Read more: Apple FaceTime gets spatial audio for ‘more natural’ conversations






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What is spatial audio?

Spatial audio is Apple’s term for a collection of audio technologies that give 360-degree effects to video calls, movies and specially remixed music. Apple introduced spatial audio for the first time on his AirPods Pro earbuds last year, and the company is now expanding the capabilities of other devices in the range.

While the technology that enables FaceTime calls is different, the spatial audio portion of Apple Music is: Dolby Atmos music. Dolby Atmos Music is one of two competing formats for delivering surround and height effects in music – the other being Sony’s 360 Reality Audio. Apple has not yet made any statements about Sony; Apple Music only supports Atmos for now.

“Listening to a song in Dolby Atmos is like magic,” Oliver Schusser, Apple’s vice president of Apple Music and Beats, said in a May press release. “The music comes from all around you and sounds incredible.”

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Apple’s Tim Cook delivers the WWDC 21 keynote.

Apple/screenshot by Sarah Tew/CNET

The only thing that separates spatial audio on Apple Music from other audio technologies is the ability for the headphones to track where your head is in space, which aids in immersion. At CNET, we’ve tried numerous technologies that try to create surround from stereo headphones — Dolby Headphone, DTS Headphones:X and so on — but the effect disappears as soon as you move your head. In real life, we can move our ears to help locate where a sound is coming from, especially behind us, so if you want to believe you’re in a 3D audio space, head tracking is essential.

In the case of the AirPods Pro and AirPods Max, the headphones have a built-in accelerometer that ensures that the sound stays in place when you move.

What devices can I hear it on?

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The AirPods Pro and AirPods Max.

Lexy Savvides/CNET

While the Amazon Echo Studio supports Dolby Atmos, the only current Apple-branded speaker, the HomePod Mini, does not yet support spatial audio. Spatial audio is supported by some current (and future) Apple products, though, so here’s a list:

  • Apple TV 4K (2017 and 2021)
  • AirPods and Beats headphones with H1 or W1 chip
  • Built-in speakers from the latest iPhone, iPad and Macs (M1 chips)

The only feature that isn’t available yet is all this technology needs: head tracking. Apple says it will enable head tracking for Apple Music in the fall. Meanwhile, the company says spatial audio will work with any headphones connected to supported products, but they don’t offer head tracking.

If you’re listening to Apple Music on an Apple TV, you’ll need to either connect it to a compatible sound bar, or an AV system that includes Dolby Atmos decoding, for example a receiver and 5.1.2 speaker package.

Which services should I subscribe to?

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Angela Lang/CNET

In short, Apple Music. It is available for a monthly subscription of $10 (£10, AU$12). Bee the June 7 eventApple’s Gagan Gupta outlined that a variety of music was now available to listen to in spatial audio on Apple Music.

“It’s available today with albums from some of your favorite artists like Ariana Grande, The Weeknd, J Balvin and Kacey Musgraves,” Gupta said.

However, Apple Music isn’t the first spatial audio service to appear on Apple devices – Tidal brought Atmos Music to Apple TV 4K in May 2020. Sony’s Reality Audio 360 will be available on its own headphones and high-end speakers.

In a related story, both Amazon and Apple announced last month that HD streams, including “spatial” Atmos audio, would be folded in their normal plans. So you can listen to spatial audio without paying extra.

How does it sound?

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Ty Pendlebury/CNET

I did some listening tests with a Marantz SR6013, Apple TV 4K and a Klipsch 4.1.2 Dolby Atmos speaker setup (no center). As with DVD audio and quadraphonic before that, the success of spatial (is Dolby Atmos) is mainly in the nature of the mix itself. Every album since the late ’60s has been mixed in stereo, but only a relatively handful have ever been mixed for more than two speakers. It takes extra time and effort to produce an album in Dolby Atmos Music, but when done right, the results can be impressive.

I listened to the special Spatial Music channel on Apple Music for some time and found that the music leaned towards two extremes: either the secondary channels were used for atmosphere, as with Alex Chilton of The Replacements, or used in a gaudy, -I just like Rush’s Tom Sawyer, where the percussion appeared above and behind me.

In at least one case, the Atmos mix was actually better than the original stereo mix, but this was more due to an improved sense of clarity in the vocals. Michael Kiwanuka’s You Ain’t The Problem, with its fuzzy guitar and insane la la las, may be a bit much, but Atmos has cleaned it up considerably. His voice hovered in the middle about six feet above me, and the wildness of the supporting instruments was tamed.

However, mixing in 360 surround was no guarantee that a song sounded better. While spatial mixes of songs like Kanye West’s Black Skinhead were fun, I found that the original stereo mix had more power and relied less on surround sound tricks.

Conclusion

Spatial audio has received a major push from record labels and manufacturers over the past 18 months. It seems to me that they desperately want to create the audio equivalent of 8K or HDR — audio technology that helps to sell more hardware and more expensive subscriptions. More than 50 years of surround-sound music formats suggest it won’t be a success. The big difference this time around is that, while hardly anyone ever had a quadraphonic speaker setup, millions of people have both one iPhone and an Apple Music subscription — and can listen to spatial audio to judge for yourself.


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