What Is Spatial Audio: A Beginner’s Guide

Enjoy what Apple's Spatial Audio feature has to offer
Enjoy what Apple’s Spatial Audio feature has to offer

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Understanding and absorbing the immersive world of spatial audio

Apple made waves when they released their spatial audio features in 2020 by delivering an all-encompassing, cinema-like sound experience within the confines of headphones.

Plenty of listeners are already enjoying the feature daily, while others are still left asking: what is spatial audio? Is it really the next step forward in our everyday audio experience?

In this article, we’re covering the fundamentals of spatial audio as it applies to Apple and beyond: what it is, how it works, and how you can experience it for yourself.

What Is Spatial Audio?

Woman enjoying spatial sound in headphones
Woman enjoying spatial sound in headphones

Spatial Audio is an audio playback technology that creates the illusion of a 3D, 360-degree sound field around a listener.

Going beyond traditional surround sound, spatial audio incorporates lateral and vertical audio directionality. It also does not require any one particular speaker setup. In fact, as many reading this are likely well aware, Apple’s Airpods and Airpods Max are among the most common (though not the only) ways people have been experiencing spatial audio.

Apple’s spatial audio features build off established spatial formats like Dolby Atmos by incorporating head tracking on compatible headphones like Airpods or Beats’ Fit Pro.

While all headphones support spatial audio with Dolby Atmos on compatible devices, only select headphones support head tracking.

Head tracking adds an extra immersive element to Apple’s spatial audio by adjusting a sound’s location relative to a listener’s head position. If a sound is coming from a listener’s left, for example, it will come from their front once they turn their head to the left.

In short, spatial audio formats like Dolby Atmos produce a static 3D space that Apple, in turn, uses to map additional immersive audio features like head tracking.

Apple’s Spatial Audio was introduced for videos and gaming with iOS 14 in September 2020 and made its way to Apple Music in June 2021. Since its launch, more third-party apps have become compatible with it, to the joy of audiophiles everywhere.

How Does Spatial Audio Work?

Spatial audio works by employing directional audio filters and adjusting the frequencies relayed to each ear to create the impression that different sounds originate from the left, right, below, or above a listener.

In other words, spatial audio works through psychoacoustic trickery.

In order for your ears to perceive sounds as coming from above you when they are actually coming from a headphone speaker, or even a speaker out in front of you, spatial cues for your ears are essentially artificially encoded into the audio you hear.

What You Need to Experience Spatial Audio

While it’s a near given that the most recent Apple releases feature spatial audio, other brands and companies have been amping up their production. Below is a list of devices that support spatial audio, split between Apple and others:

Apple Devices With Spatial AudioOther Devices With Spatial Audio
  • AirPods (3rd generation), AirPods Pro (1st or 2nd generation), AirPods Max
  • Beats Fit Pro
  • The speakers on an iPhone 7 or later
  • iPad Pro 12.9-inch (3rd generation) or later
  • iPad Pro 11-inch
  • iPad Air (3rd generation) or later
  • iPad (6th generation) or later
  • iPad mini (5th generation) or later
  • iOS or iPadOS 15.1 or later
  • The speakers on select Mac computers
  • Apple TV 4K with tvOS 15 or later
  • Bose QuietComfort Ultra
  • Sony WF-1000XM3 or later
  • Sony WH-1000XM3 or later
  • Cleer Audio Alpha
  • Anker Soundcore X600
  • Spatial X4 Premium and X4 Ultra
  • Sonos Era 300
  • Sony WLA-NS7 Wireless Receiver (spatial audio compatible only with Sony devices)
  • Sony Bravia XR TV’s
  • Select headphone amps like Creative’s Super X-Fi Amp

Creative’s Super X-Fi Amp actually beat Apple in the race to head-tracked spatial audio when it first debuted in 2018!

Additionally, you need to play content from a supported app. Besides Apple Music and Apple TV, apps compatible with the feature include Amazon Music, Tidal, Netflix, Hulu, Disney+, HBO Max, Peacock, and more.

Finally, the media you’re interested in must also be compatible with Dolby Atmos if you want a complete spatial audio experience. The feature might not be available for older movies streaming online.

Spatial Audio with Dolby Atmos is also available to Android users with Apple Music. The only caveat is that your device needs to support Dolby Atmos.

Is Spatial Audio Right for You?

For those who prioritize experiencing the cutting edge of modern audio technology, taking a dive into spatial audio is a no-brainer. It’s no exaggeration to say that it’s one of the most revolutionary and disruptive developments that the audio industry has seen in decades. Who wouldn’t want a slice of that action?

Some people, however, may still prefer more traditional stereo or surround sound formats. If you’re already heavily invested in a banging 5.1 or stereo setup, for example, you may very well prefer it to the spatial audio offerings currently on the market, and can save yourself some money.

Some listeners who are used to stereo or traditional 5.1 surround sound may prefer reveling in the artistry involved in producing sensations of height or depth within the limitations of these formats.

Others are outright critical of spatial audio, calling it a gimmick or saying it sounds artificial. Going with or without spatial audio is a personal preference, with no single audio format presenting itself as an inherently superior option.

Sad to say, Spotify doesn’t officially support spatial audio. You can turn it on with your iPhone or Android though.


What is personalized spatial audio?

Personalized spatial audio is a feature on Apple Airpods (1st Generation Pro, 2nd Generation Pro, 3rd Generation), Airpods Max, Beats Fit Pro, and Beats Studio Pro that optimizes spatial audio quality by tailoring audio to the way you personally hear. This is accomplished by giving a listener a quick hearing test and then calibrating the headphones accordingly.

What is spatialize stereo?

Spatialize stereo is an Apple feature for headphones that reformats traditional stereo recordings to sound like they are playing from stereo speakers positioned in front of the listener.

How do I listen to spatial audio on airpods?

If you’re listening on an iPhone or iPad, click the “i” next to “AirPods” in your Bluetooth device menu. From here, you can enable or disable spatial audio as well as head tracking.

Why is spatial audio not available?

First, check to see if you have spatial audio enabled on your headphones. If you do, and spatial audio is still not available, double-check to see if all of the devices in your audio signal chain offer spatial audio compatibility.

💬 Conversation: 1 comment

  1. What a load of nonsense. Spatial audio has been around since stereo systems appeared.

    Every band or film maker has sat in the mixing room placing instruments and sound effects since the had the ability to have a stereo signal.

    If this was a videogame console moving the audio around in real time I’d be impressed, but they’ve getting sound that since the sound blaster realeased in the 90s.

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