In case you missed it, Apple announced last month at its Worldwide Developers Conference that the AirPods Pro will get a big upgrade this fall with the release of iOS 14 (and the update of iPadOS, too): a "spatial audio" feature that simulates surround sound.
While Apple only talked about the feature as it relates to the AirPods Pro, the company is widely expected to release a full-size noise-canceling headphone, rumored to be called AirPods Studio, in the coming months to compete with premium models from Bose and Sony, the leaders in the category. Spatial audio may just be the X factor that gives Apple an edge that I didn't think it would have when all the talk of Apple over-ear noise-canceling headphones started.
Having spent the last three years gobbling up the profits of the earbud market, here's how Apple could use elements of that same playbook to establish a beachhead in the luxury headphone market, too -- one that may well eventually dwarf the position that Apple-owned Beats already holds.
Headphone surround sound is ripe for disruption
Simulated surround sound isn't a new feature. It's been available on headphones for many years, most recently with Dolby Atmos. But Apple's new spatial audio feature has the potential to create a more realistic surround-sound experience. That's because the AirPods Pro will use their built-in accelerometers and gyroscopes to track the motion of your head while simultaneously tracking the position of your iPhone or iPad with their accelerometers and gyroscopes. (If Apple ever disclosed before now that AirPods Pro have gyroscopes, I certainly didn't notice.)
Sound is placed virtually in a 3D space relative to the location of your screen. If you turn your head or move your device, the dialogue track -- actors' voices -- remains fixed to the screen, with sounds appearing to be coming from behind you, above you and to the left and right. Typically, when you move your head, the surround effects disappear.
Some higher-end PC gaming headphones offer a head-tracking feature, including the $300 Hyper X Cloud Orbit S (based on the $400 Audeze Mobius) and new JBL Quantum One. But they typically require a PC to use the feature and are focused on creating a more immersive gaming experience in which you can gain an advantage by hearing where opponents are on a virtual battlefield, even when you can't see them.
Sony has its own new spatial audio format, 360 Reality Audio, which is available for its excellent WH-1000XM3 headphones, but it's strictly for music. And the upcoming PlayStation 5 will have new 3D Audio technology that promises to go beyond the PS4's virtual surround, an upsell on the new Pulse 3D Wireless headset that will launch alongside the PS5 later this year.
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Last year Creative released a line of headphones that use its Super X-Fi virtual surround sound technology, which it describes as "headphone holography" that "captures the listening experience of a high-end multispeaker system in a professional studio, and recreates the same expansive experience in your headphones using computational audio intensive techniques to custom fit audio, for every individual, through a sophisticated head and ear-mapping process." The technology wowed some tech journalists in early demos, but was a little overhyped (based on my experience using it) and hasn't really taken off.
Meanwhile, Apple is playing up what its spatial audio will bring to movie and video watching. The AirPods Pro will convert 5.1 channel, 7.1 channel or Dolby Atmos digital audio signals into virtual surround -- and it will work with any video streaming app that supports multichannel audio, including Vudu, Netflix, Hulu, Disney Plus, HBO Go and Max, Amazon Video and the Apple TV app, of course. To be clear, when it launches this fall it's only designed to work with the iPhone 7 or better (it works with the new iPhone SE but not the old SE, iPhone 6S or any iPod Touch) and more recent iPads (the third-generation or later 12.9‑inch iPad, the 11‑inch iPad Pro, the third-generation iPad Air, sixth-generation or better iPad and fifth-generation iPad Mini). Stereo tracks can also get the spatial-audio treatment if the app developer adds an Apple plug-in. Starting with a stereo signal probably won't yield the best virtual surround experience, however.
Why the AirPods succeeded
Currently, we don't know exactly what features the rumored AirPods Studio will have. Back in May, 9to5Mac detailed how the new headphones would have head and neck-detection sensors along with some other feature that didn't necessarily seem like real game-changers. But spatial audio would be a different story. And you'd have to think that if Apple can put accelerometers and gyroscopes in tiny earbuds like the AirPods Pro, it wouldn't be that big a deal to put them in a pair of full-size headphones.
When the AirPods first were released at the end of 2016, true-wireless earbuds were glitchy and tended to be a bit ungainly. Apple was able to quickly dominate the market because it offered a more reliable product that was easy to use and better designed. Despite all the initial jokes about how they looked, they were lightweight and comfortable to wear for a lot of people. Yes, they cost $160, but at the time they were cheap for a premium set of true-wireless earbuds, which cost closer to $200.
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According to several people I've spoken to over the years, Apple essentially viewed the original AirPods as an accessory to help sell more iPhones and was, therefore, willing to allow margins to be uncharacteristically slim, at least by Apple standards. So not only did it have a technology advantage with the AirPods, but it also had a pricing advantage -- though that's long gone, now that you can snag decent true wireless headphones on Amazon for as little as $50.
More competition, more opportunity
The premium full-size noise-canceling headphone arena that the AirPods Studio will be entering is much more mature and filled with several strong products, including the aforementioned Sony WH-1000XM3 (plus the inevitable WH-1000XM4) and Bose's Noise Cancelling Headphones 700. Sennheiser, Bang & Olufsen, Jabra, Bowers & Wilkins, JBL and others, including Apple's own Beats, also make very good noise-canceling headphones. In that sense, it's similar to what the HomePod faced in the wireless speaker market, which already had some established players, including Sonos.
I have my doubts that Apple's full-size noise-canceling headphones, whatever they're called, will sound better, offer better noise canceling or be that much more comfortable to wear than the top models in the category. And I don't think they'll be priced less than the competition, probably coming in at anywhere from $300 to $450. But if they sound as good, offer strong noise-canceling and voice-calling capabilities with hands-free Siri and add the same spatial audio feature the AirPods Pro will have, that just might give them a leg up -- at least with Apple device owners.
With so many people watching streaming video on their iPhones and iPads, the idea of bringing a surround-sound experience to the equation would have a lot of appeal, so long as it lived up to expectations. Currently, Bose and Sony don't have anything like that. Bose's bonus feature was AR Audio, but the company reportedly scrapped its augmented reality program recently. And, as I said, Sony has focused its headphone surround-sound efforts on music, not movies. If Apple's AirPods Studio end up having spatial audio, that may prove to have been a mistake.