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    AirPods Pro: the update bringing spatial audio is available

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    A few hours before its keynote tonight (September 15), Apple has just rolled out a major firmware update for its AirPods Pro, which finally brings them the promised virtual spatialization and compatibility with Dolby Atmos.

    Apple AirPods Pro Introductory price €279

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    Announced last June at Apple's WWDC conference, Spatial Audio has been available for AirPods Pro for a few hours, thanks to firmware update #3A283. This provides headphones with a binaural sound virtualization algorithm, promising to give the feeling of real surround spatialization when viewing 5.1 or 7.1 content on your iPhone or iPad, and even 3D spatialization with the Dolby Atmos content.

    This update can be performed from any iOS device running version 13.7 of the operating system. On the other hand, it is necessary to use the beta of iOS 14 to be able to activate spatial audio – by a new switch that has appeared in the control center.

    iPadOS 14 Beta 8 Control Center

    This update is done automatically, and unfortunately it is not possible to force it manually. If your headphones haven't received it yet, the best way to speed up the process is to leave them stored in their case connected to a charger, near your iOS device for an hour or two. With any luck, you'll find them with brand new internal software.

    AirPods Pro firmware version can be checked in the iOS Settings app under General > About > AirPods Pro.

    Little content, but a convincing rendering

    For the time being, very little content, alas, makes it possible to take advantage of this spatialization. In fact, it seems that only films and series from iTunes and Apple TV+ are compatible for the moment. However, it is hoped that popular streaming services like Netflix and Disney+ will quickly update their applications to make them compatible as well. Who knows, maybe we'll even hear about it during tonight's keynote.

    © Apple

    The first listenings that we were able to perform today gave us to hear treatments of quite honorable efficiency, with a wide and immersive breadth and depth of scene, to which only a hint of naturalness is missing for be truly stunning — as is often the case, Apple's solution makes use of small artificial room effects (echo and reverberation) necessary to create the feeling of space, but which affect the timbres of the sounds. As far as directionality is concerned, we should obviously not expect to feel perfectly precisely the localization of each sound object around us; the processing aims rather to create a continuous and coherent sound field, favoring the feeling of envelopment over the separation of effects. The rendering is very convincing on rain scenes, for example, where you really feel surrounded by the diffuse noise of the drops. This is especially true since Apple's system also uses the AirPods Pro's motion sensors to detect head movements, and thus ensure that the sound field remains static in space rather than following said movements, hence an even more convincing perception: as in the cinema, when we turn our head slightly, the central channel remains in the center of the screen, rather than following our forehead.

    The audience is listening

    The virtual spatialization of the AirPods Pro makes use of a brand new audio encoding format developed internally by Apple, which seems to want to compete with the MPEG-H 3D Audio format. Behind this zeal, we guess the intention of the Californian company to have at its disposal a format of which it controls all aspects, and which it will be able to optimize without any restriction for its future excursions into the world of virtual reality and increased. For the record, this new format was designed by Tomlinson Holman, director of audio engineering at Apple since 2011. If this name means nothing to you, know that before that, Holman spent more than 15 years of career at Lucasfilm during the 70s and 80s… and that it is his initials that form the "TH" of THX!

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