As audio editor, the news that Netflix has introduced spatial audio on some of its most popular shows — including Stranger Things, The Witcher and The Adam Project — really had me intrigued, and very much looking forward to trying it out at home for myself.
I’ve tried all kinds of ways to improve the sound from my TV speakers over the years, and my 5 best TV audio upgrades really show what can be achieved with one of the best Dolby Atmos soundbars, or even when you bypass the built-in TV speakers with a fairly basic integrated stereo amp and passive setup.
But what's neat about the Netflix system is that it uses your existing TV speakers (or add-on stereo speaker setup), and promises to make it sound even better. Could this really be an audio benefit where I don't need to add anything else? This got me very excited indeed.
Cinema sound without additional speakers
Powerful surround sound speaker systems driven by one of the best AV receivers are seen as the way to get the most immersive cinema-like sound experience when at home, but in a recent post Netflix claims its new spatial audio support “helps to translate the cinematic experience of immersive audio to any stereo.”
I am a firm believer that you don’t necessarily need multiple speakers dotted about cluttering up your TV room to achieve a more immersive sound experience, but the fact that Netflix says it can achieve this even through a TV’s built-in speakers to give a taste of what can be achieved without requiring anything additional, had me very intrigued and eager to listen.
Free for all
Despite the cost in developing its spatial audio algorithm in partnership with Sennheiser — an audio specialist that already has experience with immersive pseudo surround tech developed for its Ambeo soundbar — Netflix is rolling out its spatial audio upgrade to all subscription tiers at no additional cost. This means all Netflix subscribers get to experience the audio upgrade no matter what subscription package they're signed up to.
Netflix spatial audio is already supported on iPhones and other Apple devices such as Apple TV as well as stereo headphones, including the AirPods Max, AirPods Pro and Beats Fit Pro earbuds, so it's not really much of a leap to understand how the tech might be engineered to conjure up its magical immersive trickery and deliver it through just a TV's built-in speakers or a pair of add-ons.
I'm a considerable latecomer to the seemingly immensely popular Netflix series Stanger Things. How I've managed to overlook this show for so long is surprising. If ever there was a soundtrack made to demonstrate the level of impact spatial audio can bring to your Netflix TV viewing experience, then this show has to be the perfect showcase to the technology's immersive experience benefits.
From the moment I started watching the first episode of series 1, I was instantly impressed by the big, dynamic soundstage the sound designers managed to deliver. The show's atmospheric soundtrack ramps up the thrilling sci-fi tension using synthesizers to carry the mid-eighties mood, and combines with plenty of over-the-top wide action effects and high octane bass that gets the pulse racing while you're eyes are transfixed watching the supernatural drama unfold on screen.
Despite the impact the soundtrack had on me in the first few episodes, as I understand it, it's actually only the current series that offers spatial audio support. The opening sequence of the first episode in series 4 certainly seems to be made for the immersive format, with all kinds of sound effects popping up left and right of the TV screen. It sounds cleaner, more dynamic, and has an even wider soundstage than before to make the soundscape sound greater, keeping me engrossed and feeling entirely immersed in the action.
In experimenting with different content, I watched several other Netflix spatial audio shows, which can be found by simply typing "spatial audio" into the search bar. I listened through my TV speakers as well as a Sonos Amp I have partnered with passive speakers that I usually have my TV sound hooked up to. Both setups appeared to deliver an enhanced audio performance with the 5.1 soundtrack to Stanger Things, and the action/comedy movie Red Notice is also in 5.1.
The effects might seem subtle to some, but there certainly seems to be more energy and air around action effects to my ears, which helps bring greater impact when setting the scene in these immersive shows.
I'd argue that spatial audio is no substitute for dedicated surround sound speaker packages such as the Klipsch Reference speaker series driven by powerful multi-channel amplification, but it's a great way to get a flavor and tease the potential immersive formats can bring. It's a great starting point that highlight the benefits of immersive tech, which may naturally lead to growing your TV setup with a soundbar or a full-on dedicated multi-channel setup in the future.
Right now, Netflix's spatial audio content is limited to just a handful of titles, but the streaming behemoth says that more shows are on their way. Nevertheless, if you haven't done so yet, I urge you to give one of Netflix's spatial audio shows a try and let me know about your experience.