Back in June, Apple introduced both lossless audio and Dolby Atmos-powered spatial audio to Apple Music. While there were restrictions on which gadgets could handle what, you didn’t need AirPods to get the benefit. However, with iOS 15's public release, Apple’s also added Dynamic Head Tracking—and for that, you’re going to need either a pair of AirPods Pro or AirPods Max.
Quick refresher: Dolby Atmos is a specific surround sound format that allows you to simulate a three-dimensional space. What Apple refers to as spatial audio is like an extra layer on top of that thanks to Dynamic Head Tracking. How it works is, it fixes where the audio sounds like it’s coming from, regardless of where you are within that soundscape. So say you hear vocals coming from in front of you. If you turn your head to the right, the vocals will now sound like they’re coming from your left earphone. If you turn your head to the left, it’ll sound like it’s coming from your right earphone.
It’s a neat feature, but it won’t work unless you have AirPods—and the more expensive ones at that. The regular AirPods don’t support dynamic tracking; the only ones that do are the ludicrously expensive AirPods Max and the AirPods Pro. (That’s because the feature relies on accelerometers to detect your head movement.)
If you do have a pair of either the AirPods Pro or AirPods Max, all you have to do is update your iPhone or iPad to iOS 15 or iPadOS 15, respectively. (We have a handy guide on how to do that here.) Once you’ve done that, you just have to double-check that Atmos is enabled. You can do that by heading over to the Settings app, scrolling down to Music, then Audio. From there you should see the Dolby Atmos setting. Within Apple Music itself, there are also Spatial Audio playlists to get you started and Apple has since added a tutorial track featuring Olivia Rodrigo’s song “good 4 u” to demonstrate how it works.
That said, if you don’t have AirPods, that doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy Dolby Atmos at all. You can. It’ll just be the “normal” kind. As for how it sounds, it’s impressive but slightly less noticeable for music—especially if you’re just listening to songs for background noise. In our experience, dynamic head tracking is much more noticeable when using AirPods to watch movies, particularly action scenes. Still, if immersive audio is your thing and you’ve got the gear, it’s a neat thing to try out for yourself.