The MacBook Pro’s Spatial Audio Is Worth Your Attention

Subtle studio trickery

Key Takeaways

  • Apple’s new MacBook Pro includes its impressive Spatial Audio tech.
  • Surround sound for music isn’t just a gimmick.
  • Spatial Audio makes even more sense in today’s small speakers.
MacBook Pro spatial audio illustration of sound coming from speakers

Apple

Apple added its 3D Spatial Audio to the latest MacBook Pro, and it's way better than you may expect. 

Spatial Audio was born in the AirPods Pro. It's Apple's take on surround sound, but it can be used with all kinds of audio—not just movies, but music, and even relaxing soundscaping apps. Using audio trickery, your headphones fool your brain into hearing sounds above, below, and behind you, as well as the usual side-to-side sound we get from a stereo. That makes perfect sense in headphones, but MacBooks only have little speakers, close together, down by the keyboard.

"I find Spatial Audio to be a disruptive experience for anything that was originally recorded in stereo, but there have been a few classical recordings I've listened to on Apple Music where the technology makes sense," musician Jon Moore told Lifewire via forum message. "I also agree... that it makes more sense with multimedia experiences such as games and VR."

Special Audio

When we listen to the real world, we have no problem knowing where a sound is coming from, how far away it is, and which way it's moving. We do all this with two ears and our brain. The latter is important because it processes the input from the ears and turns that into a 3D aural picture of the moment. 

One element we all know about is the stereo part. Our brain uses the minute differences between the sound arriving at each ear to determine where it's coming from. But we also rely on things like reverb to help distinguish distance. 

... there have been a few classical recordings I've listened to on Apple Music where the technology makes sense.

For instance, in a jazz club, the drummer may be behind the horn player at the back of the stage. The drummer's sound will arrive after the horn because she's farther away, but the drum sounds reflected off the back wall (their reverb) will be heard sooner after the direct sound. The horn's sound reaches you faster, but because it has further to go to and from the back wall, the reverb arrives later, relatively speaking. 

All this can be added artificially to recorded sound to create a 3D sound space.

"Those types of psychoacoustic processors use crossovers, EQ, phase-shifting, to tiny delays, to reverb, and/or all of the above," audio expert and musician Ocelot told Lifewire via forum message

Listening

This brings us back to the MacBook Pro. Apple has been honing its psychoacoustic tech, along with its physical speaker designs, for years now. It's why the speakers inside iPhones sound so good compared to other phones, how Siri can hear you even when your HomePod speaker is cranked up loud enough to annoy the neighbors, and how AirPods can trick you into thinking a movie's sound is coming from the iPad itself.

When I first tried Spatial Audio on the new M1 MacBook Pro (I tested the 14-inch model), I thought it might be handy for movies, but to be honest, I wasn't expecting much. The speakers themselves sound great—for laptop speakers. But compared to good headphones or proper studio monitor speakers, they fall far short.

"As with all things Apple, psychoacoustic audio is nothing new, but it will be interesting to see whether they can make the consumer tech stick with the general public any more than home 3d cinema or quadraphonic Hi-Fi," says Moore.

spatial audio coming out of a MacBook Pro

Apple

I tried listening to the new Billie Eilish album, too, which has been recorded in Dolby Atmos surround, just like you might do for a movie. At first, it just seemed like a great, clear recording and arrangement. Then, a voice sounded over to the left, behind the person standing next to me in the room. 

That might sound gimmicky, but the result is the audio seems more immersive and bigger. It doesn’t seem to be coming from those speakers down by the keyboard. I was expecting some kind of swirling quadraphonic extravaganza, but what I got was studio trickery used with subtlety to improve the experience.

Spatial Audio for music might indeed be a gimmick, but it could also be used to overcome the shortfalls of the small speakers we use for our music these days. As they say, don’t knock it until you’ve tried it. Oh, and don’t put your hand over one of the speakers because the whole illusion will fall apart.

Was this page helpful?