Hello everyone, and as promised, here is my definitive guide to spatial audio for apple devices.
Note, for a lot of these features such as spatialized stereo, you will need AirPods or beats headphones that support spatial audio, which include,
• AirPods 3rd generation
• AirPods Pro first generation
• AirPods Pro second generation
• AirPods Max
• Beets fit pro
If you are an apple music subscriber, you have access to dolby Atmos music and lossless audio. This can work in tandem with spatial audio. This is the only feature that doesn’t require AirPods, but you will have to enable it. Here’s how.
If on an iPhone, open the music settings. If on a Mac, open the music app, and press command+comma to open the settings, and select playback in the top toolbar.
Under dolby Atmos, select always on. This setting only affects apple music. If you don’t see it, you are not an apple music subscriber or you aren’t signed into apple music.
Dolby Atmos and spatial audio will now be on for supported songs. To hear stereo tracks in spatialized stereo, open control center.
If on a Mac, press VO+command+space on sound.
If on an iPhone, double tap and hold on the volume slider in control center.
This is where you toggle the feature on. Turning it on for one app does not affect any other apps. For example, turning this on in YouTube will not turn it on for safari or another app.
Depending on your settings, you may either see a menu or be presented with a toggle switch for spatial audio.
If you are presented with a menu, you will be presented with 3 options.
Off, adds 0 spatial audio processing to the sound.
Fixed, provides spatial content that does not use dynamic head tracking (see below)
Head tracked, Dynamic head tracking will make the sound seem like it changes direction if you move your head. For example, if your iPhone is stationary on a flat surface and you turn your head to the right, the sound will sound like it is turning to the left. If personalized spatial audio is turned on, head tracking also works for the up and down motion of your head. For example, if you tilt your head back, the sound will sound like it is getting lower and farther away. (see below for personalized spatial audio.
This works in all apps that play media. Unfortunately, this does not work for audio games like the blindfold games or RSGames.
This feature does not work on 3rd party conferencing/VOIP apps.
3rd party apps that support multichannel content like Netflix, Disney+ and others will use multi channel formats if the movie or show supports it. A lot of shows and movies support 5.1 surround sound, so spatial audio will work by default when supported headphones are connected (see above)..
Personalized spatial audio, the next upgrade for apple spatial audio.
As I discussed in a previous forum comment, personalized spatial audio will scan your head to make a HRTF (Head Related Transfer Function) on your iPhone. This will allow spatial audio to use your HRTF rather than a generic one. See below for more details about HRTF’s.
Personalized spatial audio setup
Before we talk about how to set up this feature, we need to talk about compatible devices.
All devices that support iOS 16.0 and macOS 13.0 can play back created personalized spatial audio profiles.
To create one, you must have an iPhone 10 and later. After it is set up, you can play back audio using the personalized spatial audio HRTF on any iOS 16 or macOS 13 capable device.
To set up personalized spatial audio, make sure your AirPods are connected, and then do the following.
Open the settings app on your iPhone.
Tap on your AirPods at the top of the settings list. If you don’t see it, open your AirPods case and hold it near your phone.
Scroll down until you see personalized spatial audio.
After tapping on personalized spatial audio, you should see a “Set up personalized spatial audio” button.
You will then be asked to complete the front view capture. This is very similar to setting up Face ID.
After you complete the front view capture, you will be asked to complete the right ear capture. There is no one way to complete this from my testing. My recommendation is to do this. Hold the phone out in front of you, and then turn to the left. Then, you will turn your head to the right and left until it works. That’s the best advice I can give you. I would recommend keeping the phone at arms length or about 12 inches (304.8mm) away from you.
Next, repeat that all over again but this time for the left ear capture. Same advice as before, you kind of have to figure it out as you go. Apples “turn your head left” and turn your head right” messages play seemingly random. If I were to follow them I would be turning the back of my head fully in the camera’s view.
After you complete that, Personalized spatial audio is ready!
My Thoughts on the whole thing
Well, I love the idea. It makes the audio sound great, just the way I want spatial audio to make it sound.
Do I think it’s 100% perfect? No, the setup could be more blind friendly. In previous versions of iOS 16, there was a slight high frequency boost which made high frequencies sound sharp, but this has gone away in iOS 17 beta 2 after creating another HRTF.
I really love the feature and wished that people who may don’t have AirPods could take advantage of it, but only time will tell.
I like the way it makes boring stereo content in apple music and YouTube have a sense of depth and with that even regular spatial audio doesn’t give me. I can see it getting even better in iOS 17 and macOS 14.
Following is some information for the more curious minded about HRTF’s and how personalized spatial audio can make this feature better, as well as some more technical details about how apple’s spatial audio works..
The problem with generic HRTF’s
Everyone’s head is not the same, so spatial audio will work better or worse by default for some people. When you have your own HRTF, this increases the effect of spatial audio and makes it more realistic and giving more depth and clarity to the sound.
According to Wikipedia, “A head-related transfer function (HRTF), also known as anatomical transfer function (ATF),], or a head shadow is a response that characterizes how an ear receives a sound from a point in space. As sound strikes the listener, the size and shape of the head, ears, ear canal, density of the head, size and shape of nasal and oral cavities, all transform the sound and affect how it is perceived, boosting some frequencies and attenuating others.”
This is why when your iPhone scans your head to create an HRTF, it is most likely gonna be better than that random guy at apple they scanned for the standard HRTF.
The virtual room
To make an HRTF more realistic, spatial audio companies can add a virtual room to enhance their experience.
This allows reflections of the sound to bounce off of walls in a virtual room giving the effect of the audio being in a living room or studio/theater. Depending on what the app wants to do with there HRTF’s, the room reverb could be very subtle, or very pronounced.
For example, an app called Boom 3D which is designed for playing music and podcasts as well as radio stations through has a large virtual room. If you heard a short kick drum, it would sound like it was in a big room. Apple’s implementations of the virtual room is to have the reverb time be pretty short, and more in the background rather than it be right up front and extremely noticeable.
Many other apps like Boom3D and others create HRTF’s for surround sound audio, but rarely do they let you import or scan your own like apple’s Personalized Spatial audio.
There is an app called WavesNX which will let you type in the manual values, but it isn’t the greatest as far as accessibility is concerned.
While personalized spatial audio is free for all iPhone users, apps like Waves NX and boom3d are locked behind Pay Walls or hard to cancel subscriptions. (Trust me, I know. Back before these features came out, I was in one such hard to cancel expensive subscription.)
Stats about apple spatial audio for the fellow sound enthusiasts
Here we go, the real nerdy stuff.
If you are on iOS 16, you may notice a boost at the frequencies of around 8 to 12kHz as mentioned before. This is a lot less in iOS 17 betas. This boosting of the frequencies goes away if personalized spatial audio is turned off with regular spatial audio still on.
Another interesting fact is the virtual room that personalized spatial audio uses seems to ever so slightly change from iOS 16 to iOS 17 betas. What’s even weirder is that if personalized spatial audio is turned off, the virtual room changes completely. Even someone who didn’t know lots about reverb could pick up on it depending on the sound.
Changes in iOS 17 beta and Mac OS 14 beta
One thing I mentioned in the previous section was that the high frequency boost at 8000 to 12000Hz was 90% completely eliminated in the new beta software, but not everyone feels comfortable trying developer betas. This makes a more realistic sound, closer to what the original stereo mix sounded like.
Other changes include the amount of the virtual room used on dolby Atmos signals on apple music being lessened. I have noticed that on dolby Atmos singles the virtual room varies a lot more than regular 2 channel content. It is never more than stereo content.
The way I think of it is that there is less virtual room reverb interfering with the sound, we can get as accurate as the stereo sound while still adding lots of spatial audio effects.
Those are my thoughts, and that is all for now.
If you have any questions, please feel free to reach out in the comments.
P.S., sorry for the really long article. There was so much I wanted to say here.