What is Dolby Atmos, and why is it such a big deal?

John Kopischke
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How Dolby Atmos Works

So what is Dolby Atmos, and more importantly, how does it provide you with a better listening experience?

First, the technical jargon.

That’s the process of introducing sounds from above using such devices as ceiling-mounted speakers. Since the ceiling is a natural reflector, any sound portions that come from this area of the sound spectrum are reflected downward, giving the listener a more encompassing sound experience.

The technology, of course, is limited by the space available. Assuming that your listening environment can be mapped by a multichannel surround-sound setup, however, one of the more common uses for this technology is to simply place speakers on or near the ceiling.

The result, of course, is a more realistic and convincing presentation as the sounds being delivered to the listener seem to be coming from a much more natural source. Since this technique is capable of simulating the way that sounds would be experienced in nature, many companies feel that it can make a significant difference in your listening experience.

While it may be used for music and film sound, Dolby Atmos is also a huge improvement for gamers who use headphones for both immersion and coordination.

So What’s the Catch?

In order to take full advantage of the technology, you need speakers in each of the following locations:

  • Surround back.
  • Surround side.
  • Height.

What You’ll Need to Enjoy Dolby Atmos

The above equipment is necessary to take advantage of the full range of audio, but don’t worry if this isn’t currently in your home theater system. There are some great, easy-to-find alternatives to get a little taste of what Dolby Atmos has to offer.

Netflix, as well as other services such as Amazon (via Amazon Instant Video) and iTunes, offer a number of movies and TV shows that have Dolby Atmos audio.

Moreover, there is a growing number of Blu-rays that now feature Dolby Atmos audio. If you’re not sure if a disc supports it, you can check the packaging, and the disc will also tell you if it supports the format on-screen.

The most affordable alternative to getting a home theater system designed to support Dolby Atmos is to use a speaker setup instead.

Dolby recommends using a 7.1.2 speaker configuration. A 7.1 speaker configuration is the basic system most people are familiar with, and 2.2.2 uses two front height speakers, which adds another plane of audio to the experience.

While a 7.1 speaker setup is not necessary to enjoy a little extra dimension in your media, it is the first step in getting the full Dolby Atmos experience.

Playback Devices

Sony’s new flagship home theater system, the HT-Z9F, allows you to get a taste of Dolby Atmos without updating all of your speakers.

The system comes with a special module that allows for height and overhead effects to be reproduced using your existing sound system. It also plays any content in true 4K, just like the Dolby Atmos-enabled Sony projector I mentioned earlier.

If you want to take Dolby Atmos to the next level, you can add a pair of ceiling speakers and a pair of overhead speakers. You can also use Sony’s ceiling-recessed speakers, which are designed to fit inside your ceiling…or at least in certain ceilings.

Speakers & Amplification

Atmos uses objects. It maps their positions around speakers to sound to reflect off the walls, move through objects and not just limited to the number of speakers. It enables horizontal and rear audio soundtracks and height tracks.

A lot of what makes Atmos great – is the ability to retain information in 3D. It’s the accumulation of every piece of information in the track that really makes a difference and what provides the foundation for sound designers to build upon with their creativity. The heft of each element is based on the size of it’s space, which is the same size that it sounds like. Does your elbow get in the way more in one seat or the other, inside it, outside? Then have your elbow in the way. It’s really being aware of every decision we make as sound designers to really know that the focus is about to come. That means that the fish has to not be in the corner. It has to be in front of the screen or with something that is moving. It’s being clear about that and letting the sound off take care of itself.

Our Dolby Atmos Picks

The acclaimed Dolby Atmos surround sound platform offers full, multi-dimensional sound. It’s one of the most important advances in home entertainment in decades and the reason is simple: it’s a step towards making sure that a home theater sound system is as immersive as possible.

That’s because the sound reverberates not only in every direction but also above you and behind you. Atmos soundtracks are mixed in a three-dimensional way, so you can hear not only what’s happening onscreen (and behind you) but where it’s happening, too.

It’s not the same as standard surround sound, which uses four speakers arranged in a square. Atmos is a two-dimensional system but it puts sound both above and behind you. Sound travels differently depending on what medium it’s moving through. Atmos harnesses that, so even if you have a smaller installation, you can get the most out of it.

It’s the future of home theaters. Compared to more standard surround sound systems, it has been the most dramatic change in home entertainment in recent years.

For the Home Theater Purist

Dolby’s Atmos system is an improvement on their existing Neural Pro Logic system. The old best surround sound system required objects to be placed in particular positions in the room. A sound system using the existing technology may have placed your ceiling in the back of the room with your floor in the front.

Atmos allows you to place sound in a position of your choosing. This includes side walls, top, and bottom. You can place audio in 3D space around you and it can move and change just as in real life. You can change the volume of an audio object on the fly or change the object’s position.

This means the sound of your rainstorm can come from the ceiling and the thunder from the left and right rear speakers. Furthermore, Atmos can be used to easily move the sound of your movie from one place to another. With just a few taps or button presses, you as the viewer can change the position of the audio and the action happening in the movie from the wall and TV to above you on the ceiling.

You can also change the volume and add or remove sound from the individual screen or speakers. So you might have dialog on a particular speaker or speaker that is louder or softer at the touch of a finger on your remote control.

For the Soundbar Fan

If you’re looking for the best soundbar money can buy. I highly recommend the Soundboks 2 from Boston Acoustic. It’s a good-looking bar that’s big enough to sound terrific, but it’s also surprisingly compact, which means you get the best of both worlds.

The Soundboks 2 is designed to deliver more than just great sound. The integrated wireless subwoofer is not your traditional rectangular subwoofer. Instead of taking up space under or behind your couch with a massive box, it’s the same size as the soundbar and it’s beautifully built to look at, too.

When you say “wireless subwoofer” you may think that it’s powered by a battery that runs out quickly and eventually needs replacing. Not the case.

The Soundboks 2 Wireless Subwoofer is the first wireless subwoofer that uses a stereo pair To power its internal amplifier. This means you get the same punchy, tight bass from both channels, the way you would if you had a wired subwoofer set up.

For the Gamer

Nothing affects the average gamer like sound. The sound that a character makes when stepping on certain materials, or the footsteps of an enemy sneaking around behind you can completely change the experience. Every time you make a move, it’s another sound that needs to be processed. Combined with the soundtrack and sound effects from the game, it’s a huge load for the sound processor to handle. It’s a load that the average laptop or PC can’t handle on the fly. Movies are a different problem. They have less sound effects, and more of a soundtrack. That’s why Dolby is hard at work on inventing a standard for 7.1 surround sound for theaters.

There are also subtle noises in movies, like when a big robot stomps on a car, the ripples in the metal from the impact need to be conveyed. This is an advanced physics problem that needs to be assessed before the rest of the movie can take place.