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For years, companies have been trying to make surround sound music popular with the public. The emergence of Quadrophonic albums in the 1970s was the first big push, followed by DVD-Audio and SACDs in the late 1990s. These formats offered listeners a more immersive experience than mono or stereo recordings, especially for atmospheric albums like Pink Floyd’s Dark Side Of The Moon.
The problem is that all of these music formats required specialized equipment — multiple speakers, compatible receivers, and players, plus specific (and often more expensive) versions of the albums that you may have already owned. To many, the work was worth it, to most, it was not.
Apple is hoping to change the narrative around surround sound with Spatial Audio, a technology that has been slowly rolled out across its entire product line. Instead of requiring multiple speakers, special equipment, and fancy discs, you can get a similar experience using Apple’s new third-generation AirPods, which fit in your pocket and cost $179.
Rolling Stone was able to talk to Eric Treski (Product Marketing and Gary Geaves App (VP, Acoustics) on the record about Spatial Audio and how it works with the third-generation AirPods.
It starts with the fact that Apple’s redesign of its latest non-Pro AirPods is bigger than it may seen. Their outward design change is noticeable to the eyes, but there’s an immediate difference in sound for your ears. The company admitted that one of the biggest challenges was dealing with the reality that everyone’s ears are slightly different.
To combat this, it introduced new downward-facing microphones that use a feature called Adaptive EQ to make micro-adjustments to ensure you’re getting the right amount of bass. This feature makes the listening experience with the third-generation AirPods consistent for everyone.
Apple also introduced custom components like a speaker with low distortion paired with a multi-vent design (on the top and sides) that relieves pressure from building up in your ears. The third-generation AirPods amp was created to reduce latency and improve dynamic range while being power efficient to improve the battery life by one hour over Apple’s other true wireless earbuds. Its these hardware updates that make Spatial Audio possible on the third-generation AirPods.
At its core, Spatial Audio is a technology that allows you to hear music and soundtracks from movies and TV shows as if you were listening to them on a multi-speaker system. Apple emphasized the fact that audio mixed to stereo didn’t sound very natural. The way humans hear sound in the real world isn’t panned to the hard right and left.
At a party, for example, you can hear conversations happening all around you, and “place” those sounds in a 360-degree space, like someone speaking behind you to the left, and in front of you to the right. It wasn’t until the advent of technologies like Dolby Atmos that we’ve been able to really experience this type of immersive sound at home. But again, the best Dolby Atmos experience requires a setup that includes seven speakers and a receiver.
The third-generation AirPods are able to interpret Dolby Atmos mixes of music, TV shows, and Movies and spread their the sounds out on the fly. To make this possible, Apple captured HRTFs (head-related transfer functions), from thousands of people. A HRTF tracks how ears can impertinent sounds in 3D space based on the ear’s size and shape. This data allowed Apple to create a new 3D audio technology that works for virtually everyone. If this sounds familiar, it’s because its the same principle Apple used to tune Adaptive EQ.
Listening to audio on speakers is immersive in part because what you hear is influenced by where you’re sitting relative to speakers in the room, and how your head is turned. Sitting in the “sweet spot” in the middle of a multi-speaker system will sound different than laying on the couch with your head turned toward your TV.
Apple has recreated this experiencing by using a gyroscope and accelerometer, which will change the balance of what you’re hearing as you move your head. This happens in real time, so sudden or subtle changes to your positioning will make a difference. What’s more, the third-generation AirPods will change the way they sound based on the device they’re paired with. Listening to speakers while watching a TV show that’s 10 feet away from you would sound different than playing music on your computer that’s two or three feet away, and the third-generation AirPods can make that distinction.
In our tests, Spatial Audio on the third-generation AirPods does sound incredibly natural, though this can also be said of the AirPods Pro. We did head tilt tests and the immediacy with which the AirPods were able to make changes was pretty astonishing.
One of the barriers to entry for surround sound that I mentioned earlier was the need to get specialized versions of your albums. Apple has eliminated that issue by introducing Dolby Atmos support into Apple Music, its music streaming service. If an album was mixed for Dolby Atmos, you can listen to that mix on your headphones.
Apple is taking a gamble by relying on musicians and cinematographers to adopt Dolby Atmos as a format, but the response so far has been pretty good. Albums from the recent re-issue of The Beatles Abbey Road to Lorde’s recently-released record Solar Power are available in this format. Naturally, TV shows like Ted Lasso which were developed for Apple TV+ also have a Dolby Atmos mix.
Time will tell whether Spatial Audio achieves its goal of bringing better-than-stereo sound to a mass audience, but Apple is incredibly bullish on the technology. It’s available on all of its AirPods, the Apple TV, the 2021 MacBook Pros, and the 2020 iMac. Apple has also integrated Spatial Audio into its popular FaceTime app, and just released an update to Logic, its professional audio editing software, that allows producers to export Spatial Audio-compatible tracks.
The third-generation AirPodsare the surest sign yet that Apple is serious about making Spatial Audio available everywhere. Their pocket-friendly size and wallet-friendly price are as compelling as a good Spatial Audio mix, and it’ll be interesting to see where the technology goes from here.