Skip to main content

Head-tracking spatial audio in tvOS 15 is awesome

With the release of the tvOS 15 beta last week, we finally got our first taste of what Apple’s spatial audio sounds like when you combine an Apple TV 4K with a big-screen TV and the head-tracking built into the company’s AirPods Max or AirPods Pro. The result? A virtual home theater experience that will put a 65-inch smile on your face.

Apple launched spatial audio on the AirPods Pro in 2020. At the time, it made use of head-tracking technology to create a highly convincing 3D effect that turned your iPhone or iPad’s screen into a virtual movie theater. If you held your iPhone in front of you and moved your head from side to side, dialogue and other key soundtrack elements stayed pinned to the iPhone’s location. Turning your head to the right meant that these sounds seemed to still be coming from your phone.

Related Videos
A person listens to Apple Airpods Max.

With the release of tvOS 15, that same trick now works on an Apple TV 4K, on the biggest screen in the house. Does Apple’s virtual surround sound effect work as well when watching a 55-inch or larger screen? In a word: Yes.

Using a set of AirPods Max (it also works with AirPods Pro) and a second-gen Apple TV 4K, I fired up a variety of movies on Apple TV+, Disney+, Amazon Prime Video, and Netflix. Apple says the feature will work with Dolby 5.1 but you should get the best experience from Dolby Atmos content. Starting with Avengers: Endgame on Disney+,  I was immediately taken by how real spatial audio sounds.

Surround sound in your head

What I mean is that, if you’ve got a 5.1 or better home theater setup, you’re used to hearing sounds coming from the different speakers — that’s what makes surround sound what it is. Head-tracking spatial audio manages to replicate that sensation using just two small speakers attached to your head. It’s so convincing, I had to keep taking the AirPods Max off to check if the sound was also being piped through my regular speakers.

But it’s not just sound direction that gets preserved; spatial audio also does an admirable job of creating a sense of distance to the sound source. This is where spatial on the big screen outdoes spatial on a phone or tablet. When using spatial audio on an iPhone, you get the same immersive effects, but because you’re holding a small screen in your hand — often only inches away — your brain senses a mismatch between the size of the image and the size/distance of the sound you’re hearing.

When using an Apple TV 4K with a big TV, that mismatch is resolved and your brain is handily fooled into thinking the sound is coming from its normal locations around the room.

Not a perfect substitute

It’s not a perfect substitute for conventional speakers. It’s hard to replicate the feel-it-in-your-chest bass of a subwoofer, and Dolby Atmos height channel sounds (the classic helicopter flying overhead effect) aren’t quite as thrilling. But on the other hand, dialogue is easier to understand and you get to benefit from Apple’s outstanding active noise cancellation on the AirPods Max and Pro.

If you live in a condo with thin walls, or you like to do most of your movie watching when the rest of the house is asleep, I can’t recommend spatial audio for Apple TV 4K enough. For $729 or less ($180 for the Apple TV 4K, $549 for AirPods Max), you’ve got a private listening experience that comes incredibly close to rivaling a sound system that can cost thousands.

At the moment, head-tracking spatial audio requires:

  • Apple TV 4K (gen 1 or gen 2)
  • tvOS 15 beta or higher
  • AirPods Pro or AirPods Max
  • Dolby 5.1 or Dolby Atmos content from:
    • Apple TV+
    • Disney+
    • Amazon Prime Video

What about Netflix?

Netflix will also likely benefit from spatial audio, but right now tvOS 15 beta does something odd with Netflix content. Regardless of whether your chosen movie is presented in 5.1 or Dolby Atmos, it gets down-converted to two-channel stereo when listening via AirPods. The Apple TV control center will indicate that spatial audio is available, but turning it on and off doesn’t seem to make a noticeable difference, and there is no relative change in audio direction when you turn your head.

Wondering about Dolby Atmos Music from Apple Music? Apple has said it plans to add head-tracking spatial audio to this content, too, but that doesn’t arrive until this fall. My experience with Apple’s spatial audio treatment of Dolby Atmos Music has been a bit hit-and-miss, so I’m anxious to see if the addition of head-tracking does as much for immersive music as it does for immersive movie soundtracks.

Editors' Recommendations

Apple scrubs most mentions of controversial CSAM features after iOS 15.2 update
Photo editing on the iPhone 13 Pro.

Apple this week released iOS 15.2 with a host of new features, including a communication safety feature for the Messages app that's focused on child protection. However, the company did not include its controversial iCloud Photos child sexual abuse material scanning feature and has appeared to have scrubbed all mention of its existence.

By way of recap, iOS 15.2 was originally intended to come with a child sexual abuse material (CSAM) detection feature. The update would have implemented an on-device scanning feature aimed at sweeping through a user's iCloud photo library for CSAM material. The company noted that it would do this on-device, for maximum privacy. Privacy experts objected, noting that the very concept of scanning a user's photo library for prohibited material was a privacy violation in itself, one that could expand to include other material once the precedent had been set.

Read more
Apple iPadOS 15: Everything you need to know
2021 Apple iPad with pencil.

Apple’s iPadOS 15 software update released on September 20, bringing the various iPads much closer to being stand-alone devices for productivity. The new iPad software makes multitasking easier to grasp and adds features that simplify working with multiple apps, like Quick Notes and center window overlays for some apps.
Multitasking menu
Apple has been improving the iPad's multitasking steadily since the first iPad Pro arrived in 2015. While iPadOS 15 doesn't revamp what multitasking looks like, it makes the existing multi-app configuration easier to navigate.

Split View and Slide Over are still the centerpieces of Apple's multi-app strategy, and they’re easier to find than ever. Now sitting at the top-center of every app is a three-dot menu. Selecting that menu pops up three icons: Full Screen, Split View, and Slide Over.

Read more
How to block email trackers in iOS 15
Apple's Craig Federighi standing in front of the iOS 15 logo.

Keeping your data private and tightly controlled has gone from being something niche to an absolute necessity in recent years, and few companies have gone as hard into data protection as Apple. The last few years have seen the iPhone and iPad gain a wide swathe of privacy-ensuring options, including the email-protecting Sign in with Apple and App Tracking Transparency.

iOS 15 introduced a number of new features, and one of the most privacy-conscious is one that blocks email trackers. Mail Privacy Protection cuts down on data gathered by advertisers from your email inbox. These trackers can check whether you've opened an email, what you did in there, and for how long you left it open. If you're looking to keep a tight rein on your data, then you'll want this setting on. Here's how to use Mail Privacy Protection in iOS 15.
How to turn on Mail Privacy Protection in iOS 15
It's a powerful setting, but the good news is that it's not a particularly tough option to turn on. Toggling on Mail Privacy Protection is as simple as tapping a single option in your Settings menu. It's not on by default, but you'll be asked whether you want to turn it on when you open your Mail app for the first time in iOS 15.

Read more