What is Spatial Audio?

Rosalie Newcombe

Spatial audio is what makes our cinema-going and music-listening experiences immersive with its 360-degree soundscape, but what exactly is spatial audio and how does it work? Here’s what we know.

If you’ve been catching up with the latest Oscar-nominated movies, chances are you’ve experienced immersive audio. From the sound of bullets whizzing past your ears to the nuanced sounds of a bustling cityscape all around you – that’s spatial audio doing its thing.

Spatial audio is what makes sound mixes go from muddled, often difficult to hear mixes, to an immersive 3D audio experience. It comes in many forms, from Dolby Atmos, Apple Spatial Audio, Sony 360 Reality Audio, and DTS:X and not only that, you don’t need to be at the movies to experience it.

Spatial audio helps elevate the limits and immersive possibilities of modern audio as we know it. Yet, how does this impressive audio technology work, and how can we experience the same level of immersion from the cinema, in our living rooms?

We’ve narrowed down all you need to know about 360-degree audio technology in this handy guide.

What is spatial audio?

Spatial audio is audio that has been placed in different areas around a 3D space to create an immersive 360-degree soundscape.

Traditionally, surround sound was the format of choice when creating immersive audio. However, surround sound can still often sound like audio is coming from a specific directional speaker. With spatial audio, audio engineers and filmmakers can place individual sounds within a room, so it feels as though you’re immersed in the fictional surroundings of a film.

How does spatial audio work?

Spatial audio works by replicating the method by which our human ears listen to the audio around us. When we listen to the soundscape of the word, our two ears enable us to determine where a sound is coming from. Whether it’s strangers talking on the bus behind us to our left, or birds chirping to our right, we’re able to decipher exactly where those sounds are coming from.

With spatial audio, filmmakers, music products, and other audio engineers take this idea, and replicate the effect of placing sounds in a space, rather than through surround speakers.

What different types of spatial audio are there?

There are a lot of brands out there with their own spatial audio formats. Knowing your Dolby Atmos from your Sony 360 Reality Audio can be confusing. Especially when different formats are compatible with different devices and media streaming platforms.

Brands like Apple even have their version of the spatial audio format, specifically tailored for the use of its AirPods line of products.

With that in mind, we’ve narrowed down the most well-known and highly recognized spatial audio formats, to make getting your head around each a breeze

What is Dolby Atmos spatial audio?

Dolby Atmos is a specific type of spatial audio developed by Dolby Laboratories that debuted back in 2012 with the release of Pixar’s Brave. The animated film was the first to utilize Dolby Atmos’ placement of individual sounds and their ability to move around in a 3D space with more layers and precise directionality.

Dolby Atmos is enabled in tech from smart televisions, soundbars, headphones, and speakers and can be used right out of the box. So long as the Dolby Atmos logo or badge is present, that will mean your audio is compatible with this version of spatial audio.

Plenty of music, specifically songs on music streaming services such as Apple Music and Amazon Music Unlimited are available with Dolby Atmos spatial audio. Along with a plethora of TV shows and movies, like Apple TV+, Amazon Prime Video, and Netflix. However, you will need to be subscribed to a tier for each streaming service that supports Dolby Atmos, to benefit from its immersive audio playback.

What is DTS:X spatial audio?

Originally introduced in January 2015, DTS:X is a Dolby Atmos competitor. The object-based codex allows the creation of a multi-dimensional sound that moves realistically.

While DTS:X works similarly to Dolby Atmos, it differs when it comes to speaker configuration. DTS:X is compatible with surround speaker setups, and can support up to 32 speaker locations and an 11.2-channel system. Whereas, its Dolby Atmos rival requires overheard channels with a 5.1 or 7.1 setup.

DTS:X is also more producer-friendly, being open and license-free to allow anyone to utilize its immersive sound format.

What is Sony 360 Reality Audio spatial audio?

360 Reality Audio is a Sony technology that creates an immersive music experience, utilizing dynamically placed and controlled individual sounds. While Dolby Atmos is tailored for film, 360 Reality Audio is a format optimized for music distribution.

The 360 Reality Audio format is available as an add-on for DAW (Digital Audio Workstations.) This allows for music products, composers, and musicians to make use of the immersive audio technology, as it’s compatible with a myriad of different music software programs.

What is Apple spatial audio?

Unsplash stock photo of apple store

Unsurprisingly, Apple also has its own version of the spatial audio format. Apple spatial audio is designed to offer up a 3D sound when listening to music, movies, and TV shows through its brand of audio peripherals – like AirPods.

Apple Spatial Audio uses 5.1 and 7.1 Dolby Atmos signals to create audio that can be placed within a 3D space. Audio filters are applied to those signals, with frequencies being adjusted to allow for immersive audio playback.

What sets Apple spatial audio apart is its ability to use the gyroscopes in its AirPods to track the movement of your head when listening to your favorite music.

What do I need to experience spatial audio?

If you want to have an immersion cinema-like audio experience from the comfort of your own home you’re going to need two things. Firstly, a device that is designed for any given spatial audio type. This could be a smartphone, headphones, or smart television soundbar designed with spatial audio in mind. Secondly, the use of a streaming service, or a single piece of media such as a song, film, or television show, that’s compatible with any given spatial audio format.

If you’re a hardcore Apple fan, you can benefit from Apple Spatial Audio by picking up the AirPods Pro (1st or 2nd generation), AidPods Max, AirPods (3rd generation), and Beats Studio Pro.

If you don’t fancy picking up an expensive piece of tech to see what spatial audio is capable of, plenty of films on Amazon Prime Video, Apple TV+, Disney+, HBO Max (US), Netflix, and Paramount+ are enabled with Dolby Atmos. You won’t need a fancy speaker set-up to get the most of your spatial audio either. So long as your streaming service subscription tier comes with Dolby Atmos enabled, you’re good to go.

About The Author

Dexerto's Senior Tech Writer. Rosalie is an expert on all things handhelds, and has been picking them up since the original Game Boy, all the way up to the Steam Deck. Before working at Dexerto, they covered all things hardware for PCGamesN and Custom PC. Get in touch via email at rosalie.newcombe@dexerto.com.