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First listen: Spatial Audio for movies & Dolby Atmos music on Apple TV 4K

08 Jun 2021 | Rasmus Larsen |

Here are our first impressions with Dolby Atmos music on Apple TV 4K and HomePod as well as the 'Spatial Audio' with AirPods feature, which will arrive with tvOS 15 later this year.

Spatial Audio for movies

The tvOS 15 beta makes Apple TV 4K capable of passing 'Spatial Audio' to a pair of AirPods. Apple's Spatial Audio system was previously supported only on iOS. On Apple TV 4K, Spatial Audio is designed to work from stereo up to Dolby Atmos. The control center has a new AirPods menu with Spatial Audio controls and a source audio indicator. With stereo content, tvOS 15 can "spatialize stereo" and add dynamic head tracking. With surround / Atmos content, it can create immersive surround sound in your AirPods.

Spatial Audio Apple TV

New AirPods / Spatial Audio menu on Apple TV 4K

Dynamic head tracking works as intended. If you turn your head, you will immediately hear TV audio shift to the left or right, depending on where your TV is relative to you. Since there is no UWB (Ultra Wide-Band) chip in Apple TV 4K, AirPods determine the position of your TV screen by assuming that you are looking at the TV when you press play. If you do not, left/right directionality will be messed up.

Spatial Audio Apple TV

Spatial Audio on Apple TV 4K

"Spatialized stereo" sounds like a wider stereo perspective with head tracking. Dolby Atmos sources on the other hand sound really good in AirPods Pro. You get an immersive listening experience with lots of details coming from many directions. Apart from subwoofer bass, the experience surpasses most Dolby Atmos soundbars. We experienced occasional audio dropouts and after listening to Dolby Atmos music and going back into the Apple TV app, dynamic head tracking stopped working (it could be fixed by putting AirPods back in their case for a while) – Spatial Audio in the tvOS 15 beta is still work in progress. We will include more thoughts in our upcoming Apple TV 4K (2nd gen) review.

Spatial Audio Apple TV

Spatial Audio on Apple TV 4K

Dolby Atmos music

Apple has pressed play on Dolby Atmos music on Apple TV 4K, HomePod, and other iOS devices. It is rolling out gradually (server-side) in the Apple Music app on compatible devices running iOS and tvOS 14.6. If you are unfamiliar, Atmos is object-based audio where each sound can be encoded as an object; bass track, voices, instruments, effects etc. As opposed to channel-based audio that gets pre-mixed to fixed channels: stereo, 5.1 etc. Object-based audio can be more encompassing, detailed, immersive – but also more gimmicky. It is also scalable and flexible. A Dolby decoder in your receiver or speaker system determines how the audio objects should be divided between your speakers.

Dolby Atmos  Apple TV

Dolby Atmos music on Apple TV 4K

Apple says that "thousands of tracks will be available in Spatial Audio with Dolby Atmos at launch, with more added regularly". You can confirm if you are getting Dolby Atmos on the 'Listen Now' screen (some tracks play in Atmos even if the logo is missing on the main page). On a pair of HomePods connected to Apple TV 4K, Atmos tracks generally sound wider and more detailed. HomePods effectively manage to place sounds lower or higher (not ceiling level, though) relative to the listener perspective as well as wide left, wide right, and center. Especially the virtual center channel sounds eerily real.

Dolby Atmos  Apple TV

Dolby Atmos music on Apple TV 4K

Depending on the track, we sometimes noticed sounds or details that we had never heard before; whispers from behind (try Stargirl Interlude), birds chirping, new instruments. Some tracks have been mixed quite differently for Atmos. The Weeknd's tracks use Atmos to add to the dark atmosphere and in subtle ways to draw the listener in further. In Kanye West's Black Skinhead or Lady Gaga's Born this Way, Atmos is used to bring out a lot of surround effects, which can be too gimmicky. With AirPods Pro, the Atmos effect is even better. Music sounds more immersive due to better audio positioning, and you can hear more details – you feel a higher level of presence. Most of it is simulated but the effect is better and more accurate than on a pair of HomePods. This is not our first encounter with Dolby Atmos music – it is already available on Tidal – so we were a little disappointed to find that some of our go-to tracks are still not available in Dolby Atmos on Apple Music. When you get the chance, try The Doors' Riders on the Storm and listen to the raindrops falling. Support for lossless audio quality is coming to HomePod later this year, and appears to work now on Apple TV 4K with tvOS 14.6.



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