First Thoughts on Spatial Audio in Apple Music

Posted by Matt Birchler
— 2 min read

From The Verge:

Problem is, with much of the Dolby Atmos content on Apple Music I’ve sampled so far, it doesn’t seem like everyone is making those right calls. It’s a hit-or-miss game of exploration, and songs that truly showcase the immersive potential of Atmos are more often the exception than the rule. In many cases, spatial audio tracks have an artificial wideness to them, unfamiliar placement of vocals and instrumentation, and just sound… off. Distant? Too reverb-y? Pick your preferred interpretation. Yet, Apple is so confident in Apple Music’s spatial audio that essentially overnight it became the default for millions of customers listening with AirPods.

Apple created a playlist dedicated to spatial audio tracks and I would agree that it’s a real mixed bag. Some sounded just like stereo mixes to me, some sounded noticeably worse (WTF happened to Black Skinhead?), and a few did indeed sound pretty great (I Want You Back by The Jackson 5 is particularly well done).

Oh, and I was using an iPhone with iOS 15 and listening through AirPods Pro.

Apple pitches this as making you feel more like you’re in the middle of the music, with different instruments coming from all around you. Like I said above, most tracks just sounded like fancier stereo mixes to me, but it was pretty cool whenever a song succeeded in making me feel more “enveloped” in the sound. Then again, there were also mixes that made the music noticeably worse and kind of felt like a bad 3D conversion of a movie that really shouldn’t have been converted to the format, and in those cases I was at least happy there was a way to turn off spatial audio for a bit in Control Center (tap and hold on the volume slider to find the toggle).

Then there’s the head tracking thing that makes it sound like the audio is coming from the same spot no matter how you move your head. Apparently this is not enabled in iOS 14.6, but it is in iOS 15, and it’s just weird. The audio seems to reorient if you face a certain direction for a while, but it’s strange to have the music shift in your ears when making a turn on a run. I know I’m asking for settings on something that should be “automatic” but I would love to not have that happen for music.

Finally, for most albums with this today, a few tracks have this mixing and most of the albums don’t. This makes for a weird experience listening to albums since the mix changes quite a bit from stereo track to spatial audio track and back to a stereo track. This of course will get better for albums where the whole thing is mixed for this.

A few tracks I listened to encouraged me, but the skeptic in me still wonders if this is going to be a novelty feature going forward, as most music will still be released in stereo. I’m rooting for it, since I love music and of course would adore having the medium change in such a fundamental way in my lifetime, I’ve just been around for a while and have a healthy skepticism for big promises like this. In the meantime, I’ll be excited to see new albums from my favorite artists have the “Dolby Atmos” tag on it and I’ll definitely throw on some headphones to get the most out of them.