Are you looking to re-create a cinema-like experience in your living room? Immersing yourself in 3D-style surround sound calls for investment in very hi-tech speakers, right? Not necessarily.
Any speaker can be used for Dolby Atmos, which helps you to enjoy pinpoint-precise surround sound in the comfort of your home. But, for the latest in immersive audio technology, Dolby speakers offer the most impressive sound experience.
I had written an article bringing out why Dolby Atmos is worth the investment. Go check it out. In this post, we will cover all you need to know about Dolby Atmos. Read on to discover what it is, how it works, and how you can use your ordinary speakers to re-create a Dolby Atmos experience.
What Is Dolby Atmos?
According to Dolby, the company behind this cutting edge audio technology, Atmos is “the most significant development in cinema audio since surround-sound.”
Available in small home theatres as well as large commercial cinemas, Dolby Atmos is among the most popular surround sound formats. This surround-sound audio technology was developed in 2012.
Atmos soundtracks are compatible with traditional five-speaker-and-subwoofer (5.1) systems or whatever number of speakers you may have. As it is, top Dolby Atmos cinemas use up to 400 speakers!
What’s more, the technology is used on both video and audio equipment. Dolby Atmos boasts an innovative “immersive” format through which you can experience music on speakers and mobile phones. This takes your music listening experience up a notch.
What Dolby Atmos Does
The number of channels does not define Dolby Atmos. What defines it is its enhanced ability to deliver a more immersive sound experience.
This means that Dolby Atmos sound designers don’t need to limit a sound to a specific channel. Instead, they get to specify where a sound originates from and where it moves to. On its part, the Atmos system interprets the data and then plays it back in a virtual 3D environment.
- Fills your entire living room with a rich, clear, and captivating sound that emanates from all corners
- Helps create a profoundly moving experience through sound; excites your senses, inspires your emotions and moves your body, mind, and soul
- Makes you feel as though you are part of the action as sounds move around you in multi-dimensional space
- Helps to deliver the full impact of creative work such as music to achieve the greatest impact
Dolby Atmos works to create a more enveloping sound effect in your home theatre. For example, instead of having raindrops sounds around the height of your ears with 5.1, with Atmos, you’ll hear the rain sound as if it’s falling from above.
Also, Dolby Atmos introduces new speaker configurations like 5.1.2. This consists of five speakers, a subwoofer, and duo height channel speakers. Alternatively, you could have 5.1.4, 7.1.2, or 7.1.4. For extra low-end grunt, you can still throw in an extra subwoofer.
How Does Dolby Atmos Work?
Dolby Atmos expands on the familiar 5.1 and 7.1 surround-sound setups with surround channels coming from overhead.
Once installed, the Dolby Atmos system offers your living room a complete calibration. It allows sound mixers to place sounds and voices at precise points in the sound field rather than assign them to specific channels. Remember, Dolby Atmos home theatre system is based on audio objects, sounds in movie scenes such as a flying helicopter, not on channels.
This means that Dolby Atmos places you smack in the middle of the action by attaching sound to objects on-screen. The reason being, it can deliver sound from all angles, including above.
Each speaker also owns a discrete feed that enables new front-, surround- and ceiling-mounted height channels.
With the newly introduced variable height for sounds, Atmos provides sound surround in the x and y axes as well as in the 3D plane z-axis.
When it comes to channel encoding, Atmos doesn’t pre-mix audio for a specific setup. Rather, it mixes audio data just before the sound comes out of your speakers.
From the onset, Atmos was designed for both cinema and high-end home installations. It enabled home as well as commercial theatres to install speakers in the ceiling to gain additional height.
Atmos can support a maximum of 64 speakers in a system, though for home use, adding 2-4 ceiling speakers to your existing 5.1 or 7.1 setup is adequate.
Also read: Are Atmos Soundbars Worth It?
How to Set Up Your Speakers for Dolby Atmos
While it’s true that with a home Atmos system, you can support up to 34 speakers, such a setup might not be necessary. Indeed, the home Atmos systems can reproduce all the 128 audio objects even across seven speakers.
You can bring the same multi-dimensional experience you find at the cinema to your home theatre either via a receiver and speaker package that’s Atmos-enabled or an Atmos soundbar. The compatible AV receiver is equipped with the ability to decode an Atmos soundtrack.
To recreate the overhead sound of Dolby Atmos in your living room, you can either position your speakers along the walls or behind the screen. Alternatively, you can do any of the following:
- Add two or four ceiling speakers
- Install add-on speaker modules in addition to your main floor standing or bookshelf speakers
- Purchase a custom-built Atmos speaker system
The key thing with Atmos is that you can position your speakers in the ceiling, which helps to encase your audience in a sound dome.
With two Dolby Atmos-enabled speakers or overhead speakers, you will receive a compelling experience. However, when you use four of them, they will deliver a higher level of more precisely located and realistic overhead sounds. Whichever option you decide to go for, your speakers will give you the best experience.
If using two Dolby Atmos-enabled speakers, place them at the front left and front right speakers sites. For the most impressive performance, have your speakers at or slightly above ear level when seated. If using add-on modules, place them atop your front and surround speakers or about 3 feet (0.9 meters) from the speakers.
Both ceiling speakers and Dolby Atmos-enabled speakers provide you with similar performance. The latter direct sound upwards then reflects off the ceiling to produce an amazing lifelike overhead sound. The Upside? You don’t have to drill the ceiling to install your in-ceiling speakers.
A Dolby Atmos-enabled sound bar features upward-firing speakers. These allow sound to disperse upwards. Dolby Atmos-enabled speakers are available in two formats:
- Integrated units with traditional forward-firing speakers
- Add-on modules with only the upward-firing elements that sit atop your existing speakers or placed nearby
Do You Need Special Speakers for Dolby Atmos?
A change in your current setup is not required – including buying a new set of Atmos speakers. This is because Atmos works with your existing home theatre systems.
At the very least, you require a 5.1. 2 system. Also, Dolby recommends a minimum of four height speakers for best results. And guess what? You can use any speakers.
For instance, If you already have a 5.1 or 7.1 channel speaker system, you can upgrade for Atmos with ease by adding an extra speaker pair. This will help to convey the overhead sound in Atmos soundtracks.
Simply put, placing Dolby Atmos-enabled speaker modules on top of your speakers enables your current setup to deliver Dolby Atmos sound from an AV receiver that’s compatible.
To do this, you could use either one of the below methods:
- Install two pairs of in-ceiling speakers; place the front overhead speakers in front of the main listening position and the second pair behind it, or
- If you don’t want to mess your ceiling, use Atmos-enabled add-on speakers fitted with angled, up-firing drivers and place them on top of your current speakers
But, if in a pinch, you could also re-purpose some good quality 2-way bookshelf speakers. These can act as Atmos upfiring speakers as opposed to purchasing the specially designed Atmos-enabled speakers.
So, how do you go about this?
Well, mount the bookshelf speakers right above the main front L+R speakers. Next, secure them on the wall and ensure that they are very close to the ceiling and angled downward towards the ear level (listening position).
Nevertheless, do bear in mind that regular bookshelf speakers might not be that ideal since they aren’t designed for in/on-ceiling use. Secondly, they are unsuitable for reflecting off the ceiling.
Finally, there’s no need for you to get a special Blu-ray player. This is as long as your current player conforms to the latest specifications. There’s no cause to worry, though, as all current players support Dolby Atmos.
Some TVs also support Atmos though most can’t propel audio overhead. Still, the audio quality is way better than the standard stereo signal.
Note that if you don’t have an Atmos speaker setup, soundbar, or you lack Atmos experience, you can simulate an Atmos experience from regular hardware. For example, with Dolby Atmos Height Virtualization, you can recreate Atmos’ overhead sound experience using speakers at the listener level.
You could also use about two to seven listener-level channels to help you create the sound sensation of two or four overhead speakers.
Can You Use Any Ceiling Speaker for Dolby Atmos?
Dolby Atmos audio is mixed by using discrete, full-range audio objects. These objects may move around in three-dimensional space. As such, you should opt for overhead speakers that are timbre-matched to the primary listener-level speakers.
Most conventional overhead speakers that allow for wide dispersion are suitable for use in a Dolby Atmos system. This allows them to best simulate a cinematic environment whereby overhead speakers are situated high above the audience. So, mount the speakers facing downward.
If your speakers provide a narrow dispersion pattern, angle them to face the primary
Note that in case you use your existing overhead speakers to generate audio –
ear-level speakers would normally create this – then you would need to re-purpose them as overhead outputs. But, this is only if you can add a listener-level speaker to replace the overhead speaker feed.
The good thing about using Dolby Atmos-enabled speakers is that they can create overhead sound even from a few feet off the floor. Because most acoustic energy is directed upward toward the ceiling, the listener perceives the audio as coming from overhead.
This ensures that the re-creation of overhead sound is not only extremely accurate, but it also gives a lifelike height image. This is very useful in cases where:
- Installing overhead speakers might not be an option for example in a rented home
- The ceiling is made of brick or concrete
- The installation procedure might be too expensive
- You find overhead speakers visually unappealing
What Makes a Speaker Atmos-Enabled?
Atmos isn’t nearly as much about the speakers you opt for. It’s about where you place them to allow them to provide the sound environment intended for a given mix.
While in-ceiling speakers might prove impractical for many due to various reasons (as mentioned earlier), they are the optimal configuration. Nevertheless, you can get “Atmos Enabled” speakers designed to sit on top of towers. From there, they reflect their sounds from the ceiling to your ears.
It doesn’t matter where you sit with Atmos-enabled speakers since the speakers do not depend on virtualized processing. You can get the full Dolby Atmos effect from any spot in your living room.
Also, while most speakers feature a wide diffuse pattern, Dolby Atmos-enabled speakers fire their acoustic energy upward instead of directly at you. Because of this design feature, your brain encounters the sound as though coming from overhead and not from the
speaker. There are two types of Atmos-enabled speakers:
Integrated speakers are ideal if you are thinking of buying new surround speakers. They come with a traditional front-firing speaker and an upward-firing Dolby Atmos-enabled speaker in one speaker cabinet. The Atmos-enabled speaker is in a separate sealed section of the speaker cabinet.
Here we have Dolby Atmos-enabled speakers housed in separate cabinets. If you already have primary speakers whose performance is satisfactory, then these are apt. Adding separate Atmos-enabled add-on modules provides you with a multi-dimensional Dolby Atmos experience, but you get to retain your existing equipment.
Pros of Dolby Atmos
You Can Use Your Existing Equipment
Some of your current equipment will still work with Dolby Atmos.
So, if you own a 5.1.2 system, you already have the basics: five speakers, one subwoofer, plus two height speakers. If yours is a 7.1 system, simply mount two surround speakers to the ceiling. You could always add more speakers and remember, any speakers will do the job.
Lastly, your HDMI cables will also work with Dolby Atmos.
Availability of Affordable Equipment Options
Ensure you only purchase sound equipment that’s Atmos-compatible.
Luckily, there are many Atmos-enabled receiver models available since most manufacturers have warmed up to the technology. They are also available at various price points, so you are sure to get one that suits your pocket.
In general, receivers that support a minimum of 7.2 channels provide Atmos support.
Availability of Content
There is lots of content supporting Dolby Atmos technology, including movies, music, and Tv shows. Not all filmmakers have used Atmos sound on Blu-ray in their movies, though. All the same, many manufacturers are now producing soundbars that support the format, and broadcasters are increasingly producing content in Atmos.
With increased VR uptake, object-based audio might just become more important than ever before.
It’s Simply Amazing!
Dolby Atmos is a big deal. Sure, you can attach your speakers to the ceiling to create overhead sound, but the major difference is in how the sound gets encoded. Dolby Atmos offers you one of the most realistic sound experiences.
And the helicopters? You hear and feel them move from one corner of the living room to the other.
Cons of Dolby Atmos
Yet, there is a not so good side to every good thing. Below are some Dolby Atom cons:
You Might Need to Upgrade
To fully experience Dolby Atmos, you need to get an Atmos-enabled receiver as well as height speakers.
You could mount your existing speakers on the ceiling, but if you wish to add more, you’ll have to buy them. However, if this option is not viable, you’ll need to buy Atmos-enabled speakers, and these will help re-create the experience by bouncing the sound off the ceiling.
Dobby Atmos Is Expensive
Dolby Atmos equipment is quite pricey.
Still, Dolby Atmos is pretty awesome. If you are a new receiver and are already in the plans, try an Amos one. Better yet, if an upgrade is within your means, go for the Dolby Atmos.
To achieve the actual “Atmos effect,” you are better off using two pairs of either on-ceiling or in-ceiling speakers. Better yet, get special Atmos-enabled reflecting speakers.
Many home theatres already have 5.1 or 7.1 systems, a subwoofer, and five or seven speakers
positioned near the ear level. This means that you may not have to replace all your speakers.
However, while most of these speakers are compatible with a Dolby Atmos system, the key feature of the Dolby Atmos experience is overhead sound. Unfortunately, many home theatres aren’t capable of producing this sound.
- Windows Sonic vs. Dolby Atmos for Headphones
- Dolby Cinema vs IMAX: Which Offers a Better Experience?
Jason is a home theater expert with over 10 years of experience in setting up home cinema rooms and systems. What started out as a hobby soon transformed him into an authority in the audio-visual field. He is passionate about providing readers with accurate and up-to-date information on the latest audiovisual technologies and their applications for home theaters. Read more about Jason.