Netflix's Tudum Demon Slayer: Kimetsu no Yaiba Season 2 CDC director endorses Pfizer booster for frontline workers China: All cryptocurrency transactions illegal Elon Musk and Grimes 'semi-separated'
CNET editors pick the products and services we write about. When you buy through our links, we may get a commission.

Spatial audio and Apple Music: What you need to know

Apple Music now features albums mixed in Dolby Atmos, which you can listen to on a variety of devices. So what is it and how does it sound?

apple-music-iphone-with-headphones-001
Sarah Tew/CNET
This story is part of WWDC 2021. All the latest coverage from Apple's annual developers conference.

Apple has announced its spatial audio feature is available right now on Apple Music, 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 gaming. However, alongside an update that enables the feature on 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 something truly different, or is it something we've seen before? Does it sound any good? Here's what you need to know about Apple Music and spatial audio.

Read more: Apple FaceTime getting spatial audio for 'more natural' calls

Now playing: Watch this: iOS 15 brings AirPods upgrades
3:04

What is spatial audio?

Spatial audio is Apple's term for a collection of audio technologies that bring 360-degree effects to video calls, movies and specially remixed music. Apple first introduced spatial audio on its AirPods Pro earbuds in 2020, and the company is now expanding the capabilities of other devices in the range. 

While the technology that will power FaceTime calls is different, the spatial audio portion of Apple Music is courtesy of Dolby Atmos. Dolby Atmos Music is one of two competing formats for providing surround and height effects in music, alongside Sony's 360 Reality Audio, but Apple Music only supports Atmos for the moment.

Apple says that Dolby Atmos mixes offer a better experience than lossless music alone.

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

wwdc-2021-apple-566-general-tim-cook.png

Apple's Tim Cook delivering the WWDC 21 keynote.

Apple/Screenshot by Sarah Tew/CNET

The one thing that will separate spatial audio on Apple Music from other technologies will be the ability for select Apple headphones to track where your head is in space, and this will help with immersion. In the case of the AirPods Pro and AirPods Max, these headphones have an onboard accelerometer which helps audio stay in place when you move around.

At CNET we've tried countless technologies that attempt to create surround sound from stereo headphones -- Dolby Headphone, DTS Headphone:X and so on -- but the effect disappears as soon as you move your head. This is because in real life we are able to move our ears to help locate where a sound is coming from, especially behind us, so if you want to believe that you're in a 3D audio space, head tracking is essential. 

Which devices can I hear it on?

airpodsmax-airpodspro-1

The AirPods Pro and AirPods Max.

Lexy Savvides/CNET

Dolby Atmos playback is available on a number of different Apple devices, but no speakers... yet. While the competing Amazon Echo Studio supports Dolby Atmos, the only current, Apple-branded speaker, the HomePod Mini, doesn't yet support spatial audio. However, spatial audio is supported by a number of current (and future) Apple products, so here's a list: 

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

The only feature that isn't available yet is the one thing that this technology needs: head tracking. Apple says that it will enable head tracking for Apple Music in the fall. Meanwhile, the company says spatial audio will work with any headphones plugged into supported products, but they won't offer head tracking.

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

Which services do I need to subscribe to?

apple-iphone11-itunes-music-app-9809
Angela Lang/CNET

In short, Apple Music. This streaming service is available for a $10 (£10, AU$12) monthly subscription. At WWDC 2021, Apple's Gagan Gupta outlined that a variety of music was now available to listen to in spatial audio on Apple Music.

"It's available starting today with albums from some of your favorite artists like Ariana Grande, the Weeknd, J Balvin and Kacey Musgraves," Gupta said.

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

It's important to note that users can listen to spatial audio for no extra charge. Last month both Amazon and Apple announced that HD streams, including "spatial" Atmos audio, would be folded into their regular plans. So if you're an Apple Music subscriber you can listen to spatial audio right now.

What does it sound like?

apple-music-spatial
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 it, the success of spatial (is Dolby Atmos) is mostly in the nature of the mix itself. Every album since the late '60s has been mixed in stereo, but only a relative 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 well the results can be impressive.

I spent some time listening to the dedicated Spatial Music channel on Apple Music and found that the music tended towards two extremes: Either the secondary channels were used for ambience, as with The Replacements' Alex Chilton, or used in a showy, look-at-me way 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 because of an enhanced sense of clarity in the vocals. Michael Kiwanuka's You Ain't The Problem, with its fuzzy guitar and deranged la la las, can be a bit much to handle, but Atmos cleaned it up significantly. His voice hovered in the center about six feet above me, and the wildness of the supporting instruments was tamed.

However, being mixed in 360 surround didn't 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 was less reliant on surround-sound tricks.

Conclusion

Spatial audio has been getting a big push from record companies and manufacturers for 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 sell more hardware and higher-priced subscriptions. More than 50 years of surround-sound music formats suggest it won't be successful. The big difference this time around is that while almost no-one ever had a quadraphonic speaker setup, millions of people have both an iPhone and an Apple Music subscription -- and can listen to spatial audio to judge for themselves.