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What is spatial audio? The 3D sound experience fully explained

Apple's head-tracking spatial audio for Apple TV 4K.

Since Apple added “spatial audio” to the Apple Music streaming service and the AirPods family of wireless earbuds and headphones in 2021, it feels like you can’t read about new audio products or services without running into that term. And just a few short years later, it’s seemingly everywhere.

This has led to a lot of misconceptions about what spatial audio is, how it works, and why you need to hear it for yourself. People often ask, “If Apple created spatial audio, why are other companies claiming they do it, too?” The answer is that Apple didn’t create it, and you certainly don’t need to own its products to experience spatial audio.

So what exactly is spatial audio, and how is it different (or maybe the same) from other terms you’ve likely heard, like surround sound and Dolby Atmos?

There’s a lot of ground to cover, and some of it is a bit technical. But we’re going to break it all down in easy-to-understand terms. You’ll be a spatial audio expert in minutes and know exactly how to access this growing trend that is reshaping our experience of music and movies.

What exactly is spatial audio?

Spatial audio graphic.
Digital Trends

Despite what Apple’s intensive marketing efforts would have you believe, it did not invent spatial audio. It’s a generic term that refers to any audio that has been engineered to have an immersive, 3D quality, with the ability to present sounds in a 360-degree hemisphere around the listener.

Just like the move from mono to stereo sound required a new format — one with two channels of sound instead of a single channel — spatial audio has given rise to new formats. You’ve probably heard of the most popular spatial audio format, Dolby Atmos, but there are others, too, like DTS:X and Sony 360 Reality Audio.

With new formats comes new technology. To hear these spatial audio formats, you need access to music or video content created using spatial audio and possibly some new gear built to play spatial audio.

Sources of spatial audio content

Photo of Disney+ interface showing the info screen from Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, featuring Dolby Vision and Dolby Atmos logos.
Simon Cohen / Digital Trends

Movies were the first type of content to use spatial audio, and they’re still the most popular. Dolby Atmos movies and TV shows are now widely available on streaming services like Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, Disney+, Apple TV+, and many more. In some cases, you may need to pay more than the price of a basic subscription to access Dolby Atmos versions of these titles.

DTS:X has yet to gain widespread use on streaming platforms, but Blu-ray discs often use this spatial audio format, as well as Dolby Atmos.

Music is the most recent type of content to adopt spatial audio. It’s been Apple, more than any other company, that has cast itself as head cheerleader for spatial audio in music, which is why you’re probably hearing more about spatial audio now.

Apple Music's spatial audio collection seen on an iPhone 14, next to Apple AirPods Pro.
Simon Cohen / Digital Trends

To access music in spatial audio, you’ll need a subscription to one of the three music services that currently stream in spatial audio formats. Apple Music provides spatial audio in Dolby Atmos Music, while Amazon Music and Tidal support both Dolby Atmos Music and Sony 360 Reality Audio.

You can also get Dolby Atmos Music on Blu-ray disc. With its lossless compression, it’s the highest quality version of spatial audio for music. Unfortunately, transferring this content to your phone or other portable devices is difficult and, in many cases, impossible, so Blu-ray disc spatial audio music will remain a home-listening experience for the foreseeable future.

How to listen to spatial audio

You can listen to spatial audio for both movies and music using speakers or headphones, but there are considerable differences in terms of the gear you need.

Using speakers

Klipsch Reference Premiere Dolby Atmos Lifestyle 5 speaker.
Up-firing speakers are a sure sign of spatial audio. Klipsch / Klipsch

Speaker-based spatial audio requires one of the sources of content we listed above, a device that can decode the spatial audio format you want to listen to, amplification to power the speakers, and the speakers themselves.

The good news is that in some cases, you can get all of that in one product. It all depends on how critical you are about sound quality (and how much money you’re willing to spend).

Spatial audio for movies presents the biggest technical hurdle. For streaming, in addition to a relevant video streaming service subscription, you’ll need a device that is compatible with the service’s app, Dolby Atmos, and critically, Dolby Atmos from your chosen service (yes, sadly there are instances where this isn’t the case.)

Apple TV 4K hardware with remote and retail box.
Apple TV 4K handles spatial audio just fine. Phil Nickinson / Digital Trends

Some of the newest smart TVs meet all of these requirements — if you’re in this camp, congrats — that’s one less device you’ll need to buy. For others, a streaming device like an Apple TV 4K is a necessity. Again, Atmos support on the device as well as within your chosen app are the keys to making things work.

For disc-based media, you’ll need a Blu-ray player that’s compatible with either Dolby Atmos or DTS:X (preferably both).

The next step in the chain is your audio system. Dolby Atmos-capable TVs will theoretically let you hear spatial audio, but the experience tends to be lackluster. Most folks will want something better.

2023 Samsung HW-Q990C.
A Dolby Atmos-capable soundbar is among the easiest ways to get spatial audio from your home theater. Samsung / Samsung

Your choices are a full home theater system with wired speakers powered by a Dolby Atmos AV receiver or, for a simpler setup, a Dolby Atmos soundbar.

Whichever way you go, you’ll be able to hear spatial audio for movies and TV shows. You can also listen to spatial audio music with the same caveats: your chosen gear needs to support your streaming service or disc-based media.

If you just want to listen to spatial audio music, a growing number of powered wireless speakers now work with Dolby Atmos. These include the Apple HomePod, Sonos Era 300, JBL Authentics 500, and Amazon’s Echo Studio.

Before you buy, make sure your chosen speaker works with your preferred streaming service — some models have limited service support.

Using headphones or earbuds

A viewer uses AirPods Max headphones to experience Spatial Audio on the new Apple TV 4K
Zeke Jones / Digital Trends

Accessing spatial audio through headphones or earbuds is a very simple process, with some very clever science behind it.

If you have an iPhone or an Android smartphone and one of the three spatial audio streaming apps (Apple Music, Tidal, or Amazon Music), you’ll be able to hear spatial audio with any set of stereo headphones or earbuds that work with your device. They can be wired or wireless.

The secret to hearing the equivalent of a full 7.1.4 home theater system through a regular set of headphones is a technique known as binaural rendering.

If we are blindfolded and someone stands 10 feet away from us and stars clapping, it would barely take us a split second to correctly identify the direction of the sound. We could probably also say with a high degree of accuracy how far away that sound was.

That’s because our brains are sensitive to things like volume, pitch, and the slightest variations in the timing of sounds that reach our ears.

These audio cues can be faked, thanks to the science of psychoacoustics. With nothing fancier than a set of normal stereo headphones, audio can be generated for each ear that recreates the way our brains perceive real-world sounds.

Apple AirPods spatial audio
Apple / Apple

Using the principles of psychoacoustics, binaural rendering takes a spatial audio format like Dolby Atmos and simulates what it would sound like if you were in a studio or home theater equipped with surround sound speakers, including overhead height channel speakers.

The Apple Music, Tidal, and Amazon Music apps each include binaural rendering engines, so there’s no need for any additional hardware or software.

Our heads and our ears play a big part in how we perceive sound. Even the specific shape of our ears can have an effect, which is why Apple and Sony invite you to upload photos of your ears into their apps. With this extra data, binaural rendering can make spatial audio sound more realistic.

The Apple AirPods Pro 2 with Spatial Audio feature on an iPhone.

Apple calls this “personalized spatial audio,” and for now, it’s exclusively supported on AirPods Pro, AirPods Max, AirPods (3rd generation), Beats Fit Pro, or Beats Studio Pro — plus your iPhone’s front-facing camera needs to support TrueDepth, to get an accurate scan of your ears (iPhone X or newer, not including SE models).

Do you need access to a spatial audio format like Dolby Atmos to experience spatial audio?

Sennheiser Ambeo Soundbar Mini - Ambeo indicator.
Simon Cohen / Digital Trends

Some audio products are capable of “upmixing” stereo or other non-spatial audio formats into something that sounds a lot like a true spatial audio format like Dolby Atmos.

The feature is less common on smart TVs, but virtually all Dolby Atmos-capable AV receivers and soundbars can use Dolby upmixing any sound source to near-spatial audio quality, using all of your system’s available speakers.

Some non-Dolby Atmos soundbars have a version of this technology known as DTS Virtual:X, which can do something similar, while some brands combine Dolby’s tech with their own upmixing tech, like Sony’s Immersive AE and Sennheiser’s Ambeo.

You’ll also find this capability on select wireless headphones and wireless earbuds. Apple’s AirPods Pro, AirPods Max, and third-gen AirPods have this feature, as does Bose’s QuietComfort Ultra Headphones, QuietComfort Ultra Earbuds, and Ultra Open Earbuds. You’ll also find it on products from Soundcore, Jabra, and 1More, just to name a few.

What about head tracking?

Beats Studio Pro Apple TV 4K spatial audio settings screen.
Simon Cohen / Digital Trends

Head tracking, which was introduced by Apple, embeds a series of motion sensors inside wireless headphones or wireless earbuds to provide you with a heightened sense of spatial audio realism.

We noted that headphones-based spatial audio can simulate what it’s like to sit in a 7.1.4-channel home theater. Without head tracking, when you move your head, that entire home theater setup moves with you — whichever direction you’re currently facing, that’s where the “front” of the room is.

With head tracking, the room (and its “speakers”) stays anchored in place. Turning your head feels just like it would if you were really in the room. Sounds coming from in front of you (like actors speaking or a lead singer singing) stay fixed in space. Turn to the left, and the sound shifts to your right. Turn right, and the sound moves to the left.

It’s not yet clear whether spatial audio with head tracking improves the music listening experience — in fact, unless you’re sitting still, it can be very distracting or even disorienting. But the movie-watching experience can be sublime.

Head tracking works best with a binaurally rendered spatial audio format like Dolby Atmos, but it can be used with upmixed audio content too.

Spatial audio buying advice: beware the hype

A graphic describing the hi-res audio and spatial audio capabilities of the JLab Epic Lab Edition wireless earbuds.

Spatial audio has become such a big buzzword that companies have started to label their products with the term, especially in the headphone world. This is where some good old-fashioned buyer-beware behavior will save you some frustration.

The first thing to remember is that all stereo headphones work with spatial audio music. Your headphones don’t have to say “spatial audio,” “Dolby Audio,” or “Dolby Atmos.” As long as you have access to spatial audio content through a streaming app on your phone, you don’t need anything else.

Similarly, just because a product says it supports spatial audio doesn’t mean it will perform advanced functions like spatial audio upmixing or head tracking. If these features are important to you, read the full specifications and make sure that’s what you’re getting.

For instance, Beats says its Beats Studio Buds+ and Beats Fit Pro wireless earbuds support spatial audio. But if you read the full descriptions, they promise very different experiences. The Beats Studio+ “support spatial audio for immersive music — delivering a surround sound experience — that you can take anywhere. It’s like being surrounded by 64 speakers at once.”

The Beats Fit Pro “support Spatial Audio with dynamic head tracking for immersive music, movies, and games. Dynamic head tracking uses gyroscopes and accelerometers to adjust the sound as you turn your head, for a multi-dimensional experience that makes you feel like you’re inside of it.”

Secondly, as fun as spatial audio can be, it’s not for everyone. Especially with headphones or earbuds, I recommend you try out a feature like head tracking before spending more on a product just to get it.

When it comes to soundbars, keep in mind that there can be huge differences in spatial audio performance. A $200, 2.1-channel soundbar may be Dolby Atmos compatible, but it won’t deliver anywhere near the immersive experience you’ll get from a $1,000, 7.1.2-channel soundbar.

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Simon Cohen
Contributing Editor, A/V
Simon Cohen covers a variety of consumer technologies, but has a special interest in audio and video products, like spatial…
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