Earlier this year, Apple introduced Spatial Audio and Dolby Atmos for selected tracks in the Apple Music library.
It’s super-impressive stuff – if a little weird when applied to music.
In essence, Dolby Atmos creates the effect of watching a movie or listening to music in a theatre or concert hall, respectively. It adds virtual height and extra width to the soundstage and enables engineers to project sounds at you from several angles.
Even though you can experience Spatial Audio by itself, Apple has designed it to work best with Dolby Atmos. Whereas the latter delivers the room-filling, multi-directional sound, Spatial Audio places you virtually inside that room. In theory, this enables you to ‘move around’ and experience the effect that has on the sound – just like being physically in the room.
And that’s where it all goes a bit wrong. It’s also why I turned off head tracking in Spatial Audio for music.
There are two examples of where head tracking literally messed with my head.
The desk problem
There’s no doubting the sheer technical brilliance of Spatial Audio. It makes it near impossible not to utter the words, “how is it doing this?!” when you first experience it.
If you’ve got a pair of AirPods and an iPhone – give it a go. Find a piece of Spatial Audio enabled content on Apple TV and move your head around as it plays. No matter what you do with your head, the audio will appear to always be emanating from the phone.
So, Spatial Audio = super cool.
But there’s a problem. Because if you experience Spatial Audio in any other setting (i.e. anything other than sitting on your couch watching something on your iPhone), it’s teeth-itchingly annoying.
I’m sitting here right now, AirPods Max on, listening to music from my iPhone, which is placed just to the left of my keyboard. Everything sounds normal because I’m not listening to Spatial Audio content with head tracking turned on. If I switch to something featuring the latter and move my head back to the monitor in front of me, the audio will shift slightly to illustrate that it is playing from the phone.
That’s just weird. It makes sense if you’re playing music from a radio in the corner of the room, but not while you’re wearing headphones.
It corrects itself after a while, which I find amusing. Give it about a minute or so, and the off-axis audio will slowly return to a more balanced output from the left and right speakers in your AirPods. It’s as though it’s saying “oops – sorry, I bet that was annoying. Sorry, I was just showing off. Here – have a normal headphone listening experience again”.
Running with head tracking turn on
I set off for a run recently and slapped on my favourite rock playlist.
A few minutes into the run, the unmistakable guitar top line from Sweet Child O’ Mine blasted through my AirPods Pro. Excited, and in need of an immediate boost during a cold November morning, I upped my pace, fuelled by Slash’s face-melting antics.
Then, I turned my head to check for traffic and it all went a bit weird. Suddenly, Axl Rose appeared to be sitting on my left shoulder, along with the rest of the band. It took me a while to realise that this was all down to Spatial Audio and, more specifically, the head tracking feature, which had reacted to my head swivel and left the audio ‘in place’ on my upper left arm, to which the iPhone was strapped.
That knocked a few seconds off my 5K time, I can tell you.
At least, that’s my excuse.
These two examples of head tracking in action reveal why it is resolutely suited to one use case, which is, in my opinion, video content, while the user is stationary. In every other scenario, head tracking is very silly and entirely off-putting.
Unfortunately, the default setting Apple has opted for enables head tracking for all forms of Spatial Audio content.
So, how do you turn it off?
How to switch off head tracking for Spatial Audio
The good news is that if you like Spatial Audio, you can listen to it without head tracking. Even better, you can tell your iPhone to only use the latter for specific types of content.
It’s not in the most obvious location, though. To find it, head into Settings > Accessibility > AirPods > [Your AirPods] > SPATIAL AUDIO HEAD TRACKING. You can turn it off completely, reserve it solely for video content, or have it on for both audio and video (that’s the default option).
Mine is now set to Video Content. Sorted.
Just bear in mind that you’ll need to do this for each pair of AirPods you have because the setting is applied to the headphones, rather than the iPhone.