How 3D Audio Could Change the Way You Hear Podcasts

Sound from all directions

Key Takeaways

  • Podcasts could benefit from the addition of 3D sound technology designed to make them sound more realistic. 
  • iHeart Media announced recently that it’s investing in binaural audio, also known as 3D audio. 
  • Binaural audio creates a sense of movement and location.
Someone listening to audio from their smartphone through headphones while standing under a neon light.
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Podcasts could start to sound a lot more realistic now that streaming companies are getting into 3D audio.

iHeart Media announced recently that it’s investing in binaural audio, also known as 3D audio. The technology is intended to make listeners feel like they are in the same room as a recording. The advance of 3D audio could herald a revolution in podcasts, experts say. 

"In a typical podcast, it's kind of just a person talking," John Merchant, chair of the Department of Recording Industry at Middle Tennessee State University, said in a phone interview.

"With 3D audio, you can imagine how much more interesting it would be when instead of people talking to you, you are suddenly in the scene." 

Making Sound More Realistic

Binaural audio creates a sense of movement and location. With in-person entertainment on hold during the coronavirus pandemic, podcasting is booming. Listenership is expected to grow by 30 million listeners each year through 2023.

iHeartMedia said that it would launch a new slate of podcasts using 3D recording technology. Building on the success of its previously launched binaural audio series 13 Days of Halloween, the company plans to expand the concept with a seasonally focused 13 Days franchise of podcasts correlating with various major holidays, among other shows. 

A podcasting studio.
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"Podcasting has undoubtedly stepped in as one of this year’s most relied upon forms of entertainment," Conal Byrne, president of the iHeartPodcast Network, said in a news release.

"We’ve seen a huge spike in listenership, and iHeart wants to ensure we’re meeting this growing audience in new, innovative ways. This is virtual reality for the ears, and by expanding our 3D audio offerings, our goal is to place fans at the center of the stories they love—in an even more immersive, innovative format."

The company said it plans to produce around a dozen 3D audio podcasts this year. It also plans to host live binaural radio events across its network of stations. iHeartMedia has built three studios in which it can record 3D audio, The Verge reports

Horror Shows Sound Creepier in 3D

Podcast writer and producer Aaron Mahnke said that 3D audio will enhance the listening experience. He worked on 13 Days of Halloween, a podcast intended to make listeners feel like they were inside a purgatorial hotel. 

"I remember when we were in production for the series and thinking I’d never seen anything like the recording process for a 3D listening experience—even the mic and equipment setup look very different," said Mahnke in a news release

The 3D audio technology used by iHeart offers distinct advantages over the regular audio listeners are used to, Merchant said. It’s a more natural sound, for one thing. "We hear things in 360, and it’s how we perceive the world," he added.

"Podcasting has undoubtedly stepped in as one of this year’s most relied upon forms of entertainment."

"It's important to us that we can hear things and localize them all around us. Now, part of that evolved from a survival standpoint. So that if you hear a twig snap behind you, and it was a puma, you knew which direction to run away from the puma." 

There are various TVs and speaker systems that support 3D audio. Amazon and Sony use 3D audio with some of their products. Gamers also can take advantage of 3D audio with the PlayStation 5. Sony makes earphones for the PS5 that are specifically geared for 3D sound.

"The PS5 console can put you at the center of incredibly immersive soundscapes where it feels as if the sound comes from every direction," according to the company’s website

But regular headphones or earbuds also will allow you to hear 3D audio, Merchant said. Headphones marketed for 3D sound are "a total gimmick," he said. 

Merchant said that while iHeart’s podcasts are the only ones currently using 3D audio, he thinks the technology has a bright future. "I think they are on to something," he added. "It's the perfect medium. I believe that it's going to be one of those things that once you hear it, you will be like, 'Oh, this is way better.'"

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