ESTEEM Center for Equity in Science, Technology, Engineering, English & Math



Apple’s Spatial Audio

What Spatial Audio is and how it works
Source: Avi Dhanjal
“apple airpods pro” by TheBetterDay is marked with CC BY-ND 2.0.

Before spatial audio, surround sound was encoded in a way that assigned sounds to specific speakers. Voice typically came from the center speaker, while background music and effects were often played through the rear speakers. In contrast, spatial audio places sounds in space, allowing for more dynamic positioning. For example, an effect could be positioned above and to the right of the center.

Depending on the number of speakers and your speaker layout, your system determines the best way to create the illusion that the sound is coming from that specific spot. Spatial audio also introduces the concept of height, enabling a dome-like sound experience. You can hear a helicopter lifting and flying over your head, or sense a bullet whizzing past your ear. Applying spatial audio to music follows a similar principle, but the impact on your experience is different. When a song is mixed for spatial audio, the music can literally surround you, making you feel like you’re in the middle of the band. The vocals may be in front of you, while the guitar comes from the right side and the backing vocals from behind. It can be an enjoyable experience or completely disorienting.

If you’re accustomed to listening to a stereo mix of a favorite song, a spatial audio mix can unveil new elements you’ve never noticed before, or it can make you yearn for the familiar and beloved sound you’re used to. Spatial audio makes listening more fun — whether you’re enjoying a movie, a game, or music. Being surrounded by sound is more engaging and helps you get deeper into the experience.

You can get started with headphones or single speakers, but the more speakers you have, the better the effect. Spatial audio in movies and video games is well established by now. The question is whether it will take off for music. There have been other attempts at surround sound in music — quadraphonic sound in the 1970s, DVD-Audio in the 2000s — that didn’t last. But the latest attempt uses technology that many people already have, and that may make the difference. Try it out and decide for yourself.

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