If your state-of-the-art TV’s sound quality doesn’t match the picture quality, the easiest way to bridge that quality gap is with a soundbar. You can pick up relatively cheap 2.1 or 5.1 soundbars that produce surround sound. But with Atmos soundbars now claiming to deliver 3-D cinema-standard audio experiences, is the extra cost of Atmos worth paying?
Atmos soundbars are worth it if you want a completely immersive audio experience. Atmos adds a vertical dimension to the audio output. So, sound comes at you from all directions, not just front, left, right, and rear, but also from above. You’ll feel like you’re in the midst of the action.
But let’s not get too carried away. The extra cost of stepping up from your standard 2.1 or 5.1 soundbars to an Atmos soundbar does warrant further consideration. So, let’s get into the details, and make sure you’re on the right wavelength.
Check out the soundbars I recommend.
What’s the Difference: 2.1 vs. 5.1 vs. Atmos Soundbars?
First, let’s get attuned to the basics of the sound set-ups we’re talking about here.
When we talk about 2.1 sound, we refer to the number of channels or speakers operating to produce the audio.
So, a 2.1 soundbar has two speakers, one left and one right. The 1 indicates there’s a subwoofer. The subwoofer provides the lower sound frequencies or bass, to beef up the sound from the speakers. It makes the audio more realistic.
As the 2.1 system has only two speakers in front of you, it can’t, by itself, produce movie theatre-type surround sound.
But, many 2.1 soundbars can deliver something akin to it through surround-sound virtualization. It‘s technological trickery to fool your brain into thinking it hears multi-directional sounds. And it works.
With 5.1 sound, you’re now talking about real surround sound, not virtualized.
A 5.1 soundbar has five speakers. So, you have three in the soundbar, in the front at left, center and right, plus two rear speakers. The 1 again denotes a subwoofer.
It’s the addition of the rear speakers that give the effect that you’re surrounded by sound.
Atmos is Dolby’s next step up from 5.1 surround sound. It introduces two innovations:
- Vertical sound
- Sound objects
Atmos adds ceiling speakers to give audio from overhead as well from in front and behind.
So, Atmos sound systems have a third number in their description, for example, 5.1.2. The first two numbers have the same meaning as before. The third number indicates the number of overhead speakers—two in this example.
But there’s more. Atmos treats sounds as objects. It means that sounds are no longer assigned to particular speakers.
Instead, they’re assigned to a place within the three dimensional sound space created with Atmos. The sound glides smoothly through the sound planes, rather than jumping from one speaker to another.
So, the sound can follow the action realistically. And, as in real life, each sound can move precisely and independently of another.
Allowing the orchestration of each sound in a scene with precise positioning control gives a richer and more true-to-life audio experience.
You can gain a better understanding of the concept from this brief video.
The element of height, along with object-based sound, takes the concept of surround sound to a new level. So Atmos envelopes you in sound from all angles in a deep, textural 3-D audio experience.
How Does Atmos Work in a Soundbar?
So we know a soundbar is a compact piece of kit. In the hierarchy of sound systems, it sits above your TV’s built-in speakers and below a full-blown home theater set-up.
But, wait a minute. We’re expecting this relatively inexpensive compact piece of kit to reproduce sound that hundreds of speakers in an Atmos cinema put out.
OK, clearly, a soundbar has the obvious physical limitation that there aren’t many speakers, and there are no ceiling speakers. You know, that vertical dimension that Atmos adds.
Well, an Atmos soundbar emulates the vertical dimension using drivers that project audio upwards.
What Difference Does Atmos Make to the Price of a Soundbar?
Well, it’s no surprise there is a price to pay for the Atmos innovation. So, let’s look at the price differential with some typical examples.
How Much Does a Soundbar Without Atmos Cost?
You can pick up a 2.1 soundbar for under $100. For example, this BYL-SD08 140Watt 2.1 Soundbar (Amazon link), comes in at the $100 mark. This is one of those audio-illusional surround-sound 2.1 soundbars discussed above.
It’ll undoubtedly be a significant bump up from the sound on your TV. If that’s all you’re looking to achieve, for $100, it’ll be worth the money.
If you want real surround-sound, then you’ll need to go for a 5.1 soundbar. A good example is this VIZIO SmartCast Wireless Soundbar System (Amazon link). It gives you your rear speakers to go with the soundbar and subwoofer.
At around $145 renewed, to $269 new, it’s pricier than a 2.1 system. But don’t forget, you’re getting the extra rear speakers for real surround sound.
How Much Does an Atmos Soundbar Cost?
For Atmos soundbars, the budget end is around $400-$500. Did you just gulp?
At this entry-level, you’ve got the VIZIO SB36512-F6 5.1 Soundbar Home Speaker (Amazon). This package gives you your five speakers at the front, sides, and rear, plus a subwoofer. The two Atmos upward-firing drivers are at the top of the soundbar to give you the vertical dimension.
This video is worth watching if this soundbar fits your budget, but you want more information.
Atmos soundbar prices head north pretty quickly beyond this entry-level.
For a shade under $1,000, you can get the Samsung Harman Kardon 7.1.4 Dolby Atmos Soundbar HW-Q90R (Amazon link).
This soundbar puts you on another Atmos level, with seventeen speakers, four of which fire upwards and two project audio out to the sides. Two of the upward-firing drivers are in the rear speakers and two in the soundbar.
That’s just a flavor. You can go higher up the price scale if you want, to the $2,500 mark. But, that’s probably a step too far for most, so let’s move on.
Is the Difference Between 2.1 or 5.1 and Atmos Worth the Money?
So, with your basic 2.1 and 5.1 soundbars, you’re looking at under $300 for a decent piece of kit.
For an Atmos soundbar, the entry-level is around the $500 mark and goes up fast.
Is the price difference worth it?
Well, that depends on how severe a case of audiophilia you’ve contracted.
If all you want is a step up from your TV’s built-in sound, not a gigantic leap, don’t bother. Stick with 2.1 or 5.1 soundbars.
But, if you want to get as close as possible to the immersive, all-encompassing 3-D movie theatre audio experience, then yes, it’s worth it.
Even at the budget end of the range in the Atmos soundbar sphere, you’ll be more than happy with the true-to-life sound experience that Atmos delivers.
And all that still comes at a fraction of the price of a convoluted home theatre system.
That’s why, chances are, even if you think you’re happy with what 2.1 or 5.1 delivers, if you did take the plunge with an Atmos soundbar, you’d become an Atmos-convert.
So, whether Atmos soundbars are worth it comes down to your personal preference.
Perhaps the way to look at it is, if your budget allows, treat yourself to an Atmos soundbar to get that rich 360° audio experience.
Otherwise, stick to 2.1 or 5.1. You can upgrade at some point down the line when, no doubt, Atmos soundbar prices will have come down more.
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.