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Spatial Audio vs Dolby Atmos: What's the Difference?

Apple Music now supports Spatial Audio and Dolby Atmos. But what does each immersive audio technology do? And how do they work together?

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Apple Music is officially a lossless music streaming service. As of early June 2021, subscribers now have access to a huge catalog of lossless tracks that are CD quality (16bit / 44.1kHz) and better (up to 24-bit / 192 kHz), which is a massive upgrade over the MP3-quality tracks that they were previously had access to. But it's not just higher-bitrate tracks that Apple has brought to Apple Music subscribers — it's given them access to more immersive tracks, as well.

Apple Music has started adding tracks that support Dolby Atmos and take advantage of Spatial Audio, both of which are immersive sound technologies. The combination of the two, according to Oliver Schusser, Apple’s vice president of Apple Music and Beats, is the "biggest advancement ever in sound quality." But what exactly do each do? And how do they work together? Consider this your beginner guide.

What's Dolby Atmos?

Dolby Atmos is one of the most sought-after features for any new soundbar or home theater system. It's an immersive audio technology that creates virtual height and side channels, which trick your ears into thinking that sound is coming from all around you — left, right and above — instead of just right in front of you. Essentially, Atmos makes it sound like you're in a movie or at a concert — and it's incredible.

What devices support Dolby Atmos? A lot. There are hundreds of millions of devices that support Dolby Atmos. And it's not just home theater systems and soundbars. It's built into PCs and tablets, game consoles and streaming sticks, smartphones, smart speakers, headphones and TVs. Dolby licenses Atmos as a software package to various
manufacturers (like Apple, Samsung and Sonos), which figures out what kind of system you have, whether that's a 2.0, 5.1.2 or a 7.1.2, and then renders the audio so that it sounds best.

What's Spatial Audio?

Spatial Audio is Apple's own immersive sound technology that uses the various sensors (specifically the accelerometers and gyroscopes) in Apple's AirPods Pro or AirPods Max to track the listener's head movements. It then creates a virtual space based on the listener's head and the device they are listening from (like an iPhone) so that it always sounds like the audio is coming out of that device. For example, if you're watching a movie on your iPhone and AirPods Pro and you turn your head to the right, the sound will become more prominent in your left ear because it's closer to the action (the iPhone screen).

What devices support Spatial Audio? You need to wearing Apple's AirPods Pro or AirPods Max and listening from an Apple device that supports Spatial Audio. If you've bought an iPhone, iPad, Mac or Apple TV in the past few years, it likely supports Spatial Audio; you just need to have it updated with the latest software.

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What's Spatial Audio with Dolby Atmos

Spatial Audio can work without Dolby Atmos, but more times than not you're going to be listening to content that supports both simultaneous. In fact, Apple designed Spatial Audio so that it works best with Dolby Atmos. The combined effect lets you take better advantage of the virtual audio space that Dolby Atmos creates by allowing you to move around in it.

In a nutshell, Dolby Atmos creates the effect of watching a movie at a cinema or listening to music at a live concert — the sound comes from all around you (center, left, right, above and behind) — and Spatial Audio adds another layer that makes you feel like you're in movie or moving around at the concert.

When listening to music, you can turn your head to left or right and the vocals and instruments will become more or less prominent depending on where you're facing. If you're watching a movie on your iPhone or Apple TV, and a character is yelling on the right side of the screen, you can turn your head to the right and it'll sound like they are yelling right at you.

What content supports Spatial Audio with Dolby Atmos? You need to be wearing AirPods Pro or AirPods Max and listening from an updated Apple device that's from 2018 or later. From there, any content that Atmos (or 5.1 or 7.1 surround sound) will be able to take advantage of the Spatial Audio feature. Most video streaming apps, such as Apple TV+, Hulu, HBO Go and Amazon Prime Video support some sort of surround sound technologies on Apple device. (Netflix only supports stereo sound on iOS devices.) Apple Music is the only music streaming service that supports Spatial Audio with Dolby Atmos.

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