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Sound technology has reached incredible heights in recent years. From the simple stereo systems, we are now talking of 3D audio experiences with Dolby Atmos. This audio format is slowly but surely changing the way we watch movies, listen to music, and enjoy gaming in the comfort of our homes.
Dolby Atmos’ being able to create a near real-life listening experience from a movie, video game, or film recording makes it absolutely worth it. This object-based audio system takes surround sound to a whole new level by creating a ‘bubble’ in which sound comes from all angles.
In this article, we’ll expound on what exactly Dolby Atmos is, how it works, and what you require to be able to experience Atmos sound. We’ll also narrow in on Atmos for soundbars (read my article), home theaters, headphones and gaming hoping to eventually help you decide whether Dolby Atmos is really worth your time and money. Let’s begin.
What Exactly Is Dolby Atmos?
Dolby Atmos is an audio format that picks out unique sounds in a movie or game and outputs the audio through specific speakers in the home theater layout. Unlike other audio systems where the recorded sounds are relayed through all speakers, Atmos arranges specific object-based audio to be transmitted through particular speakers that emulate that object’s real-life spatial occurrence.
The airplane or helicopter example is a good illustration that you may have already heard of. When using Dolby Atmos, if a plane is flying on screen, you’ll feel like it’s actually passing right over your head from one side of the room to another.
The three-dimensional sound output by this audio format is truly impressive. And the immersive experience makes you feel like the sound is coming at you from all directions, what many have referred to as a 360-degree sound bubble.
For you to experience Dolby Atmos in your home entertainment room, you need to have a Dolby Atmos-enabled film or movie (e.g., found on Netflix and iTunes), Dolby Atmos-enabled player (e.g., Blu-ray player), and Dolby Atmos speakers.
History of Dolby Atmos
Right after the first release, there were about 25 other installations worldwide within the same year. This number quickly increased to 300 locations in 2013. By the year 2019, there were over 4,400 locations.
In a Dolby Atmos theater, up to 128 distinct sound objects can be represented in a specific scene. These sounds can then be transmitted to 64 speakers. Clearly, the magnitude of these numbers explains how Dolby Atmos is able to create a 360-degree sound bubble.
In 2014, Dolby Atmos officially arrived on Blu-ray with the release of Transformers: Age of Extinction. Then in 2015, Atmos was made available in AV receivers. This is the period in which Atmos in the home was introduced. Game of Thrones was the first television show mixed in Atmos, beginning with its 2016 Blu-ray reissue.
Dolby Atmos has continued to grow and expand its reach. Since 2016, most electronic devices have been enabled for Atmos recording and mixing. Smartphones also joined the bandwagon after 2017.
There is a universal naming system for home theatres. The same system is used for Dolby Atmos to be able to understand or identify the components upfront.
Dolby Atmos home theatres are represented by three digits, e.g., 5.1.2. The first digit refers to the number of speakers. The second digit is the number of subwoofers, and the third and last digit is the number of overhead-channel speakers.
The height speakers are the main distinguishing components of an Atmos setup. Most often, the home Dolby Atmos system will include two or four height speakers just to get the ideal 3D sound effect and create the 360-degree bubble of sound.
So, whenever you see the 3-digits naming of a home theater setup (read my recommendations) that means that it includes Dolby Atmos speakers.
How Does Dolby Atmos Work?
Dolby Atmos is a collection of metadata that works together with surround sound signals to produce object-specific audio through the Dolby Atmos speakers. The signals that work with Dolby Atmos are Dolby TrueHD and Dolby Digital Plus.
The most unique feature of Dolby Atmos technology is its ability to use object-specific sounds that have been singled out and not just general surround sound that lumps up a number of sound effects. Check out this video by Dolby that clearly demonstrates the difference between Atmos and other sound systems.
Another notable aspect of Dolby Atmos is that it will only work in your home theater setting if all the components of your system support this audio format. Let’s have a look at the key components that you should align in order to enjoy this amazing sound technology.
Dolby Atmos Content
Dolby Atmos-compatible content is becoming easily available by the day. This includes films and games.
To identify films that are playing in Dolby Atmos, look out for an Atmos icon next to the movie title. There are over 100 films available on 4K Blu-ray that are Dolby Atmos-compatible.
You can also look for content on streaming services or apps that play in Dolby Atmos. These include Netflix, iTunes, Plex, Amazon Prime Video, and Disney +.
But in case you’re just confused about where to begin looking for the right film content, Dolby provides a number of options to pick from.
When it comes to gaming, Dolby Atmos is still quite rare to find. Overwatch and Star Wars Battlefront are some of the games mixed for Dolby Atmos. Luckily, gamers can access more of their gaming content using the Dolby Access app on Xbox One and Windows 10 PCs. This app was just recently launched by Dolby, and it enables the upmixing of stereo and 5.1 to Dolby Atmos.
Dolby Atmos Hardware
The sound equipment you use to play has to be compatible with Atmos. It should either decode Dolby Atmos or pass it along to a Dolby Atmos-capable audio system without causing any alterations.
Some of the most important elements in the Dolby Atmos setup are the speakers. Whether you are using a self-powered soundbar or surround sound speakers connected to an AV receiver, the device must be compatible with Atmos.
Movies, films, or disk players are also key in this setup. Some Dolby Atmos-capable players include Xbox One or a Dolby Atmos-enabled Blu-ray player.
Also of importance are the cables. Any connections between devices should be made using HDMI ARC and not, e.g., optical cables since optical connections cannot handle the higher bandwidth requirements of Dolby Digital Plus.
Let’s have a closer look at each of these hardwares.
Discrete Dolby Atmos Speakers
If you already have a set of surround sound speakers and are willing and able to do some rearranging and re-wiring, you can use the same speakers for Dolby Atmos.
For example, 7.1 and 9.1 surround sound speakers can easily be rearranged to serve an Atmos setup. You only need a minimum of five speakers for the surround sound, and the additional speakers (two or four from the 7.1 and 9.1, respectively) can be mounted overhead into the ceiling.
If you have a 5.1 system, you can also just purchase two or four additional speakers for the overhead units.
Here’s a helpful video explaining the Dolby Atmos setup with surround sound speakers:
Discrete Dolby Atmos speakers actually produce the most authentic Atmos experience. But the downside includes the high cost of the speakers and the hustle of re-wiring and mounting into the ceiling.
With this setup, keep in mind that you’ll require a Dolby Atmos-capable AV receiver.
Dolby Atmos-Enabled Speakers
If you don’t fancy the idea of ceiling cutting and wire-fishing, then getting Dolby Atmos-enabled speakers is your best alternative. These are the upward-firing speakers that work by bouncing sound off your ceiling to your viewing point. With these speakers, you also need a Dolby Atmos-enabled AV receiver.
There are two options for this setup. You can either buy combo speakers. In this case, the front or rear right and left speakers have integrated Atmos modules on top.
The other option involves using the surround sound speakers you already have and only adding stand-alone “Atmos modules” that sit on top of your existing front or rear right and left speakers or ones that stand alone. Some good examples of these are the Sony SSCSE Dolby Atmos Enabled Speakers and Klipsch R-26FA Dolby Atmos Floorstanding Speaker (Amazon links).
Dolby Atmos-Enabled Soundbars
Soundbars are a great option if you’re limited in terms of space, or you don’t want to deal with too many wirings.
Dolby Atmos-enabled soundbars include upward-firing drivers that function the same way as Dolby Atmos-enabled speakers. They reflect sound from the ceiling while the other drivers serve their usual functions as surround sound speakers.
Even though these soundbars can produce Dolby Atmos sound, they are not as impressive as dedicated speakers. But they are still a great alternative.
Dolby Atmos AV Receivers
Most AV receivers manufacturers have really adopted the Dolby Atmos technology such that it’s quite easy to get an Atmos-enabled receiver in the market today. Most often than not, receivers that support at least 7.2 channels offer Atmos support.
There are various price points for different receivers so you can easily get something that fits your budget. Check out Yamaha AVENTAGE RX-A680 7.2CH 145 W Dolby Atmos (Amazon).
Dolby Atmos TVs
There are not too many TVs with Dolby Atmos capabilities. LG OLED65C9PUA OLED TV with Dolby Atmos (Amazon) is one of the few.
Dolby Atmos TVs use a virtualized Atmos version since they do not have upward-firing speakers.
Streaming boxes need to specifically support Dolby Atmos technology, unlike Blu-ray players. Most popular steamers already do, for example, Roku Ultra, Apple TV 4K, Amazon Fire TV Stick 4K, among others.
Unfortunately, even with Dolby Atmos-enabled streaming boxes, you still need the specific app you’re using to support Atmos if you want to use this technology.
There are a few other obstacles when it comes to streaming boxes and apps. Some apps only allow specific devices to access Dolby Atmos. Netflix, for example, allows only devices that can fully decode Atmos, to stream Atmos soundtracks.
Another app with such tight restrictions is Disney+. It only avails Dolby Atmos content to specific devices like Apple TV 4K.
As we can see, Dolby Atmos has infiltrated into several areas of the home entertainment sphere, including gaming, use of headphones and soundbars, and generally the home theatre setup. Now that this new technology is here with us and we have heard what it can do, what then is the verdict concerning adopting its use?
Read on to get some perspective on whether you should or shouldn’t make the move.
Is Dolby Atmos Worth It for Home Theater?
With traditional surround sound home theaters, you have five or seven speakers arranged on a flat (or leveled) plane plus a subwoofer for the bass output. Dolby Atmos, on the other hand, includes additional height channels that can function through ceiling-mounted speakers or up-firing Dolby Atmos-enabled speakers.
Dolby Atmos for home theater is worth every dollar you may spend in upgrading since the additional height channel creates quite a realistic, immersive listening experience. Watching movies this way in your home becomes the closest thing to a cinema experience.
Blu-ray and Ultra HD Blu-ray players in home theaters support the Dolby Atmos technology, while Atmos-compatible AV receivers are now more common. Speaker options are also varied and easily available. This means that it’s a bit easier to find devices that’ll allow you to experience Atmos sound.
As for the content for home theaters, since there are increasingly more movies, releases, and TV shows that are Atmos-enabled, you may not have too much of a problem getting something to enjoy. But admittedly, there is still room for growth here.
Is Dolby Atmos Worth It for Headphones?
If you often use headphones to watch movies or play video games, then Dolby Atmos for headphones is the technology you’d probably be most interested in. Using Atmos, your headphones’ audio output can sound like an array of speakers producing sound from all directions around you, including above and behind you.
Dolby Atmos for headphones (read my article) is worth its premium price for various reasons. It’s a format that allows you to use any standard headphones and still get immersive surround sound effects. You can simply download and test the free trial on Microsoft Store, and if you like it, pay to unlock it forever.
Dolby Atmos surround sound for headphones is a virtual surround sound but one of the best and most convincing. It’s probably better than what you’ll get with the free Windows 10 Sonic spatial surround sound. More to these, Atmos for Headphones can also work on your phone, if you’re interested.
So, some people use headphones due to limited space, while some just prefer it when gaming on an Xbox One or PC. Either way, having headphones that simulate a full surround sound setup is something most may be willing to try out. If for no other reason, then just for the added fun and excitement.
All in all, testing out the technology before deciding to purchase Atmos for headphones is probably the best way to go about this.
Is Dolby Atmos Worth It for Soundbars?
Soundbars are a great step-up from the built-in stereo speakers in TV sets. You can easily boost your television’s sound quality this way. Even better, take it up a notch higher by going for Dolby Atmos-compatible soundbars, e.g., Sonos Arc or Sony HT-Z9F.
Dolby Atmos for the soundbar is among the best of Atmos productions. With such a compact device, you can experience surround sound in 3D. The soundbars come with up-firing drivers such that you can hear the sound coming at you from above and every unique angle.
Atmos-enabled soundbars can play both Atmos-enabled content or the usual standard content. This flexibility is one great advantage. But, of course, in order to experience the Atmos sound, you’ll also need to have all other Atmos-enabled devices to pair with.
Is Dolby Atmos Worth It for Gaming?
For gamers, getting sound in a three-dimensional format can create an exceptional gaming experience. There are games where sound makes a huge difference and can even determine your chances of winning or losing. In such instances, using Dolby Atmos could put you at an advantage.
Dolby Atmos for gaming basically makes gaming more fun and offers an ideal gaming environment in terms of sound. Headphones for gaming are easy to set up with Dolby Atmos. You only need the Dolby Access App and you’re good to go. But a full surround sound using Dolby Atmos for gaming will require you to have Atmos-enabled speakers and AV receivers.
For a relatively new technology, this is quite a lot to take in, so it’s understandable if you may still be confused about whether to make the upgrade to Dolby Atmos or not.
For the audiophiles who are into the latest and best sounds, this is probably exactly what you need in your home. And if you can afford the upgrade, then go for it. You can use Dolby Atmos in your home theater set up, get the Dolby access app for gaming and using headphones, or get the Atmos soundbars for exceptional sound.
One thing for sure is that Dolby Atmos is awesome. Even if you are not very keen on tech advancements, especially in the sound industry, when you do experience Atmos sound, you’ll be amazed. That and the fact that Dolby Atmos is quickly spreading in the home entertainment sector are good reasons to take the leap.