Apple’s new spatial audio feature turns the AirPods Pro into a home theater for your ears

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Since releasing them last year, Apple has quietly continued to improve upon the AirPods Pro with firmware updates that have tweaked their noise cancellation and sound quality. The company rarely details or comments on the changes that come in each release of AirPods firmware; there are no update notes that spell out what’s new. Nor is there any way to manually force install the latest AirPods / AirPods Pro software. It just… happens in the background at some point as you use them. But last month, the AirPods Pro picked up a pair of new features that Apple did announce: spatial audio and automatic switching.

Automatic switching is the simpler one, and it’ll probably make a bigger difference to your day-to-day use of the AirPods Pro. (It’s also be available on standard AirPods and select Beats headphones and earbuds.) Without you having to do anything, the AirPods will automatically switch between your iPhone, iPad, and Mac whenever you start using one of them. This handoff is nearly instantaneous; you can be listening to music on your phone, pause it, pick up your iPad and start playing a video, and the AirPods will be ready for that audio. Since macOS Big Sur is required (and still hasn’t officially shipped), the Mac part of this equation doesn’t really work yet. But when hopping back and forth between my iPhone and iPad Pro, automatic switching has worked just as advertised.

Then there’s spatial audio, which is exclusive to the AirPods Pro. With this feature, Apple is trying to cram an immersive surround sound experience into two earbuds. I’m still surprised and impressed by how well the company pulled it off. Instead of hearing everything in stereo like usual, it really does feel more like you’re in the middle of the action when you’re playing content in an app that supports spatial audio. And so far, quite a few do — including Apple TV, Disney Plus, and HBO Max. Netflix and Amazon Prime Video aren’t on board just yet.

For some reason, Control Center always says that content doesn’t support spatial audio — even when it does.

Apple says it uses algorithms to convert surround sound (5.1, 7.1, or Dolby Atmos) into spatial audio. From there, it applies directional audio filters and adjusts the frequencies going to each ear to achieve the immersion effect. How much of a difference spatial audio makes obviously varies by content. A Marvel film on Disney Plus is going to give you a more riveting audio experience than, say, Ted Lasso on Apple TV. (But Tom Hanks’ Greyhound makes for good demo material on that service.)

Earbuds are never going to fully rival the experience of watching a movie through a top-tier Atmos system in a home theater. But just as the name says, spatial audio makes everything feel more wide and open. Sure, the directional surround effects are neat, but the expansive sound field also pays off big for dialog clarity. Speech cuts through the mix without any problems, which you can’t always say about stereo audio. Even if the end result isn’t revelatory, spatial audio makes watching movies with your AirPods Pro that much better and more three-dimensional.

The more impressive aspect of spatial audio is how it keeps audio fixed in place and tricks you into thinking that the sound really is coming from your iPhone or iPad — almost as though you’re looking at a TV screen. When you turn your head left or right, the primary audio channel stays planted in front of you. Apple does this by comparing the motion data from the sensors in your device with the gyroscope and accelerometer inside the AirPods Pro. That’s how it detects if you move your head or if you raise or lower your iPad. You’ll still hear some of the enveloping surround mix in each ear when turning from side to side.

I’m impressed by spatial audio in the AirPods Pro, but I’m even more excited about how this could all sound when Apple eventually unveils its long-rumored over-ear headphones. Putting this tech into full-size headphones will give the company even more to work with and could solidify the iPad as the ultimate portable movie machine.

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