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What is spatial audio and how does it work?

Ivan Kruk /

If you’ve bought headphones or other audio technology lately, you’ve likely come across the term “spatial audio.” Let’s take a look at how this immersive technology is changing the way we listen to music, movies, and more.

A new way of listening

Spatial Audio is an audio experience intended to increase immersion by simulating an immersive sound setup. While achieving surround sound in your home requires a variety of speakers methodically placed around the room , you can use spatial audio to simulate the experience using just your headphones.

When talking about spatial audio, people are often referring to one of two things. The first is Apple’s spatial audio implementation , which they added through the Update of iOS and iPadOS 15 . When you use an iPhone or iPad with compatible headphones such as AirPods Pro and AirPods Max , you can use head tracking to further enhance the experience. It uses built-in gyros to track your head and adjust the audio experience accordingly.

Alternatively, spatial audio also refers to various multidimensional surround sound formats. While they aren’t as immersive as Apple’s head tracking, you can still hear audio coming from different directions with a pair of headphones. This implementation is usually done with software processing through applications or by adding an audio enhancement to your operating system. Some examples include Dolby Atmos for headphones, Sony 360, THX Spatial Audio, and DTS Headphone: X.

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How spatial audio works

When you listen to spatial audio, it will feel as if there is sound coming from all around you, in 360 degrees. There are two main components to making this experience work: how the sound engineers record and produce the audio, and how the software processes the audio.

Most movies and TV shows are already mixed and optimized with an immersive sound experience in mind. Along with recording live audio from the set, sound designers often consider the surround sound experience an important consideration. Therefore, they will purposely adjust where the sound is coming from when mixing the audio track. For example, if an explosion occurs to the left of the camera, you will hear it louder in your left ear. Some sound designers record using a binaural setup, where two microphones simultaneously record audio to simulate a 3D audio experience.

However, mixing the audio is only one piece of the puzzle. Your device or audio player, like your music player application, must support a spatial audio format. For example, Apple devices combine the multi-dimensional Dolby Atmos format with their spatial audio processing to create that experience through Apple Music or a video streaming service. Amazon Music and Tidal also support Dolby Atmos format along with Sony 360 Audio . You can also get immersive virtualization on a Windows PC via Dolby Atmos for headphones or Windows Sonic .

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Is spatial audio good?

Whether or not to use it depends mainly on personal taste.

If you are watching movies and TV shows on your phone or laptop, using spatial audio is highly recommended. The multi-dimensional audio experience can be very effective for certain types of content. For example, horror films They often create fright by placing noises in unexpected places, and this effect is much stronger when the sounds are felt “behind you.”

For music, it’s still a bit hit and miss. Much music is not recorded with multi-dimensional audio in mind, so results vary from song to song. Some songs sound like they’re being played near you, while others sound like the elements are coming from all directions. Where spatial audio tends to shine is in live recordings, as some tracks make you feel like you’re seeing the artist in person.

The future of spatial audio

Razer audio equipment
Razer / THX

One of the most anticipated developments in spatial audio is a broader implementation in games. Games with spatial audio allow for an even more drastic immersion in a video game, especially compared to visual technologies such as virtual reality . For example, when you play a combat game, the spatial audio will give you an audible signal when an enemy is behind you.

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At the moment, some games support a spatial audio solution through formats such as Dolby Atmos, THX Spatial Audio, and DTS Headphone: X. Popular titles with spatial audio support include Doom Eternal , Destiny , Call of duty and Apex legends . While the list of supported games in all three formats is still relatively short, that list is likely to get longer in the future as more developers see the benefits of immersive audio.

We’re also likely to see spatial audio reaching more music streaming platforms. Currently, Apple Music and Amazon Music support spatial audio, while Spotify and YouTube Music do not. With more music available on the formats Dolby Atmos or Sony 360, these features will likely be coming to other music streaming services soon.

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