Cars Are the Perfect Venue for Apple Music’s 3D Spatial Audio

But you can also get there using the AirPods Pro

  • Mercedes has added Apple’s Spatial Audio to several car models.
  • Spatial Audio should be a great match for multi-speaker car audio systems. 
  • But you can get a great experience by using the noise-canceling AirPods Pro.
car stereo volume and aux controls

Alan Veas / Unsplash

Mercedes and Apple have teamed up to put Spatial Audio in several car models, but really, you could just as well use your AirPods Pro.

Car audio is totally a thing, as you'll know if you ever got your body vibrated by the subwoofer of a passing vehicle with a hot-rodded stereo. And now, with Apple's Spatial Audio, surround sound is also a thing. Combining the two, as Mercedes and Apple have, seems natural, especially as cars can have plenty of speakers to help with the illusion of being immersed in audio. On the other hand, if you don't have the inclination to spend thousands of dollars on a setup, you can get a pretty great effect from the AirPods Pro you already own.

"[Cars are the] perfect place for spatial audio, and it's mostly because the space is so tight, and you can get that surrounding sound even with smaller speakers," car expert Petar Dzaja told Lifewire via email. 

Apple X Mercedes

The Apple-Mercedes collaboration adds Spatial Audio to some high-end vehicles, cars, and SUVs equipped with up to 31 speakers. And just like a home cinema setup, with all those speakers placed around the listener, it's possible to adapt the audio to the space and to make it seem like the sounds are coming from all around you. But this also means you have to tailor the sound setup to suit the car itself.

"The challenges of in-car audio are many: these include getting accurate measurements of sound levels and other factors that affect how drivers perceive the sounds around them," car audio expert Miles Walker told Lifewire via email.

Spatial Audio on Apple Music is now available in Mercedes cars for the first time

Apple / Mercedes

With these Mercedes systems, the result is probably amazing. Apple's wizardry with sound processing, heard in HomePods, AirPods Pro, and on the latest MacBook Pros, is impressive, and does its job with only one or two sound sources (although there are often several speaker drivers inside each source). But with access to more speakers, the sound can actually physically surround you. Combined with audio mastered for surround playback, it makes for a potent combination.

"Most cars have only 6-8 speakers, and for the proper spatial audio, at least 20 speakers [are] needed," says Dzaja. "It's just impossible to make a nice audio transmission when you're limited [to] a few speakers only."

But for most of us, there's a better way. 

In-Car AirPods Pro

For many of us, the biggest barrier to in-car audio quality isn't the lack of zillions of speakers. It's the noisy car we're in. I recently spent two days traveling across Europe in a panel van, and we had to crank the podcasts and 1980s playlist just to hear them. The idea of audio quality, let alone surround-sound fidelity, in this environment would be a joke. 

So, instead of increasing the volume to add to the already-fatiguing car noise, why not use a pair of audio-canceling headphones?

Apple's wizardry with sound processing, heard in HomePods, AirPods Pro, and on the latest MacBook Pros, is impressive.

If your first thought is, "Headphones in a car? That's just dangerous," then great, you're exactly the kind of driver we need more of on the roads. But consider the reality: Between cupholders, touchscreens, and too-loud music, a car is already a terrible environment for concentrating on the road.

Pop in a pair of AirPods Pro and switch them to transparency mode, and you not only get rid of the car, road, and wind noise, which are the exact kind of droning sound that noise-canceling is good at removing, but you can also still hear emergency sirens, as well as the people in the car with you. 

You can also listen to music at a lower volume. Meanwhile, your iPhone will read out incoming messages and notifications, answer calls if you have it set up that way, and generally act like you had a car with CarPlay installed. All this while giving you the benefits of Spatial Audio, personally tailored to your ears if you use the new ear-scanning features in iOS 16.

It might not give you the comfort and luxury of a Mercedes, but it won't cost nearly as much, either, and it'll work perfectly in any car. Or even on a bike if you're a fan of headphones while cycling. Either way, Spatial Audio is great for everything, including cars, and you should try it when you can.

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