Best earbuds that support spatial audio 2021
When it comes to spatial audio, it's not just over-ear headphones that get to have all the fun. Even among the best wireless earbuds, you'll find pairs that support a virtual audio holographic effect, emulating 5.1 or 7.1 surround sound to make content feel like it's coming to your ears from every direction. But not all of them are on that list, and the ones included here may use different terms to describe spatial audio. Either way, when you want to hear more than just stereo, these earbuds have the goods.
These earbuds routinely make it to lists, counting it among the best you can place in your ears, and one of their coolest features is Sony's own 360 Reality Audio, which can work with most Android devices. Subscribe to Tidal HiFi, Deezer HiFi, or Amazon Music HD, and you can hear tunes mastered for surround sound.
Samsung ventured into spatial audio with the Galaxy Buds Pro in the form of 360 Audio, the company's take on creating the effect. You do need a Samsung device running on One UI 3.1 or later to make it work, but if you have the requisite gear, you can listen to any compatible content that way.
Apple coined the term "spatial audio" for its compatible products. Chief among them are the AirPods Pro, which includes head tracking technology, so you always hear the proper surround effect anytime you look away. It works with Dolby Atmos on any Android device supporting it, plus Apple Music if you subscribe to that.
Following the Beats
These earbuds support all the spatial audio goodness the AirPods do, including head tracking, so you get the same virtual surround experience on a pair of earbuds emblazoned with the Beats logo. And like the AirPods, certain features may be for Apple devices, but spatial audio can work on Android just the same.
Listening in 3D
Anker adds 3D Surround as an option when listening with these earbuds, but it's not the same technology the others offer. It emulates virtual surround, especially for music and video content. Across the board, though compatibility isn't specific to content mastered that way, so if you're looking for a free-for-all, these buds are it.
When you want to feel a game through the ambient sounds, spatial sound can mean the difference between staying alive or starting over. Razer made these gaming earbuds with that in mind, courtesy of THX-certified sound and virtual surround options within the mobile app. So that's how you'll know where those footsteps are coming from.
In the mix
Apple didn't leave its latest earbuds out of the spatial audio mix, so if you're looking to get that same treatment, it's in full effect with these 3rd-generation AirPods, too. The technology doesn't really work any differently, though. Unlike the AirPods Pro, these don't use ear tips to help seal off ambient noises in case you want to truly immerse yourself.
For what you pay, you get plenty of value with these earbuds. Made with gaming and movies in mind, the Xround Lite virtual surround tries to emulate the effect, and while results can vary, it's not easy to find this level of intricacy at such a bargain price. The companion MyTune app has a full EQ to tailor the sound further.
If you're cool with plugging in with a 3.5mm jack, you can try the virtual surround effect in these wired earbuds. Keep your expectations measured, and you may come away surprised. Of course, the surround sound audio applies to anything you listen to, so mileage will probably vary, but at least you can utilize it as an option.
If you can, listen to spatial audio
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"Spatial audio" is a term Apple rolls with, but it could just as easily describe any other brand trying to do the same thing, which is to replicate a true surround sound setup in headphones. Not all earbuds offer that kind of audio experience and not all of the ones that do necessarily do it the same way. Most content available isn't yet mastered to play in spatial audio, and some services don't offer it at all. While adoption isn't widespread yet, you can expect that to change in the years to come.
What spatial audio does is immerse you in the content you're listening to, and the effect can feel more pronounced if it's a live concert or dramatic action movie. Using any variety of similar techniques — something known in these circles as "binaural rendering" — engineers can play with sound to make it seem like it's traveling to your ears from more than two directions. Our brains have an innate ability to determine the direction sounds originate, and this virtual trickery has a way of doing that with pairs of earbuds.
Though not all on this list are among the best wireless earbuds, but a pair like the Sony WF-1000XM4 certainly are. As are the Samsung Galaxy Buds Pro and AirPods Pro, all of which drive this technology in their own ways.
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Ted Kritsonis loves taking photos when the opportunity arises, be it on a camera or smartphone. Beyond sports and world history, you can find him tinkering with gadgets or enjoying a cigar. Often times, that will be with a pair of headphones or earbuds playing tunes. When he's not testing something, he's working on the next episode of his podcast, Tednologic.