What Is Spatial Audio, and Do Your AirPods Really Need It?

AirPods Spatial Audio Credit: Apple
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Among the slew of new announcements Apple made at its latest WWDC event, it slipped in a very interesting AirPods update. The next version of AirPods Pro software (release date still not announced) will gain technology called “Spatial Audio’ for a 3D sound experience.

If you’re like most people, you are probably wondering what that actually means, and if it’s a good reason to upgrade your AirPods to a Pro model. Let’s look at the facts behind Spatial Audio and if we think it’s a gamechanger.

Spatial Audio Is Surround Sound

Traditional surround sound is a pretty obvious concept: You have an array of speakers set up around a room, and audio data that’s complex enough to have different speakers emit different sounds. The goal is to make sound an immersive experience when you’re watching a movie or playing a game, like you are part of the environment.

However, in the past, you needed a large enough space and multiple speakers to achieve this kind of sound. That changed when more advanced models of big headsets came out. Designed for audiophiles and gamers, these headsets used something called “virtual” surround sound. Virtual surround sound uses the two headphone drivers in clever ways, amping specific sections of audio up and down to simulate how immersive, full-room surround sound speakers feel.

Apple’s Spatial Audio is simply a version of this virtual surround sound, designed for smaller earbuds instead of large headphones.

Smart Earbud Tracking

One of the smartest parts of this Spatial Audio is its ability to change based on where your head is at (literally). AirPods Pro have both accelerometers and gyroscopes. Combined, this allows the AirPods to tell where your head is at in relation to your device’s screen, and change audio accordingly. This makes it sound like audio is coming from fixed sources around you instead of from your earbuds, and adds a boost of realism to your sound experience.

Spatial Audio Compatibility

Like other types of virtual surround sound, Apple’s Spatial Audio is designed to work with audio data from established surround sound codecs. That means you don’t have to worry about any new fancy formats. AirPods will be able to take audio data from Dolby 5.1, 7.1, and Atmos and use that to create audio filters and frequency adjustments to create the surround sound experience. That’s great news for all the movies, games, and songs that already use these well-established formats.

AR Experiences

This Spatial Audio technology is also key for Apple’s AR (augmented reality) plans, as it gives developers the go-ahead to create surround sound audio that improves the experience. Apple specifically said the technology could benefit upcoming fitness apps and games, so there’s clearly a lot of utility there. While Apple doesn’t have an AR headset announcement at this time, if the company ever makes one it will be sure to have this Spatial Audio, too.

Bottom Line

This is exciting news for people who watch movies or play games with their AirPods. If you do, this is an update you’ll love. If you don’t use your AirPods for such immersive experiences, the change probably isn’t that vital.

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