Apple Music's Spatial Audio explained: How does it sound, is it any good?

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Apple Music's Spatial Audio explained: How does it sound, is it any good?
Last month Apple announced Spatial Audio with Dolby Atmos, which the company also called "the next generation of sound on Apple Music." Sounds interesting! And Spatial Audio arrived on Apple Music at no extra cost, so if you're a subscriber – you can already start listening to Apple Music with Dolby Atmos, so long as you have AirPods or other compatible headphones. If not, you can also use Spatial Audio with just your iPhone or iPad's speakers too.

But what exactly is Spatial Audio, how does it work and should you, or should you not keep it enabled? Without getting too technical, let's figure it out!

What's Spatial Audio with Dolby Atmos?

Dolby Atmos is essentially the technology that Spatial Audio is using. You may have seen Dolby Atmos software come with your new headphones, phone, tablet, laptop or other devices. Usually when you enable it, it makes the sound from those devices feel louder and wider. Or as some would call it – 3D. The sound starts seemingly coming from invisible extra sources instead of just from the two speakers of your device.

This normally works so effectively because of the clever software trickery that Dolby Atmos employs. It's known as "virtual surround sound".

Your devices (often) have only two speakers (a.k.a. channels), thus sound can logically only come from where those two speakers are positioned. But virtual surround sound is able to enhance sound on the fly, making you perceive it as wider and coming from impossible directions – behind the phone or tablet, above it, or even behind you if you're using headphones.

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Without getting too technical, this software trick works by "shifting" or delaying different sound frequencies a very tiny bit. This in turn makes those frequencies reach one of your ears slightly later than it does the other one, causing your brain to perceive the sound as if it's coming from a slightly different position than where your speakers (or headphone drivers) are. This happening constantly, along with clever equalization (boosting and lowering) of frequencies is generally what gives Dolby Atmos such a wide-feeling, multi-dimensional sound.

How does the Dolby Atmos software know which frequencies should it shift around? Well, many high-profile movies, games and music albums are designed with Dolby Atmos in mind. So their audio contains the necessary metadata for Dolby Atmos to know exactly which frequencies should be coming from where, and when.

As an example, you could be listening to a live concert which was recorded for Dolby Atmos – when you enable it on a quality product (iPad Pro speakers, AirPods Max, etc), you should be able to hear just where each musical instrument is coming from. Or at least, its general position. Without Dolby Atmos, you'll normally hear the music coming exactly from the speakers; the illusion of a wider sound coming from invisible extra speakers won't be there. Thus – lesser immersion in your music.

It's worth noting that Dolby Atmos is actually a wide range of technologies and doesn't work in that exact same way when it's used in cinemas, for example. We're just going to focus on Dolby Atmos on Apple Music here.

Long story short, Dolby Atmos is clever software that's tricking your brain, but regardless, it usually works great, and it's no surprise Apple Music supports it and uses it for what it calls Spatial Audio.

If you'd like to see the grand way in which Apple initially presents Spatial Audio with Dolby Atmos to its users – I took several screenshots that you may find interesting:

Is Apple Music's Spatial Audio with Dolby Atmos any good?

Time for my personal thoughts, and bear in mind you may feel differently about Spatial Audio depending on your taste in music, your hearing and so on. We're all a bit different in those aspects.

I used the AirPods Max to listen to Apple Music's recommended, specially-mastered tracks for Spatial Audio with Dolby Atmos.

Immediately upon enabling Spatial Audio you'll notice that the music becomes significantly wider; vocals and instruments start coming from all around you and it's quite immersive. If you've only used regular consumer headphones until now, Spatial Audio with compatible headphones will likely be quite a major improvement, or as Apple describes it – a "next generation of sound".

I immediately went back to my everyday mid-range DJ headphones in order to be able to describe the difference in sound more aptly. Compared to listening to music on AirPods Max with Spatial Audio, listening to normal music on average headphones feels like the sound is much more narrow, and definitely not "3D" but just coming from the same two positions, where the left and right headphone drivers are. So what Spatial Audio with Dolby Atmos does is indeed quite an upgrade, in terms of soundstage at least.

I doubt many music enthusiasts who get to experience this kind of wide and multi-dimensional sound will be willing to go back to plain ol' music listening. But! I can totally see a lot of people preferring a more narrow and plain sound too. In fact, for certain genres I'd prefer it too. But if you're heavy into pop music or mainstream hip-hop and the likes, Spatial Audio with Dolby Atmos is arguably the best way to experience your favorite songs right now.

As for how Spatial Audio with Dolby Atmos sounds on built-in speakers – I tried it on my iPad Air 2020 and the results were similar, but of course, less immersive than on headphones. Again, music sounds notably wider and it is more noticeable where instruments and vocals are coming from. But you'd definitely want to try it on compatible headphones, because on speakers, at least to me, it doesn't feel like anything better than the regular Dolby Atmos you get on certain phones and tablets like the Galaxy Tab S7+.

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