Turns Out People Really, Really Like Spatial Audio

Or maybe they just don’t know they’re using it

Key Takeaways

  • More than half of Apple Music subscribers listen using Spatial Audio. 
  • Spatial Audio is enabled by default for compatible headphones.
  • To get really great 3D sound, you need to personalize it for the shape of your ears.
AirPods Pro and iPhone with Apple Music and Spatial Audio on a small table

Auguras Pipiras / Unsplash

More than half of all Apple Music users are listening to Spatial Audio. Do people love it that much? Or is it just because it's hard to switch it off?

Spatial Audio for music sounded like a gimmick but soon proved to be a great way to enjoy big sound from small speakers. The new MacBooks Pro sounds especially impressive and makes a case for listening to music with Apple's surround-sound processing permanently enabled. So, in some ways, it's not surprising to learn that, according to Apple's VP of Apple Music and Beats Oliver Schusser, more than half of Apple Music's subscribers are listening to Spatial Audio. Is it really so popular?

"Of course [those] default settings will impact the percentage of users, but Spatial audio brings something that regular stereo doesn't bring. If there is a way to make music more immersive, why not use it?" Nuno Fonseca, PhD, CEO of 3D audio company Sound Particles, told Lifewire via email. 

Spatial Default

If you’re listening to Apple Music through a pair of AirPods Pro or Max, AirPods 3, or supported Beats headphones, then any tracks that are available in Spatial Audio will be played that way. That’s the default, which means there are surely millions of subscribers using Spatial Audio without even knowing it. 

"If there is a way to make music more immersive, why not use it?"

This mirrors the use of Spatial Audio for general video. When watching a YouTube video on an iPad, for example, again through supported headphones, the audio will be spatialized. That is, even if it’s not encoded for any kind of surround sound, the iPad will process it to make it sound more 3D. You can check to see if this is happening by swiping down from the top left of the screen to open the Control Center, then long-pressing the volume control to open the Spatial Audio options. 

The annoying part is that, even if you disable it, your iPad (and probably iPhone) has a habit of switching it back on. Ask me how I know.

That’s not to say Spatial Audio is bad. Just that claiming a huge success is a bit disingenuous when there’s little choice in the matter, by default. 

The Case for Space(-ialization)

For movies, surround sound is great, and the music experience is surprisingly good. I'd recommend you try it out, but if you're an Apple Music subscriber with new-ish AirPods, then you have almost certainly tried it already, even if you didn't know. 

But while Spatial Audio is better than most 3D options for personal listening, it still might not be for you.

"The new [3D audio] formats are much better than stereo, 5.1, quadraphonic, or any others," says Fonseca. "Nonetheless, there is still a problem. Most users listen to Spatial Audio with headphones, and binaural audio (the name of the technology that allows 3D sound over headphones) needs personalization. The technology simulates the acoustic effect of sound bouncing on several parts of the outer ear, [giving it] a sense of 3D sound. Unfortunately, different people have different ears, and what works for someone does not work for others."

360 Reality Audio Setup on iPhone

Lifewire / Charlie Sorrel

Users of some Sony headphones can use a surprising feature of Sony's companion app to mitigate this problem. The Headphones Connect app lets you snap photos of your ears for analysis and uses the results to create a profile for Sony's "360 Reality Audio."

But the majority of people aren't going to do that. If we know anything about music listening, it's based more on convenience than anything else. We went from LPs to cassettes, CDs to MP3s, not caring about quality. We listen to music through our phones' speakers or on the little headphones that came in the box with our phones. Almost no one will take the time to scan their inner ears for a better experience.

Spatial audio, then, might not be as popular as Apple's Schusser claims. But, if Apple can manage to let people know about it, then perhaps it will be yet another feature that keeps them locked to Apple Music, instead of quitting for Spotify.

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