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Apple Audio: AirPods Receive Automatic Switching, Spatial Audio on AirPods Pro, and HomePod Integrates with Third-Party Music Services

Apple’s audio products – especially AirPods and AirPods Pro – are becoming major players in the company’s product ecosystem, and as a result it’s no surprise that new features for these products were announced at WWDC. Easily my favorite audio announcement was automatic switching between devices, but there’s a lot of other great audio news too: spatial audio on AirPods Pro, third-party music services on HomePod, audio sharing on tvOS, headphone accommodations, and more.

Automatic Switching

I use my AirPods Pro a lot, and regularly bounce back and forth between connecting to my iPad and iPhone. Manually switching from one device to another isn’t particularly difficult, but I nonetheless got very happy when Apple announced automatic switching. If it works well, this feature should mitigate the need to ever manually switch your AirPods’ output source ever again. This is exactly the kind of feature that keeps me happily locked into the Apple ecosystem.

AirPods Pro Spatial Audio

AirPods Pro are receiving a new, exclusive feature later this year: spatial audio. Similar to the audio wizardry Apple has built into HomePod, spatial audio will bring an impressive 360-degree sound to your ears. Becky Roberts at What Hi-Fi? explains:

Spatial Audio will work with any surround sound content encoded in 5.1, 7.1 and Dolby Atmos, and aims to keep you in the middle of the action by delivering multi-channel soundtracks in a more expansive soundfield…Apple has used advanced spatial audio algorithms to replicate the movie experience, using directional audio filters and subtly adjusting the frequencies each ear receives to create a more expansive soundfield. The AirPods Pro’s accelerometer and gyroscope also come in handy, allowing the processing to track the wearer’s head movement and remap the soundfield accordingly so that sound stays consistent and in sync.

Spatial audio is just one piece of the AirPods Pro audio enhancements, because Apple is also providing developers with a Motion API designed to tap into orientation, user acceleration, and rotational rates for AirPods Pro, which Apple suggests could be used to build special features in games or fitness apps.

Third-Party Music Services on HomePod

Though we don’t currently have any details about how this will work, one of Apple’s slides during the WWDC keynote showed that third-party music services will be coming to the HomePod. Currently only Apple Music is natively supported by HomePod, so using a service like Spotify requires AirPlay streaming from a separate device. It seems that will change soon. I’m an Apple Music subscriber, but I’m glad nonetheless that more options will be available to HomePod users. Next, maybe the same feature can come to Siri playback on other Apple devices.

Headphone Accommodations

A new Accessibility setting grants greater control of audio settings for AirPods, AirPods Pro, EarPods, and compatible Beats products. In Settings ⇾ Accessibility ⇾ Audio/Visual you can turn Headphone Accommodations on, after which you’ll see a Custom Audio Setup option. You can instead manually tune audio for vocal range or brightness, or have soft sounds boosted, but the best experience will likely be found in going through the steps of the Custom Audio Setup. After completing this process, you should be able to hear speech better during phone calls and hear more detail in music and crisper dialogue in videos.

tvOS 14 Audio Sharing

Last year audio sharing came to iOS and iPadOS, enabling multiple users to connect their AirPods or related devices to a single iPhone or iPad and share its audio. This has proven a fantastic feature in my use, so I’m happy to see that Apple is bringing it to tvOS 14. Now, if you need to keep things quiet at home while watching something on the big screen, you can use audio sharing to have multiple people enjoy a show or movie with their own headphones.

Battery Notifications

AirPods are good at notifying you with a chime when their batteries are getting low, but now you’ll also see a notification on your iPhone or iPad about low battery, offering one more way to ensure you’re never caught off guard by a drained battery.

I use Apple’s audio products many times every day, so I’m excited to see them get even better this year.1 Automatic switching, spatial audio, and more look like fantastic features that I’ll use on a daily basis once they’re available. And the opening up of the HomePod to third-party music services is good news for everyone, especially if a rumored smaller HomePod model debuts later this year.

Led by the wild success of AirPods and AirPods Pro, I can’t wait to see how Apple continues pushing its audio efforts forward.

You can also follow all of our WWDC coverage through our WWDC 2020 hub, or subscribe to the dedicated WWDC 2020 RSS feed.

  1. Worth noting: most of the AirPods features mentioned above won’t work on the first-gen AirPods models, only the second-gen or AirPods Pro, as well as select Beats models. And spatial audio, besides being exclusive to AirPods Pro, additionally isn’t available on certain older iPhones and iPads. ↩︎

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