Dolby Atmos Spatial Audio: Fact or Fiction

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If you listen to audio on an Apple device, you’ve probably come across the Dolby Atmos and Spatial Audio features. Apple announced that Dolby Atmos would be implemented into Apple Music in the summer of 2021.

Is Dolby Atmos Spatial Audio?

Dolby Atmos and Spatial Audio are not the same. Dolby Atmos is essentially metadata that stores sonic information. It is used in music and film, which facilitates 3D sound mixing. Spatial Audio uses sensors in headphones to create a more immersive experience.

Although these two features are often used together, they have significant differences.

It may seem that Spatial Audio and Dolby Atmos are very similar on the surface, but in reality, these features are two pieces of a puzzle.

Dolby Atmos allows musicians, mixing engineers, or film audio producers to mix sounds in 3D, rather than relying on the conventional method of balancing tracks across two stereo channels. Spatial Audio simulates the 3D listening experience by using sensors.

In this guide, we’ll take an in-depth look at Spatial Audio and Dolby Atmos, assessing their similarities and differences.

Is Spatial Audio the Same as Dolby Atmos?

Spatial Audio was first introduced by Apple in 2020. It was featured on the AirPods Pro and AirPods Max which were both released in the same year.

Dolby Atmos was created in 2012, with the goal of transforming 3D audio technology. It allows creators to assign sounds to different locations within the stereo field, choosing the direction and the distance from the listener.

The key difference between these two technologies is that Dolby Atmos is a tool used in the mixing process of music or film audio, whereas Spatial Audio is a feature that is added to the listening device rather than the audio file.

When a song is mixed in stereo, the mixing engineer changes different aspects of the sound. Panning is used to play certain sounds more or less prominently from one side of the stereo field so that this can be heard in speakers or headphones.

Dolby Atmos is an improvement on 5.1 and 7.1 surround-sound that preceded it.

Rather than simply causing different audio tracks to be sent to a large number of speakers positioned around the listener, Dolby Atmos can create up to 118 pieces of sound, which can be placed deliberately within the sound field during mixing.

Spatial Audio, on the other hand, relies on a listening device’s onboard sensors to create a simulation of the 3D listening space. This causes the spatial awareness of the headphones, earbuds, or other listening devices to be enhanced.

To summarize, Spatial Audio adds a layer on top of the existing sound using sensors installed in the listening device to simulate a 3D sound field. Dolby Atmos creates the 3D sound field experience by altering the positions and distances of the sounds within a song or movie.

Does Dolby Atmos Use Spatial Audio?

Dolby Atmos and Spatial Audio can either be used independently of one another or simultaneously. Therefore, it would be inaccurate to say that Dolby Atmos uses Spatial Audio.

Dolby Atmos can be enhanced by Spatial Audio if both features are used at the same time. Spatial Audio works with 5.1 and 7.1 surround sound, but many audiophiles would argue that to get the best 3D listening experience, it should be used with Dolby Atmos-mixed audio.

Check out this YouTube that explains what Dolby Atmos is and how it works.

Apple introduced the Spatial Audio feature for the AirPods Pro and AirPods Max to provide listeners with a more immersive experience, as is demonstrated in this YouTube video.

These headphones have an accelerometer and gyroscope installed in them, which are used to create the Spatial Audio effect.

When the listener moves their head, Spatial Audio causes the sound field to maintain its original connection to the source device by using a head-tracking feature. This means that when you move your head, the direction of the sound remains unaltered.

If Dolby Atmos is used to mix a specific piece of music or audio for film, and this content is then played through an Apple device that has the spatial audio feature enabled, the two technologies will merge to create an even more immersive listening experience.

In that respect, it is accurate to say that Dolby Atmos uses Spatial Audio and vice versa. However, this is not an essential collaboration, but rather one that has the potential to improve the impression of the 3D sound field.

  • This explains why Spatial Audio and Dolby Atmos are commonly grouped – they both are essentially designed to provide a more immersive 3D experience for music and film.

Who Offers Spatial Audio?

Spatial Audio is exclusive to iOS and Apple-designed devices, unlike Dolby Atmos which can be used with a wide range of different devices. Originally, the Spatial Audio feature was only available to AirPods Pro and AirPods Max users, but its compatibility has since been expanded by Apple.

Here’s a breakdown of the devices that can be used with Spatial Audio.

  • AirPods Pro
  • AirPods Max
  • Airpods 3
  • iPhone (7 onwards)
  • iPad Pro (3 onwards)
  • IPad Pro 11-inch
  • iPad (6 onwards)
  • iPad Air (3 onwards)
  • iPad Mini (5 onwards)
  • Apple TV 4K (with tvOS 15)
  • Beats Fit Pro

In addition to these devices that Spatial Audio can be used with, several streaming platforms also facilitate it. These include:

  • Netflix
  • Apple TV+
  • Disney+

Using Spatial Audio alongside Dolby Atmos increases the number of devices that can be used.

1st and 2nd-generation AirPods, Beats X, Beats Solo 3, Beats Studio 3, Powerbeats Pro, and Beats Studio Buds all become compatible when Dolby Atmos is used.

Additionally, you can use any iPhone including and after the XS model, except for the iPhone SE. The onboard speakers on the Macbook Air and Macbook Pro, providing they were released after 2018, are also capable of Spatial Audio with Dolby Atmos activated.

Spatial Audio can also be used on Spotify, but some users report that it doesn’t have the same effect that it does when it is used on Apple Music. This would make sense, as Apple designed the feature.

TIDAL offers its version of Spatial Audio – called “360 Reality Audio”. This was created in collaboration with Sony, and works very similarly to Apple’s Spatial Audio feature.

Do I Need a Dolby Atmos TV to Get Dolby Atmos?

Although it may seem logical that Dolby Atmos would only be available on Dolby Atmos TVs, this is not the case. You can use Dolby Atmos feature on any TV, providing you have the correct speaker setup and equipment.

Dolby Atmos TV does offer Dolby Atmos to users, which is one of the reasons for its popularity. However, you can enjoy the 3D immersive listening experience of Dolby Atmos without having that specific TV model.

For Dolby Atmos to be used with any TV, you must have a home theatre system that contains several speakers and receivers, otherwise, the technology won’t be effective.

Playing audio through your TVs onboard speakers will render Dolby Atmos useless, as it requires numerous speakers to create the sound field. 

Dolby Atmos doesn’t come from the TV, but rather is applied to the soundtrack of a film or TV show during the mixing process. The vast majority of popular movies and shows have a Dolby Atmos soundtrack, as do many sports channels, and streaming platforms.

Many brands include the fact that they are compatible with Atmos in their product descriptions, but in reality, the technology is mostly made possible by the setup of your speakers, receivers, and hardware in your home theatre.

It’s a common misconception that Dolby Atmos is an audio format or a type of signal.

This is false – Dolby Atmos is the name used to describe the metadata which stores the information of a particular sound, such as its directionality, panning, and other aspects.

There’s no need, therefore, to rush to the store to purchase a new TV so that you can enjoy the benefits of Dolby Atmos. Providing you have a decent setup of external speakers and receivers, the Atmos feature should work fine on your existing TV.

Rather than focusing on the TV you have, you need to check that all of the other components in your home theatre are compatible with Dolby Atmos. This includes the AV receiver, speakers, streaming platform, and the move or content you want to play.

Related Questions

Is 7.1 the same as Dolby Atmos?

7.1 surround sound and Dolby Atmos are different in one key area. The latter is capable of adding sounds from overhead, which increases the depth and accuracy compared to 7.1 systems. 

Is Spatial Audio good for movies?

Spatial Audio works very well with all content, including movies, music, and TV shows. It is designed to allow the audio to move around the stereo fields, which can enhance the experience of watching a movie.

How Do I get Dolby Atmos on Netflix?

To activate Dolby Atmos on Netflix, you must subscribe to the Netflix Premium plan, which is an upgrade on the standard subscription and is more expensive. This allows you to access 4K video resolution and Dolby Atmos.

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