The use of “magic” to describe tech is overblown, especially when it comes to Apple’s products. But hear me out on this one.
As someone who spends some of every day playing with new tech products, I’m frequently impressed by what I see. However, moments of genuine delight — those times when I suddenly find myself smiling at something that just happened — are rare. Still, I had one of those moments this weekend, and I want you to experience it, too.
I’m talking about using FaceTime on an iPhone with spatial audio. Maybe you’ve already tried it — I admit, I might be a little late to this. When I initially reviewed spatial audio from Apple, I focused on the experience from movie/TV and music points of view. At the time, I wasn’t using FaceTime a lot as most of my video chats were via Zoom or Teams.
And because I review so many wireless earbuds and headphones, once my initial review of a product is done. I tend to move on to the next device. That meant I hadn’t actually been using the AirPods Pro Gen 2 buds for the uptick in my FaceTime usage since my son moved to the U.K. this fall.
But I was running late for our call this weekend, so I grabbed the nearest buds I could find — which happened to be the AirPods Pro — and then spent the first few moments of the call with a big goofy grin on my face.
As I sat there on my bed, with my iPhone mounted to a holder about two feet away, it sounded to me like the voice I was hearing was coming from the screen. Not like “from the phone’s speakers” — though I did pull out an earbud just to check — but as though my son was sitting right there in front of me.
As I said earlier, I’ve experienced spatial audio before and found it especially effective for TV shows and movies. When using AirPods Max synced to an Apple TV 4K, it’s especially mesmerizing as it convinces you you’re hearing a full 5.1 home theater system.
But the FaceTime experience is even better because the whole point of a video chat is to increase the realism and immersion of a phone call by adding video. By not only keeping your caller’s voice centered on the screen, but also by making that voice sound like it’s in the room with you, spatial audio for FaceTime is truly remarkable.
And for an even more amazing experience, try it while on a group FaceTime call — as you rearrange the locations of your on-screen chums, their voices will seemingly move too. It’s subtle, but it definitely makes the experience more realistic.
How to use spatial audio with FaceTime
The feature works with any of Apple’s four head-tracking spatial audio headphones, specifically the AirPods Gen 3, AirPods Pro, AirPods Pro Gen 2, and AirPods Max, plus the Apple-owned Beats Fit Pro.
If you own any of these products and you’ve enabled spatial audio within Settings > [Product Name] in iOS, you should get spatial audio within FaceTime automatically.
Beast mode: personalized spatial audio with FaceTime
I’m now fairly convinced that spatial audio as a technology is most impressive when used with FaceTime, but it gets even better: With the launch of iOS 16, you can enable personalized spatial audio, which uses 3D scans of your ears to improve the way spatial audio sounds to your brain. I won’t get into all of the gory details as to how it works, but if your experience with it matches mine, it’s absolutely worth the few extra minutes to set up.
Turning off spatial audio for FaceTime
Personally, I will use spatial audio for FaceTime whenever I can — it’s that good. But if you’re not sold, or you find the immersive effect unpleasant, it can be disabled.
Keep in mind, FaceTime, unlike some other apps, does not have its own spatial audio settings. It will use whatever preferences you’ve set for your headphones. Once you disable spatial audio for FaceTime, it will be disabled for all of your apps.
To do so, head back into Settings > [Product Name] and scroll down to the Spatial Audio section. If you haven’t enabled personalized spatial audio, there will be a simple on/off switch. If you have set up personalized spatial audio, that area will show that it’s turned on, and you’ll have to select it to turn it off.
Disabling personalized spatial audio should be done with some forethought. Unlike regular spatial audio, you can’t turn it on and off with a switch. Disabling it means you’re effectively tossing out the work you did to enable it, and if you want to re-enable it, you’ll have to repeat those steps.