Everything you need to know about Spatial Audio

If you’re a music lover, right now might be a good time to subscribe to Apple Music. Officially, the first music streaming service in India to offer both, lossless audio and Spatial audio with Dolby Atmos at no extra cost over the standard subscription rates makes this a big deal. Not just for Apple, but the music and consumer electronics industry alike. 
While Apple’s implementation of Lossless audio is complicated and limited at the same time, it’s the Spatial audio feature that holds the higher “wow” factor. After having spent weeks going through curated playlists that allow you to experience Dolby Atmos for music without effort, I was quite honestly a convert. Great stereo recordings are special but a great multichannel recording simply transports you into the mix, with the music around you instead of just in front of you. Like all good things though, there are caveats…

What do you need for Spatial Audio?

There are ways to experience Spatial audio on Apple devices and currently, all the AirPods and BeatsX, Beats Solo3 Wireless, Beats Studio3, Powerbeats3 Wireless, Beat Flex, Powerbeats Pro, or Beats Solo Pro support it. Support on Android devices for both Spatial and Lossless audio on the Apple Music Android app has been deployed too, so everyone can experience the joys of Spatial, regardless of platform. 
But, the magic of Dolby Atmos / Spatial audio music for me was via an Apple TV 4K connected to an AV receiver and played back through a legit multi-speaker surround sound system. It makes a joke of audiophiles who spend hours and maybe even years getting their “stereo” music to sound just right in the primary listening position where the one person can experience audio nirvana, if you close your eyes and imagine. 
With some of the well-mixed examples on Apple Music’s Spatial Audio playlists, tracks like Raider’s March (from Indiana Jones) by John Williams and Boom by Tiesto shatter any previous references you may have of the song and just opens up a whole new dimension, delicately placing sounds around the different speakers and effectively immersing you into the creator’s vision. 
Of course, this also highlights any limitations your hardware may have, like mismatched speakers or an overboosted subwoofer. But, if you have a timbre-matched 7.1.2 Dolby Atmos speaker system (not a soundbar), Spatial Audio on Apple Music is a game-changer with the potential to be the murderer of two-channel audiophilia. 
The efficacy of spatial audio relies a lot on the mixing engineer’s sensibilities though. Where the vocal tracks are anchored in relation to the musical elements, how much (and when) surround fill to use, low-end augmentation, atmospheric effects like reverb, harmony vocals etc, there are a ton of tools at the engineer’s disposal and they really can make or break a track in Atmos. Some tracks work better than others and can heighten the intended effect. 

Movie sound in Spatial Audio

Another pleasant byproduct of Spatial Audio becoming a reality is its contribution to personal cinema. The current crop of Apple AirPods use head-tracking along with Spatial Audio for select platforms like Netflix, Apple TV+ and some on Disney Hotstar and it tracks your head position in relation to the iPhone or iPad and keeps the audio locked to the screen.

So regardless of you turning your head left or right to talk to someone, it sounds like Dr. Shaun Murphy is whispering the prescription right at your ears! Even if you aren’t into The Good Doctor, the enhanced width of the soundstage helps in taking the sound beyond just the physical dimensions of your device and makes it sound..well, like a much larger space akin to a home-theatre. At least in terms of intended effect, actual results may vary on the kind of headphones, volume levels and quality of content.

Which music sounds best?

Artists like The Weeknd and Billie Eilish are prolific on the Spatial Audio platform and have used it effectively to lend more depth and expanse to their production, allowing beneficiaries to revel in each and every sound that emerges from the minds of such geniuses. Irrespective of genre though, it’s evident that Spatial Audio adds a new allure to existing hardware, be it a pair of AirPods Max’s, a Dolby Atmos capable soundbar or a full-blown home-theatre system that can find new meaning even without ever playing a single movie on it!
Think Another One Bites the Dust by Queen or Riders on the Storm by The Doors, where aggressive panning was part of the experience, but limited by stereo until now. The experience can vary, especially on headphones where spatial audio can rob certain vocals of life and directness, but it definitely works well to reduce listener fatigue by giving the soundstage a lot more depth instead of simply playing straight into your ears. 
A lot will depend on the engineering of the album now, and Apple is working closely with Dolby to plug holes in the ecosystem. Initiatives are being taken to double the number of Dolby Atmos-enabled mixing studios and even help independent artists with resources to create their music in spatial audio. An update to Logic Pro empowers any musician to create and mix their songs in Spatial Audio compatible with Apple Music.
Thousands of tracks are already available in Dolby Atmos with more being added constantly. From the Indian contingent, A.R.Rahman (Dil Bechara, 99 Songs, Meri Pukaar Suno), Divine (Mirchi), Badshah (Top Tucker), Amit Trivedi (Raavan) and Prabh Deep (Paapi) are the artists first off the block with mixes in spatial audio.

More music for everyone

When Gully Boy released on the big screens, many discovered the burgeoning hip-hop scene in the country. Now, music streaming platforms like Apple Music are ensuring that you don’t have to wait for another big-ticket Bollywood movie to discover new music. 
If you like to get a feel of the current culture and vibe of a particular city, Global City Charts give you the top hits from around 100 cities, including Mumbai, Delhi and Bengaluru. These are not human-curated but based on popularity and AI algorithms with daily updates. 
For a more personalized touch, Apple Music Editors have curated over 30,000 playlists across genres, moods, and activity types. They have also created playlists in eight Indian languages, including Hindi, Punjabi, Malayalam, Marathi, Tamil, Telugu, Kannada, and Bengali. 

Cheaper than chips

Perhaps the biggest blow to the competition, even with all the shiny new tech, might be Apple’s generous decision to include Spatial Audio and Lossless Audio within the existing subscription rates, which might be the lowest in the world at ₹99/month. Hang on, it gets even better with the Apple Music Voice Plan in the mix now, which brings down the entry price for Apple Music to a frankly ridiculous ₹49/month! It does miss out on goodies like Lossless, Spatial and lyrics, but you still get every song on the service just by calling out for it. 
Even if you aren’t an Apple Music fan and still waiting for Spotify to launch its premium Hi-Res tier, getting a free three-month trial won’t hurt to assess the future of sound. Rumours are ripe with Apple working on developing its own wireless lossless transmission. As I write this, I’m itching to go through the entire Spatial Audio playlist only to rediscover my favourite music in a whole new way...it really is addictive!

More about Spatial Audio from the engineers and producers of Bollywood hits.