What Happens When Apple Spatial Audio Leaves the Walled Garden and Jumps Into an Electric SUV?

What Happens When Apple Spatial Audio Leaves the Walled Garden and Jumps Into an Electric SUV?

We first started hearing about Apple Spatial Audio in early 2021. It was the iPhone maker’s approach to personal audio, one that aimed to recreate the feel of surround sound from just two audio outputs pushed into your ears.

While it started with earbuds/headphones, it soon spread to the company’s HomePod smart speakers, and with that you got to experience aeroplanes in movies as if they were zooming over your head, voices sound like they were originating from different points in the room, and creeping soundscapes in a horror scene start from one side and fully encapsulate you. Of course, music also sounded phenomenal, but moving from simply earbuds/headphones meant you could feel fully immersed without something over or in your head.

But now, for the first time, Apple Spatial Audio has made its way out of the Apple ecosystem and into another device: The Mercedes-Benz electric SUV.

I got the opportunity last week to take the new Mercedes-Benz EQE and EQS EVs for a test drive, and while I’ll tell you all about my time in one of these cars in another article, I want to nerd out about how good Spatial Audio is, and what Apple partnering with a third-party could mean for the future of how music is consumed.

Apple Spatial Audio

As we mentioned in another article recently, Apple has spent a huge amount of time, money, and effort on Spatial Audio R&D. While the company certainly didn’t invent object-based audio, it’s really gone hard on it. The AirPods Pro 2/AirPods Max know where they are in relation to your device – turn your head away from the TV or your iPad while watching a movie, and the audio stays where it is. Yes, it’s essentially just Dolby Atmos, but what good is Dolby Atmos without the tech in the listening device being able to distribute the sound in the way it was intended?

There are a number of limitations with Apple Spatial Audio, however. The first, is that for music, the song needs to be played via Apple Music into an Apple device (or new Merc). Not all songs on Apple Music stream in Spatial Audio, either. On the TV/movie front, Disney+ and, of course, Apple TV+ currently support Spatial Audio.

apple spatial audio
How to find Apple Spatial Audio tracks in Apple Music. The ‘Dolby Atmos’ badge on Olivia Rodrigo’s album tells us Spatial Audio is a go. Image: Gizmodo Australia

A natural progression

Apple Spatial Audio impressed me the first time I heard it, through last year’s pair of AirPods Pro 2; it also impressed me when reviewing the HomePod (2nd generation) earlier this year. But, nothing prepared me for how incredibly sick driving with surround sound would be.

If you cast your mind back to the launch of the iPod, Apple has always been focused on the listening experience. Personal music starts with headphones (check), then TV speakers (check), and, really, the only other place you use a personal listening device is in a car, and the Apple Car (????????) … so it makes sense to partner with a car brand. While the Mercedes-Benz EQS is $194,000-worth of car, the reason for choosing Merc seems to be the quality of the sound system the car marker opted for in its new EV SUVs. You’re not exactly going to stick something like Apple Spatial Audio in a $25,000 car with average speakers to showcase the capabilities of the tech, are you?

Image: Asha Barbaschow/Gizmodo Australia

And while that car is exceptionally gorgeous, one day, tech like Apple Spatial Audio will be more common and its availability will be a tad more democratised.

But how does it sound?

Yeah, look. Nothing short of incredible. The Mercedes-Benz EQS boasts a 710-watt, 15-speaker Burmester surround sound system. Subwoofers are in the chassis, there’s bass in the front, a centre-field speaker in the middle of the dash, two in each door, and the rest around the rear.

The first song we tried on our drive down to the Mornington Peninsula from the Melbourne CBD was “Kickstart My Heart” by Mötley Crüe. The iconic whammy bar/slide sound before the riff kicks in sounded like it started in the rear right-hand side of the car’s cabin and travelled around my head and ended after a full circle. Then, the “woooos” kicked in and they felt layered. They’re layered in stereo, yes, but in Apple Spatial Audio the track sounded like it had 45-plus layers, not just two. Although this was a remastered track, I was left impressed.

“K-POP” by Travis Scott, Bad Bunny, and The Weeknd, although not my usual jam, was exceptional. Again with the layers. It sounded like it was the same person singing, but he started the line on the left and it sort of pulsed around the car, seamlessly leading into the vocals of the next person. At one stage, someone sings “mummy” and I felt like I was sitting in the old school Windows Media Player visuals. It certainly helped the car was super quiet and the acoustic glass keeps the sound within the cabin.

With Apple Spatial Audio in the Merc, for the first time I heard all of the claps in “Bad Guy” by Billie Eilish, ones that weren’t drowned out by the “bom bom ba da ba bom bom” backing track.

We moved through more songs from different genres, and while remasters such as those from Elton John were elevated, Apple Spatial Audio is definitely better in songs that have been made for it rather than as an afterthought.

Throughout the day, the volume never went above 50 per cent – not because it got distorted, but because there was simply no need for it and it would have been uncomfortably loud. It was also bloody cool feeling the bass come through the footwell in the front passenger seat.

Apple spatial audio
Image: Asha Barbaschow/Gizmodo Australia

It was an incredible way to experience music. As a massive music fan, I do reckon Apple is onto something, focusing its efforts so heavily on Spatial Audio and delivering that Dolby sound to the masses. No, you’ll likely not go buy the Mercedes-Benz EQS just for Apple Spatial Audio, but those who do will get a little treat. But surround sound in a car is here now and the future is only going to mean more immersive music experiences for everyone.

Asha Barbaschow travelled to Melbourne as a guest of Apple.

Image: Asha Barbaschow/Gizmodo Australia.

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