Dolby Atmos vs. Spatial Audio – Differences & What Supports Them

Beats headphones on a weightlifters head from the back view for Dolby Atmos vs Spatial Audio

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An immersive sound experience is possible these days with many streaming services. For example, you can get Dolby Atmos with Tidal’s lossless service. In addition, Deezer offers Sony’s 360 Reality Audio, another technology that creates a 3-D listening experience. Plus, if you own Airpods, you’d be familiar with Spatial Audio

However, I feel there are a lot of misconceptions going on about these audio technologies. As a result, some people aren’t exactly aware of what they are or how to use them properly. So here is everything you possibly need to know about two of the most popular ones in the industry.

Dolby Atmos and Spatial Audio!

What is Dolby Atmos?

In short, Dolby Atmos is a surround sound technology that creates an immersive, three-dimensional audio experience. So in effect, it is an audio format that allows producers to place different audio sources in a 3-D soundscape around them. This allows for a more realistic and lifelike audio experience, even when listening through a headphone.

Dolby Atmos was initially designed for the movie theatre. Sound designers could select specific speaker systems, inside the production software, around the theatre for particular sounds. Modern theatres use this directionality of the sound to create ‘bouncing off the wall’ effects, immersing you totally within the experience of the movie.

This has been an essential feature of the Dolby Atmos technology suite.

With Dolby Atomos for music, now music producers can do the same. Albeit through software and frequency manipulation, instead of selecting physical speakers. This is usually achieved by changing the frequency of the specific sounds and also by using the concept of phase delay. Where different sounds arrive at your ears at different times, creating a delay and reverb effect that feel like you are listening inside a big room.

Since most headphones have just two drivers, the sound usually comes from two stereo channels, Left and Right. But the actual recording has many more tracks; that’s why you see those big mixing consoles in studios. Before Dolby Atmos, producers had to cram all those channels into just two.

They now have complete freedom to take those individual tracks and design a soundscape for maximum effect.

Dolby Atmos
Dolby Atmos is a little harder to achieve in headphones

It is important to note that Dolby Atmos is not the audio itself. Instead, it is the information associated with the audio. It is essentially metadata used by compatible audio gear to control which speakers are reproducing certain sounds. Or, in the case of headphones, it is the metadata that contains the frequency information for each driver.

So you need to use compatible devices and streaming apps to get the full advantage of this technology.

Getting Dolby Atmos is headphones is trickier.

Devices and Apps that support Dolby Atmos:

Dolby Atmos is almost ubiquitous these days. Virtually all modern devices we use to listen to music or watch movies probably support Dolby Atmos.

These include listening devices like headphones, home theatres, soundbars, etc. In addition, most streaming devices, including phones, laptops, and smart TVs, also support Dolby Atmos. And if yours don’t, I am sure you can find some kind of software update that can fix it.

For phones and computers, Dolby Atmos is operating system agnostic. So both Android and iOS, Windows and Mac OS can support Dolby Atmos. However, you might need to go to your phone’s settings and turn on Dolby Atmos in some cases.

You can find the exact steps for doing that by searching any online forums regarding your device.

When it comes to streaming apps, almost all of them support Dolby Atmos these days as well. However, you have to remember that the tricky thing about Dolby Atmos is that, for it to work, every ingredient in your streaming setup has to support Dolby Atmos.

So, if your streaming app supports it but your soundbar doesn’t, you will not get the full benefit of the technology.

What is Spatial Audio?

Spatial Audio is Apple’s new audio technology for an immersive sound experience. It comes free of cost with an Apple Music subscription. Unfortunately, not a lot is known about the technology, and it is still in its early stages. But we do know that it uses the sensors (accelerometer and the gyroscope) inside an AirPod to track the listener’s head.

This allows the technology to create a virtual soundscape around the listener.

Apple has also confirmed using the sensors on your listening devices to position the sound source. So no matter where you are heard is turned to, Spatial Audio will make you feel like the sound source is coming from the direction of the device.

In effect, it is an active modulation system that will change based on your head movements and the position of the listening device.

Although the prospect of head tracking for an immersive movie experience through a headphone is attractive. We are not sure how this feature helps while listening to music on the go. Since this is an active modulation system that changes the soundscape based on your head movements.

Listening to music when working out or doing other tasks can be distracting with Spatial Audio. On the other hand, it makes sense when you sit down and enjoy a movie or music experience.

Devices and Apps that support Spatial Audio:

Apple Airpods - Dolby Atmos vs Spatial Audio
Apple AirPods – you might need some for Spatial Audio

Since this is an Apple-specific technology, to experience Spatial Audio, you’ll need Apple Devices that support Spatial Audio.

Headphones wise, Spatial Audio is supported by AirPods Pro or Max. It is also supported by some of the new Beats headphones released by Apple.

Apple is also rolling out the technology to other standard headphones, like Samsung Galaxy Buds Pro and Sony’s WF-1000XM4. But, not a lot of other headphones can really support Spatial Audio.

So definitely do your research before buying any headphones specifically for Spatial Audio.

When it comes to phones, if you are listening from an iPhone that was launched after 2016 with iOS 12.2 installed, then you are good to go. Likewise, all recent iPads (including mini), Macs, and Apple TV support this new technology so long they’re updated with the latest software version.

Unfortunately, if you have an Android device, you will not be able to enjoy Spatial Audio.

When it comes to Apps. Spatial audio is slowly becoming a more common feature in various apps and services. If you are streaming from an iPhone or iPad, quite a few apps support Spatial Audio. Disney+, Netflix, Hulu, HBO Max, Peacock, Discovery Plus Paramount+ support this new technology.

However, YouTube and Amazon Prime do not yet provide this option, but hopefully, they will soon enough!

Spatial Audio with Dolby Atmos:

Both technologies can operate independently of each other. But if you are streaming from Apple Music, you are most likely listening to content running both simultaneously. This is because apple specifically designed Spatial Audio to work best alongside Dolby Atmos.

According to them, users can get the best listening experience from their apps and devices when both are on.

Dolby Atmos gives you an immersive soundscape as if you are inside a movie theater or listening to a live concert. On the other hand, the Spatial Audio layer adds an extra dimension of movement to your listening experience. It can make you feel like you can move around within that soundscape, and the audio experience will change accordingly.

Again this feature is only available for Apple devices.

Hopefully, this gives you an idea of the two technologies and what they can do for your listening experience. So next time you see a device labeled Dolby Atmos-enabled or Spatial Audio-enabled, you will know precisely what they mean and how you can best use best it.

Is Spatial Audio the same as Dolby Atmos?

No. While many might boast the outcome is similar, they are different technologies. Spatial Audio is designed to work in partnership with Dolby Atmos for Apple Music.

Is spatial audio better?

This is a purely subjective question if it relates to sound quality. Dolby Atmos is a different approach to sound movement and location in a space. Placing audio in the room using multiple speakers to achieve an outcome.

Do AirPods have Dolby Atmos?

New models of Airpods and Aidpod Max are designed to work with Dolby Atmos but you will also need to have Spatial Audio enabled to make this effective.

If you have any questions, fire away in the comments below.

Ushan appreciates all things audio. As a self-proclaimed audiophile, he has amassed a healthy collection of audio gear including HiFi, IEMs and headphones. He loves to write and share about tech and audio.

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