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(Pocket-lint) - Apple's Spatial Audio was introduced with iOS 14 in September 2020 and has evolved a fair amount over time.

It is Apple's answer to Dolby Atmos for Headphones and Sony's 360 Reality Audio, creating a virtual 3D surround sound effect in a stereo pair of headphones. It virtualises an audio mix that surrounds you, making it seem you are in the heart of the action.

Uniquely though, it also uses tracking hardware in Apple devices, including the AirPods (3rd Generation)AirPods Pro and AirPods Max headphones, to track your head in real-time along with the position of an iPad or iPhone. This enables it to place the audio effect realistically depending on where you look or turn.

Here's how it works, what devices it is available on, how you turn it on and off and everything else you need to know.

How does Spatial Audio work?

Spatial Audio enables you to hear three-dimensional audio from supported videos that follow the movement of your iPhone or iPad.

It effectively recreates a cinema-style experience, where sounds appear to be coming from all around you - front, behind, from the side, even above your head. In order to do this, Spatial Audio uses the 5.1, 7.1 and Dolby Atmos mixes from a compatible film or video, applies directional audio filters and adjusts the frequencies relayed to each ear.

Where Spatial Audio differs to other similar technologies like Dolby Atmos for Headphones is in its tracking. The accelerometers and gyroscopes within AirPods Max, AirPods Pro and AirPods (3rd generation) are used to track your head and position the sound accordingly. It also tracks your iPhone or iPad, so the sound you hear is also relative to the screen you are watching on.

As a result, when Spatial Audio is turned on and you're watching a supported film or video, if you turn your head or move your device, the dialogue you hear remains with the actor or action on the screen.

How about Spatial Audio with Dolby Atmos?

As well as Spatial Audio for movies and TV shows, Apple now offers Spatial Audio with Dolby Atmos music tracks on Apple Music.

These have been remixed to include multiple channels around and above you, to give the impression that you are sitting in the middle of a recording studio or live concert. As with movies, it gives the impression of channels through regular stereo headphones, although in this case requires dedicated Dolby Atmos music mixes.

There are thousands of songs available in Spatial Audio. When played through headphones, listeners hear music coming from all around them. We're hoping it will also eventually extend to Dolby Atmos systems and soundbars, such as the Sonos Arc. However, it doesn't seem to be supported at present.

In terms of what headphones are compatible, all Apple and Beats headphones with the H1 or W1 chip support the new surround mixes when played through an iPhone, iPad, Mac or Apple TV. However, so too do any decent headphones.

Third-party headphones won't switch Dolby Atmos support on and off automatically though, just Apple's. To listen on your separate headphones you need to head to Settings > Music > Dolby Atmos and switch it to "Always On". This only works with Spatial Audio with Dolby Atmos - regular movie and TV Spatial Audio is still an Apple device exclusive.

You can also hear it coming through the internal speakers of an iPhone, iPad, MacBook Pro or HomePod, although it defeats the object somewhat to listen to Dolby Atmos audio through an iPhone's stereo speakers. An Apple TV 4K will also play Dolby Atmos through a compatible TV or AV receiver (as with supported movies).

Android devices will get Spatial Audio with Dolby Atmos through the Apple Music app soon.

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How to get Spatial Audio

There's a couple of things you'll need to experience Spatial Audio. Firstly, you'll need the AirPods Pro, AirPods Max, AirPods (3rd Generation) or latest Beats headphones.

You'll then need an iPhone 7 or later or the iPad Pro 12.9-inch (3rd gen) or later, iPad Pro 11-inch, iPad Air (3rd gen) and later, iPad (6th gen) and later, iPad mini (5th gen and later).

You'll also need iOS 14 or iPadOS 14 or later and AV content from a supported app. If an app supports 5.1, 7.1 or Dolby Atmos then it will work with Spatial Audio.

Spatial Audio with Dolby Atmos on Apple Music works automatically, although you will need to switch it to "Always On" in Settings > Music > Dolby Atmos if you use third-party headphones.

How do you turn Spatial Audio on or off?

To turn Spatial Audio on, follow the steps below.

  1. Go to Settings
  2. Tap on Bluetooth
  3. Find your AirPods (3rd Generation), AirPods Pro or AirPods Max
  4. Tap on the "i" next to your headphones
  5. Scroll down and toggle on Spatial Audio
  6. You can also tap on 'See & Hear How It Works' for a quick demo comparing it to stereo audio 
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How do you control Spatial Audio?

When you're watching a compatible video or film on your iPhone or iPad with your AirPods (3rd Generation), AirPods Pro or AirPods Max, here is how to control Spatial Audio and check if it is on:

  1. Swipe down from the top of your screen or up from the bottom, depending on your iPhone or iPad model to open the Control Centre
  2. Press and hold the volume control button
  3. Another screen will appear where you'll be able to see the Spatial Audio icon
  4. Tap it once to turn it on or off. It is blue when on and black when off.
  5. If the sound waves are pulsing around the person's head in the icon, Spatial Audio is on. If they are not moving but the icon is blue, Spatial Audio is on but not active for the content you're listening to.
Writing by Britta O'Boyle and Rik Henderson. Originally published on 3 March 2021.