Head-tracking spatial audio in tvOS 15 is just great


With the beta release of tvOS 15 last week, we finally got our first taste of what Apple’s spatial audio looks like when you combine an Apple TV 4K with a big screen TV and tracking the sound. head built into the company’s AirPods Max or AirPods. Pro. The result? A virtual home theater experience that will put a 65 inch smile on your face.

Apple released spatial audio on the AirPods Pro in 2020. Back then, it used head-tracking technology to create a very compelling 3D effect that turned your iPhone or iPad screen into a movie theater. Virtual. If you were to hold your iPhone in front of you and move your head side to side, dialogue and other key elements of the soundtrack would stay pinned to the location of the iPhone. Turning your head to the right meant those sounds always seemed to be coming from your phone.


With the release of tvOS 15, that same trick now works on a 4K Apple TV, on the biggest screen in the house. Does Apple’s virtual surround sound effect also work when looking at a 55-inch or larger screen? In a nutshell: Yes.

Using a set of AirPods Max (it also works with AirPods Pro) and a second-gen 4K Apple TV, I launched a variety of movies on Apple TV +, Disney +, Amazon Prime Video, and Netflix . Apple says the feature will work with Dolby 5.1 but you should get the best experience with Dolby Atmos content. Starting with Avengers: Endgame on Disney +, I was immediately won over by the real sound of spatial audio.

Surround sound in your head

What I mean is if you have a 5.1 or higher home theater setup you’re used to hearing sounds coming from the different speakers – that’s what makes surround sound what it is. . Head-tracking spatial audio manages to reproduce this sensation using just two small speakers attached to your head. It’s so convincing that I had to keep removing the AirPods Max to check if the sound was coming through my regular speakers as well.

But it is not only the direction of the sound that is preserved; spatial audio also does an admirable job of creating a sense of distance from the sound source. This is where space on the big screen surpasses space on a phone or tablet. When you use spatial audio on an iPhone, you get the same immersive effects, but because you’re holding a small screen in your hand – often just inches away – your brain detects a mismatch between the image size and the image size. size / distance of the sound you hear.

When you use an Apple TV 4K with a large TV, this lag is resolved and your brain is easily fooled into thinking that the sound is coming from its normal locations in the room.

Not a perfect substitute

It is not a perfect substitute for conventional speakers. It is difficult to reproduce the bass felt in the chest of a subwoofer, and the sounds of the Dolby Atmos pitch channel (the classic helicopter hover effect) are not as exciting. But on the other hand, the dialogue is easier to understand, and you get Apple’s exceptional active noise cancellation on the AirPods Max and Pro.

If you live in a condo with thin walls or like to watch most of your movies when the rest of the house is asleep, I can’t recommend spatial audio for Apple TV 4K highly enough. For $ 729 or less ($ 180 for Apple TV 4K, $ 549 for AirPods Max), you get a private listening experience that’s incredibly close to rivaling an audio system that can cost thousands of dollars. .

Currently, Head Tracking Spatial Audio requires:

  • Apple TV 4K (generation 1 or generation 2)
  • tvOS 15 beta or higher
  • AirPods Pro or AirPods Max
  • Dolby 5.1 or Dolby Atmos content from:
    • Apple TV +
    • Disney +
    • Amazon Prime Video

What about Netflix?

Netflix will likely benefit from spatial audio as well, but for now the beta of tvOS 15 is doing something strange with Netflix content. Whether the movie you want is presented in 5.1 or Dolby Atmos, it gets converted to two-channel stereo when played through AirPods. The Apple TV Control Center will indicate that spatial audio is available, but turning it on and off doesn’t seem to make a noticeable difference, and there’s no relative change in audio direction as you turn your head.

Wondering about Dolby Atmos Music from Apple Music? Apple has announced plans to add head-tracking spatial audio to this content as well, but that won’t happen until this fall. My experience with Apple’s spatial audio processing of Dolby Atmos Music has been a bit hit and miss, so I can’t wait to see if the addition of head tracking does as much for immersive music as it does for immersive movie soundtracks.

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