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One of the biggest things that was missing when Apple launched Spatial Audio last year was support for using the feature on the Apple TV. While Spatial Audio sounded absolutely amazing on the iPhone and iPad, the ability to add a rich Dolby Atmos soundscape to your movies and TV shows was a feature clearly made for the big screen.
Although Apple did add Dolby Atmos support for Apple TV paired HomePods in tvOS 14.2, getting the same quality from an Apple TV on a set of AirPods Pro remained missing in action — and it felt like an even bigger omission a few weeks later when Apple introduced its AirPods Max.
Fortunately, this is a limitation that Apple will now be rectifying when tvOS 15 ships later this year.
While Apple didn’t make a big deal out of it during its keynote, it was mentioned in passing during the iOS 15 announcements that its Spatial Audio features for the AirPods Pro and AirPods Max will now extend to the rest of its product lineup — not only the Apple TV 4K, but also Macs — as long as you have one with an M1 chip.
How Spatial Audio Will Work on Apple TV
Apple laid out the details to Engadget on how Spatial Audio will work when it finally arrives, and it promises to be pretty impressive.
According to what Engadget has heard from Apple, the feature will work with everything from normal stereo to full Dolby Atmos content, and will be supported on both the AirPods Pro and the AirPods Max.
Whether you’re using a pair of AirPods Pro or AirPods Max, the software that powers the feature will widen the soundstage so that it seems like the entire room you’re in is being filled with sound.Engadget
This is going to go beyond just presenting a massively expanded soundstage, however, since Apple is also including the same dynamic head tracking features available on the iPhone and iPad. This means that as you turn your head from side to side, the audio will always continue to sound like it’s coming from the same direction, relative to the TV screen, and it’s taken some additional magic to make this happen.
It sounds counterintuitive, but this kind of dynamic head tracking is actually easier to accomplish on the iPhone and iPad, since both of these devices include gyroscopes and accelerometers that help the AirPods to figure out where they are in relation to your device. Even though the Apple TV sits in a stationary position, it’s still more difficult for the AirPods to figure out exactly where that audio focal point should be. Plus, your Apple TV set-top box isn’t necessarily located at the centre of your TV screen.
Apparently, Apple has solved this problem in a somewhere more rudimentary manner by avoiding the question of trying to determine the location of the Apple TV entirely. Instead, the AirPods Pro or AirPods Max will simply “lock in” once they detect you’ve been looking in the same direction. This makes the reasonable assumption that most people aren’t going to be staring at the wall for long periods of time while a movie or TV show is playing on the big screen.
Since the AirPods Pro and AirPods Max also include gyroscopes and accelerometers, they can detect when you’ve been moving around, so as you turn your head, the audio soundstage will adjust accordingly, and when you get up to walk around, it will detect that as well, reorienting itself as needed when you sit back down to look at the screen again.
Although iOS 14 added the ability for AirPods to automatically switch between a user’s iPhone, iPad, Mac, and Apple Watch, this didn’t include the Apple TV, since it’s something that could get awkward with a shared device.
Despite this, however, Apple does plan to make it easier to start using your AirPods with your Apple TV by showing a popup dialog that will offer to connect automatically to any AirPods it detects nearby. This will save you the trouble of pulling up the audio settings in control centre to switch to them manually each time you want to use them, but at the same time avoid the Apple TV randomly switching to your AirPods while somebody else is watching.