Earlier this week, Apple turned on the switch to enable Lossless audio and spatial audio with Dolby Atmos in Apple Music. But at the same time activate setting is relatively easy, it can be confusing which devices will support which format and if you really need AirPods to enjoy the experience.
The short version is: No, you don’t. However, let’s take a closer look at what exactly Apple’s Spatial Audio is, how it differs from Dolby Atmos, and what gear you need to get what.
What is spatial audio?
Spatial Audio is Apple’s term for immersive audio. Think of it as some kind of digital surround sound system that you can put right into your ear. Right now, you can use it with AirPods Pro and AirPods Max while streaming supported video content to Apple TV. What’s cool is that it uses head tracking through the sensors on these two headphones. So let’s say you’re watching Star Wars on Disney + and there’s an explosion in the distance ahead of you. If you turn your head to the right, then you will hear this explosion in your left ear.
Therefore What is Dolby Atmos?
In simpler terms, Dolby Atmos is a type of surround sound that simulates three-dimensional space. What’s cool is that it adds height and, compared to previous surround sound formats, it does not require sound to be assigned to specific channels. This in turn allows sound engineers to “place” sounds at a specific point in the soundstage. For example, a home theater setup with 5.1 surround sound would require a nyooming spaceship in the sky to be programmed to go directly from the “left speaker” to the “right speaker”. With Atmos, this sound can move more easily above your head. This means that sound mixing is no longer limited to the number of speakers you have. The most common visualization is that it creates a 3D sound bubble.
Isn’t spatial audio the same as Dolby Atmos?
No. You can think of Spatial Audio as an extra layer, a kind of Dolby Atmos +. While Dolby Atmos creates an immersive soundscape, Spatial Audio adapts that soundscape to where you are inside. The confusing thing is that spatial audio can also refer to immersive audio more generally.
Okay, what’s the deal with spatial audio in Apple Music? What about lossless audio?
At present, there is not much difference between Spatial Audio and Dolby Atmos in Apple Music. That will change in the fall when Apple adds dynamic head tracking for AirPods Pro and AirPods Max.
Lossless audio is an entirely different thing, and refers to the overall resolution of digital music files. When you stream music, it gets compressed and as a result, you may lose detail. The higher the resolution, the better the music sounds. This means that you need a digital to analog converter for your headphones with a plug because Bluetooth does not support lossless audio.
Therefore I don’t need AirPods?
Correct, with a few caveats. Not all songs in the Apple Music catalog are mixed in Dolby Atmos. If you want to switch between formats automatically, you need AirPods, AirPods Pro or Max with Spatial Audio enabled, or compatible Beats headphones. (You can see the full list of Beats headphones here.) The built-in speakers of the following Apple devices also support automatic switching:
- iPhone XR or later (except for iPhone SE)
- 12.9-inch iPad Pro 3rd generation or later
- 11-inch iPad Pro
- iPad 6th generation or later
- iPad Air 3rd generation or later
- iPad mini 5th generation or later
If you don’t have Apple headphones, when choosing Dolby Atmos settings, you will need to select the Always On option. But since the dynamic head-tracking part of Spatial Audio relies on accelerometers, you won’t get it once it launches in the fall.
Is this going to make a huge difference? For most people, probably not! I tested several Dolby Atmos tracks in Apple Music with the AirPods Pro and my Skullcandy ANC Crusher headphones and honestly it sounded good on both. Yes, I thought it sounded better on the AirPods Pro, but not enough that I felt like I was missing something. Editor Caitlin McGarry did the same test with a pair of Sony WH-1000XM4 headphones and AirPods Max, and got the same results. Spatial Audio’s dynamic head tracking is also a more obvious appeal to AirPods Pro and Max users watching video content, although I’m sure it’ll be cool once it launches for Apple Music in the fall.
So unless you really want dynamic head tracking and automatic switching, you don’t need to have AirPods Pro or AirPods Max to enjoy immersive songs on Apple Music. And in the case of lossless audio, AirPods Pro aren’t compatible and you’ll have to fork out for a 3.5mm Lightning to audio cable.
The best thing to do is consider what you really want out of all of this and spend your money accordingly. If you want all the shebang – lossless audio, Dolby Atmos, and dynamic head tracking – then yes, you might want to consider a pair of AirPods Max if your wallet can handle the hit of $ 550.. If you want dynamic head tracking and Atmos, you can also go for the AirPods Pro. Don’t give a shit about lossless audio or dynamic head tracking? Then any bluetooth headset should be fine for you – just choose the right settings. Want lossless sound and immersive sound, but don’t care about dynamic head tracking? You can purchase any headphones you want, as long as they can accommodate a digital-to-analog converter. The point is, you’ve got a ton of options here, so don’t feel like you to have to get AirPods to get great listening experience.