Last month we heard a promising report that one of the most popular streaming services on the planet was working on adding Spatial Audio support for users of Apple’s AirPods. Unfortunately for Netflix fans, however, it now looks like that may have been a false start.
The report back in January claimed to come from a “very knowledgeable source” on the Netflix developer team, who had said that Netflix was already testing Spatial Audio support for Apple’s AirPods Pro and AirPods Max, suggesting that it could have begun rolling out with a few titles as soon as this spring.
However, now it looks like that source may have been a bit confused, as MacRumors has been told directly by a Netflix spokesperson that it’s not testing Spatial Audio support in any way; instead what it was testing was multi-channel support for built-in speakers to help improve its service overall, hoping to deliver “new experiences” for Netflix users.
What’s Spatial Audio?
For those unfamiliar, Apple introduced Spatial Audio in iOS 14 as a feature exclusive to the AirPods Pro that allows a really cool virtual surround sound experience when watching Dolby Atmos encoded movies and TV shows — provided of course you’re doing so through a supported app.
Spatial Audio also includes a positional audio feature that works with just about any content, with accelerometers in the AirPods Pro tracking your head movements so that the audio always appears to be coming from the direction of your iPad or iPhone.
At this point, the feature is only available on relatively recent iPhone and iPad models — the Apple TV has been left out so far — and you’ll need either AirPods Pro or AirPods Max to take advantage of it — although there are also rumours that it could also be coming to the third-generation AirPods, which could launch as soon as next month.
So with such a relatively limited audience, it’s sort of understandable why Netflix isn’t in any big hurry to pick up on it — except for the fact that Netflix is rapidly becoming an outlier among major streaming services.
Naturally, Apple’s own TV app fully supports the feature, which includes not only Apple TV+ and iTunes movies and TV shows, but also any services available through Apple TV Channels, such as Showtime and CBS All Access (soon to be “Paramount+”). However, it’s far from the only one; Disney+ and HBO Max are already on board too, and there’s no doubt that other affiliated services like Hulu are also actively working on it.
Netflix and Apple
That said, Netflix has never had a warm relationship with Apple, and is notorious for not playing well with others, preferring to chart its own course instead. For example, it remains the only significant streaming service to offer no integration at all with Universal Search, Siri, or the Apple TV app, leaving Netflix content in a virtual silo — if you want to watch Netflix, you have to open the Netflix app.
Further, while Apple has a Video Partner Program that boasts over 130 premium subscription video providers, Netflix remains conspicuously absent from that list — a list which includes almost everyone else from Amazon Prime, Disney+ and HBO Max to smaller providers like the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC).
Of course, while that partnership, which requires video providers to integrate with Apple’s features like Siri and the TV app, reduces Apple’s commissions to 15 percent, Netflix very likely considers that as being too much to give up — it dropped in-app subscriptions entirely about five years ago, requiring users to sign up on its website before they can even open the iOS/tvOS Netflix app.
All of that having been said, however, Netflix hasn’t come out and stated that Spatial Audio support is never coming, but merely that this wasn’t what it was testing, and that it otherwise “has no plans to make public at this point in time,” as far as Spatial Audio is concerned.
Based on Netflix’s typical approach, it’s likely that it won’t be in any hurry to add the feature unless it starts tangibly cutting into its bottom line, and since it’s still the biggest player in the streaming game — for now at least — it’s easy to see how it’s not a priority for the company.