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What Is Spatial Audio, and How Does It Work?

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If you’ve shopped for headphones or other audio tech 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 to Listen

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

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

Alternatively, spatial audio also refers to various multi-dimensional surround-sound formats. While they aren’t quite as immersive as Apple’s head tracking, you can still hear audio coming from different directions using a pair of headphones. This implementation is typically done with software processing through apps 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.

How Spatial Audio Works

When you listen to spatial audio, it will feel like there is sound coming from all around you, across 360 degrees. There are two primary components to making this experience work: how 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 a surround sound experience in mind. Along with recording live audio from the set, sound designers often treat the surround sound experience as a significant consideration. Therefore, they will purposefully adjust where the sound is coming from when mixing the audio track. For example, if an explosion happens to the left of the camera, you will hear the explosion more loudly in your left ear. Some sound designers record using a binaural setup, where two microphones record audio simultaneously to simulate a 3D audio experience.

However, mixing the audio is only one piece of the puzzle. Your device or audio player, such as your music playing app, needs to support a spatial audio format. For example, Apple’s 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 the Dolby Atmos format along with Sony 360 Audio. You can also get surround virtualization across a Windows PC through Dolby Atmos for Headphones or Windows Sonic.

RELATED: How to Use Dolby Atmos Surround Sound on Windows 10

Is Spatial Audio Good?

Whether or not to use it is mainly up to personal taste.

If you’re watching movies and TV shows on your phone or laptop, then using spatial audio is highly recommended. The multi-dimensional audio experience can be highly effective for certain types of content. For example, horror movies often generate scares by placing noises in unexpected places, and this effect is much stronger when sounds feel like they’re “behind you.”

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

The Future of Spatial Audio

Razer audio gear
Razer / THX

One of the most awaited developments in spatial audio is a broader implementation in gaming. Gaming with spatial audio allows for even more drastic immersion in a video game, especially when compared with visual technologies such as VR. For example, when playing a combat game, spatial audio will give you an auditory cue when an enemy is behind you.

At the moment, some games do 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 across all three formats is still relatively short, that list will likely get longer in the future as more developers see the benefit of immersive audio.

We’ll also likely see spatial audio come to more music streaming platforms. Currently, Apple Music and Amazon Music support spatial audio, while Spotify and YouTube Music do not. With more music available in Dolby Atmos or Sony 360 formats, these features will likely make their way to other music streaming services soon.

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