Spatial Audio with Dolby Atmos songs are available at no extra charge with your Apple Music subscription. Apple advertises it as being supported by any AirPods, including the original generation. However, in my experience, the effect is most pronounced when using large over-ear headphones but you don’t need the pricey AirPods Max. You can enjoy Apple Music Spatial Audio on headphones like the Sony WH-1000XM4 headphones — here’s how …

Spatial Audio is Apple’s branding around a rising standard in music, with songs authored as Dolby Atmos soundtracks. Dolby Atmos has become popular for home video for movies and TV shows (such as all the content in Apple TV+ is available in 4K HDR with Atmos sound) and is now starting to enter the world of music.

Dolby Atmos music is available in the Apple Music streaming library, but it’s also offered by other services like Amazon Music HD. The point is, it’s not an Apple-exclusive thing.

Dolby Atmos songs can theoretically be played on any headphones or earbuds because it doesn’t rely on special hardware. Instead, the iPhone plays tricks on your brain by sending audio to the left and right speakers/headphones with slight phase delays. It is these phase delays that simulate the wider soundstage and make it feel like audio is coming from above or behind you. (If you use Apple Music on Apple TV 4K with a surround sound home theater system, the extra speakers will transmit separate audio channels though for the best experience.)

Out of the box, any iPhone with iOS 14.6 will transmit music using the Dolby Atmos mode to all AirPods, AirPods Max and Beats headphones with the H1 or W1 chips inside. In my experience, the effect on the small AirPods earbuds is pretty minimal to non-existent. You really need proper headphones which are simply big enough to provide an engrossing audio experience. That doesn’t mean you need to shell out the $500+ on AirPods Max.

For instance, I have heard some great Dolby Atmos mixes through the Sony WH-1000XM4 headphones. These offer decent sound reproduction and impressive noise cancellation for under $300 all-in. There is one trick you need to be aware of though to use the Sony’s — or any third-party headphones — with Spatial Audio for Apple Music.

By default, your iPhone or iPad will not recognize these headphones as Atmos-compatible. As not every audio accessory in the world can understand Atmos properly, Apple only sends Atmos sound to its Bluetooth devices automatically. With default settings, all other connected headphones will only receive a stereo mix.

You have to change your audio settings manually to fix this.

How to listen to Apple Music Spatial Audio on any headphones

  1. Open the Settings app, on an iOS device running iOS 14.6 or later.
  2. Go to Music settings.
  3. Select ‘Dolby Atmos’.
  4. Change the preference from ‘Automatic’ to ‘Always On’.

As the name suggests, the Always On setting will send the encoded Atmos stream to any connected headphones or speakers. This now means you can use your own headphones like the Sony XM4’s and experience the spatial soundstage. The reason why this setting is not enabled by default is because some equipment can actually sound worse interpreting Atmos than a standard stereo mix.

One final thing to be aware of: with iOS 15, Apple is enabling head-tracking for Apple Music Spatial Audio. This means that the direction of sound when listening through AirPods Pro or AirPods Max will change depending on your own head movements. This feature of Spatial Audio will not be available on third-party headphones as it uses the gyroscope sensors inside the AirPods. However, whilst head-tracking for watching movies is natural, it is less clear what the benefits are when listening to music.

Whereas when watching movies you are stationary and focused on the screen, you are often listening to music when walking around or doing other tasks. In those cases, the head tracking spatial effect can be annoying. In fact, many people currently the iOS 15 beta are hoping Apple adds a toggle to disable the head-tracking feature inside of Apple Music as they found the effect too distracting.

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How to enjoy Apple Music Spatial Audio on third-party headphones
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