Apple's spatial audio review: Surround sound for streaming TV on personal devices

·Lifestyle Editor
·4 min read
(PHOTO: Getty Commercial)
(PHOTO: Getty Commercial)

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SINGAPORE — With the entry of Disney Plus into the OTT streaming market in Singapore, and soon Malaysia, movie and TV lovers now have a lot more options in terms of entertainment, on your mobile devices as well as at home.

For movie lovers, perhaps what cinema theatres can offer, that our personal screen devices or TV sets at home can't, is the surround sound experience.

Apple's spatial audio is a game changer in that it provides immersive surround sound which amazingly comes from the AirPods Pro earphones as well as the AirPods Max headphones – no need for a home theatre system to get that surround sound experience.

Apple's AirPods Pro. (Photo: Apple)
Apple's AirPods Pro. (Photo: Apple)

Announced just last year, and introduced in the latest AirPods devices, spatial audio makes use of specially developed algorithms in Apple's firmware to generate sound frequencies that create a 3D soundscape. The feature arrived as part of iOS 14 in September.

Spatial audio works with video streaming apps that support 5.1, 7.1 and Dolby Atmos sound. Currently, that includes Disney Plus, Apple TV, HBO Go and Amazon Prime Video. Netflix currently doesn't support such surround sound formats yet, although that could change in the future.

Of course, spatial audio doesn't produce the same oomph as a full-blown surround sound system, whether at the cinema or in a home theatre set-up. But it's quite impressive for portable audio devices.

Apple's spatial audio feature.
Apple's spatial audio feature.

Surround sound is also available via Dolby Atmos for Headphones and Sony’s 360 Reality Audio and the upcoming PS5 3D Audio, though Sony's technologies are currently focused on music and games. 

In addition, spatial audio doesn't merely feature surround sound. By using the accelerometers and gyroscopes in your devices to track the position and motion of your head relative to your streaming device, your earphones or headphones produce sound that always appears to be emanating from your screen instead of the earpieces inside your ears.

I tested the spatial audio feature by watching the climactic battle scene in Avengers: Endgame. It really appears to position sounds within a 3D soundscape, which is pretty cool for feeling as if you're in the thick of action during movies. Sounds feel as if they're coming from in front of you, above, behind or from your sides.

The effect of spatial audio does appear more muted in the AirPods Pro as compared to the larger AirPods Max, probably because the headphones have a more powerful driver. Of course, the Max also comes with a larger price tag. AirPods Pro cost S$379, while the Max costs S$849.

AirPods Max feature a breathable knit mesh canopy, distributing weight to reduce on-head pressure. AirPods Max come in silver, space grey, sky blue, pink, and green.
The AirPods Max. (Photo: Apple)

Besides spatial audio, the AirPods Pro and Max also have extra features that basic AirPods (S$239) don't have, including noise cancellation and transparency mode. The Max also has Adaptive EQ tech, which adjusts the sound to the fit and seal of the ear cushions by measuring the sound signal delivered to the user and adjusting the low and mid-frequencies in real time, creating rich, detailed audio.

AirPods in general also have one other cool feature which will only work with Apple devices – automatic switching. This means that your earpiece will seamlessly switch between devices – e.g. when you stop playing music on your iPhone and start playing a video on your iPad, your AirPods will switch its wireless connection from your phone to the iPad by itself instantly.

Note that Apple TV 4K currently doesn't support spatial audio, so the feature is limited to smaller screens than your TV set for the time being. 

Whether it's worth forking out for AirPods that support spatial audio is a matter of personal preference. It's a cool and good-to-have feature for watching movies and TV shows, but whether you really need it for what you watch may depend on whether you like big action set pieces or quieter dramas.

FYI, these are the devices that support spatial audio:

iPhone 7 or later
iPad Pro 12.9‑inch (3rd generation) and later
iPad Pro 11‑inch
iPad Air (3rd generation)
iPad (6th generation) and later
iPad mini (5th generation)

Buy the AirPods Pro earphones now

Buy the AirPods Max headphones now

(PHOTO: Yahoo Shopping)
(PHOTO: Yahoo Shopping)
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