Spatial Audio: What It Is, How It Works, and Compatible Devices and Apps

Spatial audio is a new evolutionary leap in sound beyond stereo. We'll tell you everything about it.

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Spatial audio is a popular surround sound technology because of various standards, such as Dolby Atmos. However, there’s a bit of confusion about this term given that one company or another has sold it as its very own product, when it’s actually type of sound.

To help you understand what we’re talking about, we’ll explain what spatial audio is, how this technology works, and finally, how to identify compatible devices.

What Is Spatial Audio?

Spatial audio is the term that defines any audio technology that provides 3D sound. Some companies like Apple try to co-opt it in their marketing, stating that it's an improvement compared to Dolby Atmos. However, "spatial audio" is the name of the standard.

This type of audio includes all technologies that provide three-dimensional sound, including Dolby Atmos, and other alternatives, such as DTS:X or Sony’s 360 Reality Audio. As such, spatial audio isn’t an alternative to Dolby Atmos, but Dolby Atmos is a type of spatial audio.

Spatial audio provides a three-dimensional listening experience, meaning that you, as a listener, perceive sound as coming from different directions and distances. Think of traditional stereo, which separates sound into channels on the left and right. Spatial audio separates sound into multiple channels and uses advanced techniques to recreate how sound interacts with the environment.

So, if you listen to something that uses one of the spatial audio technologies, you won’t just hear sounds on the left or right. When you listen to music, you might hear a guitar on one side, a bass on the other, and instruments in front or behind, such as drums.

This type of audio makes you feel like you’re on a stage, with instruments sounding in all directions. It gives you a much more immersive experience.

Of course, for this to be effective, you have to listen to songs mixed for spatial audio. So, no matter how many spatial audio headphones you have, if you listen to a stereo song, you’ll still hear the music in stereo because that’s how it was mixed.

How Spatial Audio Works

Spatial audio uses specialized sound algorithms, sound processing techniques, and specific hardware to create realistic sound fields in three dimensions, such as those found in Dolby Atmos, the most popular type of spatial audio today.

This type of technology places different sounds in songs or tracks in various places in the sound field. For example, in a movie, you can hear the footsteps of the villain and know if they’re in front or behind you.

In addition to cinema, this sound technology is also helpful in music. Listening to a Pink Floyd song isn’t the same as being immersed in it. With an excellent spatial audio mix, you can feel like you’re inside the song, with sounds coming from all directions.

Spatial audio uses several principles and technologies to achieve this effect. For example, it uses acoustic modeling, which refers to algorithms that simulate sound behavior in different environments, and binaural coding, or recordings that mimic the way the human ear perceives sound.

In addition, spatial audio requires digital processing algorithms to process the sound in real-time to adjust the direction and distance of the sound sources. Of course, you need devices with multiple speakers that emit each type of sound from different sources to create this sensation.

To get a spatial sound, you also need:

  • Sound mixed in spatial audio: Whether it’s music or a movie, the audio track must be spatial audio-enabled and encoded with this technology for use on compatible devices.
  • Compatible device: If you want to listen to a movie or music in spatial audio, you must use a TV or computer compatible with this type of sound and an operating system that can play it.
  • Specific hardware: Whether you use speakers or headphones, you need an output with enough speakers to play spatial audio.
  • Compatible platform: This is a bonus. Whether you want to stream movies, shows, or music, you need a subscription or service that supports spatial audio and offers this type of sound. There are multi-subscription streaming services that include this type of audio in their most expensive tiers. Other music services like Spotify don’t have it at all.

Compatible Devices and Apps

If you want to enjoy spatial audio at home, you need special hardware. The first step is to be able to play it. If they’re compatible, you can use headphones, sound bars, or speakers.

Many models support the different spatial audio standards. As such, we won’t give you a list of them. If you want information about a speaker or headphones, look for compatibility with Dolby Atmos, DTS:X, Sony’s 360 Reality Audio, or other similar standards.

The same goes for apps that support spatial audio. Both Apple Music and Tidal offer this kind of sound for streaming services, as do video and movie streaming platforms like Netflix, Max, Amazon Prime Video, and Disney+.

You also need a compatible TV or a device that connects to the TV that does, such as Amazon Fire TVs, devices with Google TV, or consoles like the PlayStation 5, Xbox X, or S series.

The best way to know if a device, service, or app is compatible is to check its description and verify whether it includes one of the most popular spatial audio technologies, like Dolby Atmos.

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