Understanding the latest trend (or gimmick) in audio.
Spacial audio translates surround sound audio to traditional headphones and speakers. It provides an immersive, “3D” audio experience for movies or music, and there are plenty of non-Apple products that can utilize the technology.
It seems like every new audio product offers “spatial audio,” a technology that’s gained a ton of attention thanks to Apple. But spacial audio still feels very mysterious and confusing. So, it’s time for some straight answers—here’s a full explanation of spacial audio and the hardware required to enjoy it.
Spatial Audio Is an “Immersive” Listening Experience
If you go to a decent movie theater, you’ll notice that the audio comes from all directions—sounds may be on your left or right, but they could also come from behind or above your head. Theaters use surround sound formats like Dolby Atmos to achieve this lifelike audio experience, though such formats require an array of speakers placed around the entire room.
You can build a Dolby Atmos system at home (and many people do). But it’s an expensive venture, and in most rooms, it’s a total inconvenience. So, several companies are developing “spatial audio” formats, which mimic surround sound using traditional headphones and stereo speaker systems.
There are several different spatial audio formats. Apple Spatial Audio is the most well-known, but there’s also Sony 360 Reality Audio, THX Spatial Audio, and DTS:X, among others. Additional spatial audio implementations are sure to arrive in the coming years.
All of these formats promise to deliver surround sound audio without a messy speaker system. That said, some formats (including Apple’s) also track your head to emulate the sensation of being in a room with real speakers. In theory, spatial audio with head tracking should feel more “natural” when watching movies, and it should give you the impression that you’re “in the studio” or “at the venue” when listing to music—this is entirely subjective, of course.
How Does Spatial Audio Work?
All spatial audio formats operate in the same basic way. They take genuine surround sound audio, which may be intended for a 5.1- or 7.1-channel speaker system, and turn it into something that can play through headphones or traditional stereo speakers.
Proprietary software is utilized to preserve the “surround sound” effect of this multi-channel audio. So, although spatial audio is technically 2-channel stereo, it feels like the audio is coming from all directions. An airplane in a movie may sound like it’s above your head, and if you’re listening to music in spatial audio, it may seem like instruments or room reverberations are behind you.
Most movies and TV shows are readily available in Dolby Atmos. And when an artist wants to release music in surround sound, Dolby Atmos is usually the format of choice. So, the majority of spatial audio systems, including Apple’s, simply require a Dolby Atmos master. Automated software can do the rest of the work, although some studios will tinker with their surround sound master to get the best spatial audio output.
When a spatial audio system offers head tracking, it’s usually achieved through a gyroscope, a camera, or a combination of the two. This feature is exclusive to headphones, but as beamforming technology improves, I’m sure that head tracking will become a component of spatial audio speaker systems.
I should note that audio beamforming, a technology that manipulates how sound travels in space, is already utilized in some spatial audio speakers. Apple’s HomePod uses beamforming to measure room acoustics and adjust its sound accordingly—this helps the speaker deliver the best-possible audio quality, but it also ensures that two HomePods can deliver a strong spatial audio experience when paired together.
What Do You Need for Spatial Audio?
Spatial audio software requires a decent amount of computational power, especially when head-tracking is involved. Also, variations in speaker size or distance can damage the “3D effect” of spatial audio, as the software processing needs to be fairly precise.
Due to these constraints, it’s hard to get an all-encompassing spatial audio experience without purpose-built headphones or speakers. There are some exceptions—Apple Music lets you hear spatial audio (without head tracking) on any old pair of headphones, provided that you own a compatible playback device. But Apple Music is an exception to the rule.
If you want to hear spatial audio on Netflix, Amazon Video, Tidal, or most other platforms that offer Dolby Atmos audio, you need purpose-built hardware. More specifically, you need headphones, earbuds, speakers, or a soundbar that explicitly offer spatial audio (or virtualized Dolby Atmos) output.
These purpose-built devices usually contain special computer chips. And spatial audio speakers almost always have an enclosed design, meaning that all of the speaker drivers are stuck inside of a big piece of plastic (think of a soundbar or HomePod). This prevents you from changing the distance between the speaker drivers, which may affect audio quality. (That said, it’s not uncommon for AVRs to offer some level of Dolby Atmos virtualization. But AVRs are outside the scope of this article.)
Those who want to stick with Apple products can choose from the AirPods Pro, AirPods Max, and Beats Fit Pro. You can also experience spacial audio with Google’s Pixel Buds Pro, Sony’s WH-1000XM5 and WF-1000XM4, and if you’re a gamer, most Razer headsets will get the job done (through THX Spacial Audio, which Razer owns).
It’s not uncommon for soundbars to offer spacial audio (through DTS Virtual:X). Vizio’s M-Series soundbar is a good cheap option, though there’s also the JBL Bar, Polk Signa S4, and Sonos Arc. As for standalone speakers, smart options like the HomePod and Echo Studio are usually your best option, though I also suggest looking into the Sonos Era 300. (All three of these speakers can integrate with a home theater system, by the way.)
Best Wireless Earbuds for iPhone
Is Spatial Audio Good, or Is It Just a Gimmick?
Music is always a matter of taste. Some people will enjoy spacial audio, while others won’t. And there’s a lot of gray area here—every brand has a unique implementation of spacial audio, and in my experience, the feature sounds a lot different on a speaker than it does on a pair of headphones.
One of the difficult things about spacial audio, and surround sound in general, is that it can’t be an afterthought. Movie and TV studios know that their content will be mixed and mastered in Dolby Atmos, so they use special mics and techniques during the recording process. But this is rarely the case during music recording, and as a result, surround sound music can be very hit or miss.
Most people will first encounter spacial audio when listening to music (at least, this will be their first knowing encounter). If they hate how it sounds, they’ll immediately write off the technology as a stupid gimmick, which isn’t very fair. I strongly suggest testing spacial audio with movies and TV shows, where it has a lot more room to shine.
As for my personal opinion, I do believe that spacial audio is a gimmick. But it’s a fun little gimmick. I don’t see any harm in the technology, and it gives me a new way to experience my favorite songs and movies. I also think that spatial audio will improve over time, as I’ve seen plenty of improvements in DTS:X soundbars over the years.