Apple TV update puts sound around and above you, using only AirPods

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With the recent release of the tvOS 15 beta for Apple TV, headphone-based Spatial Audio finally makes its way to the big screen after debuting on portable devices earlier this year. The feature is designed to replicate the feeling of a proper home theatre speaker setup inside a pair of AirPods Max or Pro headphones and, after testing it out on a range of content, I can confidently say that it is one of the most convincing surround sound experiences I’ve heard on a pair of cans to date.

Object-based sound formats like Dolby Atmos add height speakers to a traditional 5.1 or 7.1 surround setup, resulting in a convincing 360-degree listening experience that sends sound around and above you. A couple of years ago I installed four height speakers into the ceiling of my dedicated media room to effectively turn my 7.1 setup into a 7.1.4 (with .4 denoting the number of height channels). When paired with the right content, the experience can be otherworldly.

AirPods Max do a great job of simulating a dozen speakers placed around your room.

AirPods Max do a great job of simulating a dozen speakers placed around your room.

But it’s not always practical to have your speakers blaring at all hours, or to install them in the roof in the first place. Which is where virtual solutions like Apple’s Spatial Audio come in.

Simulating surround formats on stereo headphones using special software is already a thing on PCs and game consoles, and there are also headphones in the market that add head-tracking so the audio changes dynamically based on your movements. Apple takes a similar approach here, splitting the audio so your ears register them as coming from all around you, effectively recreating the feel of real surround speakers, and tracking your head so sounds always come from the correct direction.

When playing The Tomorrow War using the AirPods Max with spatial audio enabled, the bass becomes much more pronounced and the soundstage really opens up making it easier to pinpoint sound effects in a scene. The Tomorrow War boasts an excellent Dolby Atmos mix with objects constantly bouncing around through every channel and Apple’s spatial audio implementation on the AirPods Max rarely misses a beat.

Audio sounds more confined and ultimately less impactful on the AirPods Pro, but it’s still a step up from regular stereo and pretty impressive considering we’re talking about such small earbuds.

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You can also enable Spatial Audio for content that doesn’t sport a multichannel mix, but it sounds a bit too artificial and unbalanced as there’s more guesswork involved in expanding a stereo soundscape.

Thankfully there’s an enormous library of content on Prime Video, Disney Plus and Apple TV+ encoded in either Dolby Atmos or 5.1, which is where Apple’s spatial audio shines, so you shouldn’t be short of content to enjoy. It’s worth noting that the headphone output for Netflix is limited to stereo only, so hopefully this gets rectified by the time of tvOS 15’s official release later this year.

While headphones are never going to deliver the same level of verticality, audio separation and chest thumping bass that a proper Atmos speaker setup can, Apple’s spatial audio — particularly on the AirPods Max — still delivers a capable and thrilling listening experience.

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