AirPods Max, Spatial Audio, and the U1 Chip

As I eagerly await my AirPods Max1, I find myself wondering why Apple didn’t include the U1 chip inside of them. It’s not for a lack of space or cost. With Find My as a marketed feature, I find it surprising that Apple didn’t strengthen the product with a precision positioning chip.

Plus, it would have finally made a cool demo of the local positioning feature that debuted in the iPhone 11, which has been a solution without a problem. The newest Apple Watch has the U1, but it’s not often that you set your watch down and walk away from it like you would with headphones. I’d have liked to see how well you could play hide-and-seek with the compass-like feature.

Better than neat demos, though, it’s obvious to me that the AirPods Max should have a U1 chip to assist with Spatial Audio. Reviewers have judged the effect to be immersive, and lamented that it doesn’t work with the current version of Apple TV. I understand that Spatial Audio needs to be able to determine the relative position between the video screen and the audio output, but I would think a U1 chip on one end of that conversation could do the heavy lifting. I imagine an easy calibration when enabling Spatial Audio in which the TV asks for you to sit briefly in a good neutral spot, and then the AirPods Max could broadcast the positioning data to the Apple TV.

Even if that scenario does require a U1 chip on both ends (which I don’t think is true since Spatial Audio works with iPads and iPhones that lack a U1), I would have bet on Apple putting it in the headphones knowing it would come to a future Apple TV in the future. I’m left hoping that Apple can enable it in software, or with a hardware addition in future Apple TVs. It would be a shame to miss out on using one of the coolest features of these costly headphones on the biggest and nicest screen at home.

  1. It’s too bad, but it looks like the opportunity to add a custom engraving to get them shipped sooner has passed. It was a delightful hack that I used when shipping estimates quickly slipped into March.↩︎

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