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What is spatial audio? A Beginner’s Guide to Immersive Sound

Have you heard of spatial audio? Although her first name doesn’t sound particularly exciting, it’s an idea that will revolutionize the way you watch TV and movies, and even listen to music at home.

Home audio systems are becoming more immersive than ever. While you may be familiar with the concepts of pinning the sounds around you from your traditional surround sound systems, new spatial technologies are improving your living room TV, while making setups easier and more efficient.

It’s a term you’ll hear more and more about. Not only did Apple coin the term for its Airpod sound technology, but Netflix just announced (opens in a new tab) that a number of its programs can be enjoyed with spatialized sound, without requiring a traditional surround sound setup.

For the uninitiated, the term spatial audio does not mean much. So we’ve put together a beginner’s guide to what might be called immersive, 3D, or spatial audio, depending on which system you choose (and who you ask), so you can see why it’s worth learning. to be studied. .

How is spatial audio different?

Spatial audio is, in essence, a surround sound system, and many examples use Dolby Atmos, an audio format originally designed for cinemas.

However, where classic surround sound setups required multiple speakers on different channels, it is now possible to recreate the effect with a much more limited setup, sometimes a single soundbar. Think of spatial audio as a sound sphere rather than directional. It’s even possible to include sound from the ceiling without the need for a ceiling speaker, as soundbars with up-firing speakers can cause some sounds to bounce off the ceiling.

Netflix’s version of Spatial Audio was created with Sennheiser and uses traditional stereo speakers to pin sounds, while also supporting surround sound formats such as Dolby Atmos.

What does spatial audio sound like?

In this ‘sound sphere’ certain sounds can be pinned around you. This means that when someone walks past the screen in the movie you’re watching, sound can travel and feel like they’re walking past you, realistically. Likewise, when an airplane flies overhead or a helicopter takes off, that sound comes from above you (if you have the right setup).

spatialized audio

This 360 Reality Audio setup from Sony uses multiple speakers to create the “sound sphere”.

(Photo credit: Sony)

What can I watch with spatial audio?

The key to spatial audio is having content that has been created in the right format for this sound technology to work. The most common format is still Dolby Atmos, and you’ll find a number of movies (mostly) that support it on any given platform, be it Netflix, Amazon Prime, or Disney+.

You should find a symbol indicating if the content is compatible with Dolby Atmos, and you’ll likely need to stream in the platform’s Ultra HD format. To try Netflix’s new spatial audio, you can search “spatial audio” in the search bar, and it will suggest compatible titles. For now, this includes stranger things, the witcher and The Adam Project.

Can I listen to music with spatial sound?

The real evolution of spatial audio comes in the form of listening to music, a new frontier for surround sound where it was best heard in stereo until now. The likes of Sony 360 Reality Audio, for example, can pin different instruments around the sound sphere, making it sound like you’re sitting in the middle of an orchestra. Again, in general this requires music content recorded in a certain format to work, so only certain songs or artists may be available to listen to in spatial audio, regardless of your setup.

a sonos arc soundbar in a living room

(Image credit: Sonos)

What do I need to create a spatial audio setup?

Spatial audio can be added and integrated into an existing multi-speaker setup relatively easily, but Dolby Atmos is also pretty standard these days in high-end soundbars, such as the Bose Smart Soundbar 900 or Sonos. Bow.

If you’re buying a new TV, Dolby Atmos may be built in, but to really get the most out of spatial audio you’ll need some sort of external speaker setup.

Wireless speakers such as the Echo Studio and Apple Homepod support Dolby Atmos, but don’t have up-firing speakers. Sony’s SRS-RA5000 does, however, and is compatible with Sony 360 Reality Audio content.

Spatial audio has also been adopted in headphones. Apple’s Spatial Audio technology is what you’ll first encounter if you search for the term, with its AirPods Pro and AirPods Max now capable of immersing users in that 3D soundscape when using iOS. Other headsets may still work with other spatial audio technologies.