With the recent release of tvOS 15 beta for Apple TV, headphone-based Spatial Audio finally hits the big screen after debuting on wearable devices earlier this year. The feature is designed to replicate the feel of a proper home theater speaker setup within a pair of AirPods Max or Pro headphones and after testing it on a variety of content I can confidently say that it is one of the surround sounds more convincing. experiences I’ve heard in a couple of cans to date.
Object-based sound formats such as Dolby Atmos add height speakers to a traditional 5.1 or 7.1 surround sound setup, resulting in a compelling 360-degree listening experience that sends sound all around you and above you. A couple of years ago I installed four height speakers in the ceiling of my dedicated media room to effectively convert my 7.1 setup to a 7.1.4 (with .4 denoting the number of height channels). When combined with the correct content, the experience can be otherworldly.
But it’s not always practical to have your speakers blaring at all hours, or to install them on the ceiling in the first place. That’s where virtual solutions like Apple’s Spatial Audio come into play.
The simulation of surround formats in stereo headphones with special software is already a thing on PC and game consoles, and there are also headphones on the market that add head tracking so the audio dynamically changes based on your movements. Apple takes a similar approach here, splitting the audio so that your ears register it as coming from everything around you, effectively recreating the feel of real surround speakers, and tracking your head so that sounds are always coming from the right direction.
When playing The war of tomorrow When using the AirPods Max with spatial audio enabled, the bass becomes much more pronounced and the soundstage really opens up, making it easy to locate sound effects in a scene. The war of tomorrow It features an excellent mix of Dolby Atmos with objects constantly bouncing through all channels, and Apple’s spatial audio implementation in the AirPods Max rarely misses a beat.
The audio sounds more limited and ultimately less shocking on the AirPods Pro, but it’s still a step up from normal stereo and quite impressive considering we’re talking about such small headphones.
You can also enable Spatial Audio for content that doesn’t have a multi-channel mix, but sounds a bit too artificial and unbalanced, as there is more guesswork involved in expanding a stereo soundscape.
Fortunately, there’s a huge library of content on Prime Video, Disney Plus, and Apple TV + encoded in Dolby Atmos or 5.1, which is where Apple’s spatial audio shines, so you shouldn’t be short of content to enjoy. It’s worth noting that the headphone output for Netflix is limited to stereo only, so hopefully this will be rectified by the time of the official launch of tvOS 15 later this year.
While headphones will never deliver the same level of verticality, audio separation, and punchy bass as a proper Atmos speaker setup, Apple’s spatial audio, particularly on the AirPods Max, still delivers a capable and exciting listening experience.
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