Netflix's 3D audio upgrade on iPhone makes me think it knows something we don't about AirPods 3

Netflix finally offers Spatial Audio support for awesome 3D movie sound, but still only two expensive AirPods models support it… so far

AirPods Netflix 3D audio
(Image credit: Apple)

Netflix is finally adding Spatial Audio support to its iPhone and iPad app, which means those with AirPods Pro and AirPods Max can now listen to movie soundtracks in truly impressive 3D surround sound.

Netflix confirmed the update to 9to5Mac, though noted that it won't be available to everyone instantly, but will appear for people in the coming weeks as long as you have the latest version of the app.

We can't help but wonder if the end of those 'coming weeks' happens to just before the expected Apple even in mid-September, and whether Netflix knows something we don't about the launch of AirPods 3.

You see, Apple has been pushing Spatial Audio more and more with its releases this year, including the launch of Dolby Atmos music with Spatial Audio support, plus the news that non-Atmos music will be upscaled to Spatial Audio in iOS 15. And Apple TV will be able to send Spatial Audio sound to compatible AirPods with an update later this year.

The problem? The only headphones that support Spatial Audio in the world are the somewhat-pricey AirPods Pro and very-damn-pricey AirPods Max. The current regular AirPods don't.

So Apple is in the process of making Spatial Audio the thing that pushes you to get both its phone and its headphones… but doesn't make any affordable headphones that include the feature.

Surely, that is about to change, and while it might be a total coincidence that the world's biggest streaming service is about to support it having not bothered in the past (despite support from rivals including Disney+, HBO Max and Hulu)… I'm thinking that Netflix maybe had a tip-off that the number of people who could use the Spatial Audio feature is about to spike.

It's long been expected that AirPods 3 would arrive in the second half of the year, likely alongside iPhone 13, and this is just more fuel to the fire.

What exactly does Spatial Audio do?

The Spatial Audio feature is designed to take 3D audio formats (ideally Dolby Atmos, which is supported in certain Apple Music songs and by lots of streaming services, but other surround formats will work to) and rather than just pump them into your ears in stereo over the headphones, uses the sensors in AirPods to create the illusion that you're surrounded by speakers.

Sounds that would come from in front of you if you were watching the movie in a proper surround sound setup (or a cinema) will seem to come from in front of you. Or they can come from any other direction, or even overhead.

The really clever trick is that if you're watching a movie, the position of these sounds in the 'space' around you is fixed based on where your phone is, because that's the screen you're watching. If you turn your head 90 degrees to the left while a sound is coming from in front of you, it'll now seem like it's coming from your right.

It's very cool, and really elevates watching movies on a portable devices. With music, it works a bit differently (the sound direction isn't locked to your phone), but you get the same effect of noise being all around you, rather then right in your ears.

It's such a shame that it's been only available on limited devices so far, and hopefully AirPods 3 will change that at a price more people can afford, and will be good enough for a high place in our list of the best wireless earbuds while they're at it.

Matthew Bolton
Matthew Bolton

Matt is T3's master of all things audiovisual, running our TV, speakers and headphones coverage. He also handles smart home products and large appliances, as well as our toys and games articles. He's the only one on the team who can explain both what Dolby Vision IQ is and why the Lego you're building doesn't fit together the way the instructions say, so is truly invaluable.

Matt has worked for tech publications for over 10 years, in print and online, including running T3's print magazine and launching its most recent redesign. He's also contributed to a huge number of tech and gaming titles over the years. Say hello if you see him roaming the halls at CES, IFA or Toy Fair.