You won’t need AirPods to use Apple Music’s incoming spatial audio feature. Apple confirmed to What Hi-Fi? that subscribers will be able to get spatial audio’s 3D effect on any pair of headphones, even if they’re not from Apple or its Beats sub-brand.
All you’ll need to do is manually enable the feature, whereas Apple and Beats headphones and earbuds will have spatial audio switched on by default.
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Apple revealed earlier this week that Apple Music is getting spatial audio and lossless streaming support in June. Its announcement post only mentioned that Apple and Beats headphones with an Apple H1 or W1 chip, as well the built-in speakers of its most recent iPhone, iPad and Mac devices, would “automatically” play spatial audio content; fortunately, all of the other best headphones won’t actually be left out.
All you’ll apparently need to do, once the update arrives, is enter your iPhone or iPad's Music settings and make sure Dolby Atmos is set to “Always On.” This does raise the question of whether you’ll be able to enable the same setting if you’re using Apple Music on a non-Apple device. But it does at least show that you won’t need to spend big on the AirPods Pro or AirPods Max to get digital surround sound on your headphones.
Speaking of Dolby Atmos, it does sound like Apple Music’s implementation won’t be spatial audio as we know it: Currently, you can only employ spatial audio when watching videos and wearing either the AirPods Pro or AirPods Max. These headphones use head-tracking via their onboard sensors, as well as those of the source device, to use the screen as an anchor point so that the origin points of different sounds remain consistent even as you move your head.
By opening up spatial audio to other headphones, which may lack gyroscopes and accelerometers, Apple Music’s version looks set to go without the head tracking functionality. It might be more accurate to simply say you’ll be listening to Dolby Atmos content instead, though this still means you should get the 3D effect of different instruments and vocal elements sounding like they’re positioned around you.
This largely-good news is also something of an antidote to yesterday’s reveal that Apple Music’s other big new feature, lossless and Hi-Res Audio, won’t work with any current AirPods model — or indeed, any headphones in wireless mode. Apple giveth, and Apple taketh away.
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