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When Apple unveiled Spatial Audio for the AirPods Pro last year, it was an amazing new way of enjoying movies and TV shows that was sadly beset by a few limitations.
Firstly, it was supported only on the iPhone and the iPad, and this remains the case even though Apple’s new AirPods Max have also gained Spatial Audio; however as awesome as it would be to be able to listen to a full surround-sound experience in your living room through Apple’s premium on-ear headphones, the Apple TV is still not part of the Spatial Audio club, and of course neither is the Mac.
However, even for iPhone and iPad users, Spatial Audio was a bit of a non-starter, since it was primarily available through Apple’s own first-party TV app, although the fact that Disney+ supported it out of the gate offered some hope that it would soon expand to other services.
Now it looks like that’s about to happen, with indications that streaming giant Netflix has been quietly testing the feature in the hopes of making it available for a small catalog of its content sooner rather than later.
The news comes from French site iPhoneSoft (Google Translate, via 9to5Mac), which has heard from a “very knowledgeable source” within the Netflix developer team, and while it doesn’t offer any timeline for when the rollout may begin, it does suggest that it’s going to start with a limited set of titles in the spring and then gradually expand to more content from there.
What Is Spatial Audio?
There are actually two elements to how Spatial Audio works, and it’s important to distinguish between them.
Firstly, there’s the surround sound aspect of Spatial Audio, which is arguably the part of the technology that’s the most exciting, since it allows for AirPods Pro and AirPods Max users to experience a fully immersive sound stage through their earphones.
This aspect of Spatial Audio will reportedly only work for movies and TV shows that have been encoded using Dolby Atmos, although that should encompass almost all the latest content on major streaming services like Netflix.
However, the second aspect to Spatial Audio is “dynamic head positioning,” which is a feature that tracks your head position relative to your iPhone or iPad so that the audio will always sound like it’s coming from your device, no matter which way you turn your head.
It’s a pretty magical effect, and the interesting thing about it is that it doesn’t appear to require any special encoding for the videos, since it’s handled entirely by the operating system and the apps in question.
For example, you can pull up an old black and white movie or 80s TV show in Apple’s TV app, which most definitely hasn’t been encoded in Dolby Atmos, and still experience the effects of dynamic head positioning.
So as a result, it’s somewhat unclear what Netflix is working on in this case. While obviously bringing support for surround sound Spatial Audio to Dolby Atmos content is the most important, there really shouldn’t be too much work required for Netflix to make that happen.
On the other hand, suggestions that Spatial Audio will begin with only a limited catalog makes us wonder if they’ll be supporting dynamic head positioning throughout the app or only within those specific shows that offer the full Spatial Audio experience.
It’s also worth keeping in mind that while Apple offers Spatial Audio on all of its content in the TV app on what can basically be called a “best effort” basis, it doesn’t really make the distinction between which aspects of Spatial Audio are supported.
Further, in the case of Netflix it’s also worth keeping in mind that right now you have to subscribe to Netflix’s highest Premium tier to access UHD content that features Dolby Atmos surround sound, so it’s also conceivably possible that Netflix could choose to limit Spatial Audio support to only Premium subscribers.
Note that to use Spatial Audio you also need a supported iPhone or iPad in addition to AirPods Pro or AirPods Max. However, the list of supported iPhones is surprisingly extensive, going all the way back to the 2016 iPhone 7 — as long as you’ve upgraded it to iOS 14, of course. iPad users, however, will need to be using a 2018 or later model.
[The information provided in this article has NOT been confirmed by Apple and may be speculation. Provided details may not be factual. Take all rumors, tech or otherwise, with a grain of salt.]