Why Did Netflix Add Support for Apple’s Spatial Audio?

It’s a beautiful bandwagon, baby

Key Takeaways

  • Netflix joins Disney+, HBO Max, and Peacock with support for the AirPods-only surround-sound feature.
  • Spatial Audio offers immersive surround sound while using headphones. 
  • It only works with AirPods Pro and Max.
Someone boarding a train while wearing Apple AirPods.

Apple

Why has Netflix added support for a niche, Apple-only feature to its movie and TV streaming service?

Spatial Audio is Apple’s take on surround sound. It only works with AirPods Pro and AirPods Max, and only on iPhones or iPads running iOS 14. And yet, it’s not only Netflix that is adding support. HBO Max. Disney+, and Peacock also support Apple’s so far mobile-only take on immersive audio. So what are the advantages to you and me, and why are these companies so happy to jump on board?

"Netflix's decision to offer spatial audio support for Apple only is yet another well-calculated strategy to add more subscribers to their already staggering 209 million subscribers." Hrvoje Milakovic, owner of movie, TV, and popular culture site Fiction Horizon, told Lifewire via email.

"On its side, Apple has to be celebrating its new achievement because, if anything, this will result in more customers, since everyone will want to hear the spatial sound."

Something for Everyone

Spatial Audio for movies is a rare case of win, win, win. Existing customers get a neat new feature that really does make supported movies and TV shows more immersive, at no extra cost. Netflix gets AirPods owners signing up to experience movies in Spatial Audio, and Apple wins because it will sell more AirPods to folks who want to hear it. And these aren’t small numbers, either.

An exploded view of Apple AirPods Pro.

Apple

"In 2019, the AirPods Pro and AirPods Max together generated revenue of $12 billion and sold more than 100 million units," says Milakovic. That’s a lot of potential Netflix Spatial-Audio listeners. 

It also shows that even a niche Apple product can be a huge market. Wearables is one of Apple’s fastest-growing segments, bringing in almost $9 billion in Apple’s last quarter. Wearables shares that revenue with the Apple Watch, but you only have to look at fellow subway riders to see how many AirPods are in use.

As we mentioned, Spatial Audio is only available on AirPods Pro and Max, which means a minimum buy-in of $250 ($550 for the AirPods Max). But it’s likely that the next version of the basic AirPods will add support, which will mean that anyone who buys Apple’s wireless earbuds will be a potential user. 

What’s So Special About Spatial Audio?

Spatial Audio recreates movie-theater surround sound in a pair of AirPods. The gimmick that sets it apart from other headphone surround systems is the "spatial" aspect. It uses sensors to detect the position of your head in relation to the screen and processes the audio so that it always seems to be coming from speakers fixed in the room around you.

Spatial Audio controls on an iPhone with Apple AirPods Pro next to the phone.

Apple

If a character is talking, then the audio appears to come from the screen. If you turn your head to the left, that audio will now shift to your right ear, just as if it was coming from a real TV. This gives an uncanny sensation of being in a space with fixed audio sources. It doesn’t necessarily make the surround sound more immersive. It’s just that it stops the illusion from breaking whenever you move your head. 

What’s In It for You?

Business-wise, this is great for Apple and Netflix, and with Disney+, HBO Max, and Peacock all on board, the pressure is on other streaming services to add support. Spatial Audio is on its way to becoming a standard feature, like 4K streaming or saving movies and TV shows for offline viewing. 

For those of us with AirPods Pro or newer, there’s zero downside. We get more immersive movies and TV on the go or alone on the couch, and if we don’t like it, we can just switch it off (Spatial Audio settings are built into the iPhone or iPad you’re using, not into the app showing the movie).

Widespread adoption of this feature also all but guarantees that Apple will continue to improve it. When a hardware feature gets a lackluster reception, like the MacBook Pro’s Touch Bar, Apple tends to lose interest until eventually it withers and dies.

"With new features, customers are likely to have additional reasons to purchase the AirPods Pro and AirPods Max."

Conversely, it tends to double down on hits. The original AirPods were such a hit, and we’ve seen a steady stream of new models and new features ever since. 

"Although some of Apple's products are quite expensive," says Milakovic, "users will have a guarantee of timely and updated services. With new features, customers are likely to have additional reasons to purchase the AirPods Pro and AirPods Max."

AirPods are expensive. But once you get used to their great features and tight integration, it’s hard to go back.

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