Spatial audio. What is it? Well, first an introduction to the why of spatial audio. How we listen to music is changing. The growth of streaming technology and the increasing sophistication of cell phones have revolutionized how we consume music; amazingly, they have made our favorite tracks and albums portable and instantly accessible at the touch of a virtual button. That’s why more and more of us are now living in our headphones; in 2021, an astonishing 548 million headphone sets were sold across the world. Many experts believe the upward surge in headphone and earbud sales will continue; a phenomenon that has encouraged technology companies and streaming platforms to experiment with what they call “sound design,” aiming to enhance the user’s listening experience with new ways of presenting music. Enter spatial audio, a format that is likely to have a profound influence on the way we listen to music in the future.
What is spatial audio?
The aim of spatial audio is to give the user an immersive listening experience by creating a detailed, three-dimensional sound picture, allowing us to hear sounds in our headphones as we do in real life, coming from all directions. Both dynamic and dramatic, the effect is achieved by directional audio filters, which give precise placements to each voice or instrument in the surround mix. Consequently, the listener feels that he or she is placed at the center of the music; an experience that some believe can forge a more intimate connection with the tracks they hear and even provoke a deeper emotional response; as if spatial audio allows them to become one with the music.
The origins of spatial audio
The notion of spatial audio or surround sound is not a new concept but it’s never been successfully mass marketed until now. Its origins go back to the early 1970s with the arrival of Quadrophonic sound, which was intended as an upgrade of the two-speaker stereo format. Considered too expensive and unwieldy with its four-speaker setup, Quadrophonic wasn’t embraced by the wider public and soon became extinct. But with the advent of digital technology, the music industry attempted to resurrect the surround sound concept with Super Audio CDs in 1999, but that idea – and the expensive system required to play the discs – also didn’t catch on in a big way.
But it was in the world of cinema where surround sound successfully took off, and since 2012, it has become the norm in movie theaters across the world. Aided by the rise of streaming, spatial audio is creating the equivalent of the big-screen audio experience in your headphones. There will be some people, no doubt, who will expect it to fail, just like 8-Track, Quadrophonic, DAT, Mini-Disc, and Super Audio all did before it. But early indications are that spatial audio, which is now a standard feature on many digital devices and streaming apps, is ushering in a revolution.