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

Last Updated October 2018

Dolby’s surround sound technologies — the magic that makes movie and TV soundtracks come alive through multiple strategically placed speakers — have been around for years, but they recently developed a new audio technology that’s nothing short of a game-changer: Dolby Atmos. With this new technology, Dolby has ushered in a new era of home theater audio that adapts to any environment with what they’ve dubbed “object-based audio.”

Dolby Atmos definitely packs a sonic punch, and transforms any soundtrack into an experience, but not all Atmos is the same, so when you’re shopping, it’s important to be able to tell the difference between technical specifications and marketing jargon. Here’s everything you need to know about Dolby Atmos: what it is, what it isn’t, and how you can use it to level-up your own home theater.

How Atmos Works

While it’s easy to mistake Dolby Atmos for a sound format like Dolby Digital or Digital Theater Sound (DTS), in reality, the term Dolby Atmos means that an existing sound format includes information about the height of sounds. Sound height is a relatively new concept, so let’s dig in to what that means.

A typical surround-sound setup has either five speakers and a subwoofer, or seven speakers and a subwoofer (which is why some surround sound is referred to as being 5.1 or 7.1). With a standard soundtrack from a movie or TV show, sound is designed to come through specific speakers, so for example, most dialog will be heard through the center channel speaker, while sound effects are more commonly heard in the rear or side speakers. Keep in mind that a 5.1 or 7.1 setup can work with multiple audio formats, so for example, if you’re watching TV from a cable box, the sound is likely provided in 5.1 audio in Dolby Digital format, but if you’re playing a DVD, it may have 5.1 audio in DTS format.

Now, Dolby Atmos takes standard 5.1 and 7.1 soundtracks, and adds “height data,” usually through two or four additional speakers that are either ceiling mounted or placed at an angle on top of other speakers. Height data tells the speakers where in the room sounds should take place, and not just which speaker sounds should come out of. In an Atmos setup, each of the speakers is aware of their distance from the listener, and sounds from the ceiling speakers work in concert with the other speakers to deliver a customized surround sound experience based on the acoustic properties of your TV room. The bottom line: where standard 5.1 or 7.1 home theaters can deliver incredible sound on their own, Atmos-enabled home theaters deliver a new dimension of sound that will make you feel like you’re at the movies.

So What’s the Catch?

While Atmos height speakers can be added to practically any home theater, it’s important to know that not all Atmos content is the same. There are two main categories of Dolby Atmos that are important to differentiate.

  • Dolby Atmos for streaming video is available from some streaming content providers on certain titles. For example, Netflix has a list of movies that feature Atmos audio on supported devices, and new titles are added on a regular basis. However, like many streaming content providers, Netflix relies on Dolby Digital Plus audio as its core audio format — a good, but not great format that has been compressed from the original to facilitate easier streaming. That means that “streaming Atmos” provides height data for a lossy format, and won’t be as impressive as the Atmos soundtrack from a Blu-ray copy of a movie.

  • Dolby Atmos for Blu-ray is available on some standard Blu-ray movies and most 4K Blu-ray movies. With physical discs, it’s easier to include higher quality core audio formats than streaming movies can, because there’s no limitation imposed by an internet connection. Most important of all: the core tracks on Blu-ray discs are usually in a lossless format like Dolby TrueHD, and therefore, the height speakers also provide lossless audio. If you want the best sound quality available, you’ll need to build your home theater with a Blu-ray player at its heart.

While there’s no question that Dolby Atmos sounds better when used with lossless audio formats than it does with streaming audio, both implementations sound incredible, and they’re both worthy upgrades, depending on your budget and your listening environment.

What You’ll Need to Enjoy Dolby Atmos

A proper Dolby Atmos setup requires three components: a playback device, a set of speakers or a soundbar, and an AV receiver. (Of course, you’ll also need content that includes an Atmos soundtrack.) Consider the various categories of gear you’ll need to buy, or skip ahead to “Our Picks” to see the best available Atmos tech based on your specific needs.

Playback Devices

The first thing you’ll need when building an Atmos-enabled home theater is a device that can playback Atmos content. Which one you’ll need will depend on what type of content you watch.

 

Speakers & Amplification

Armed with the right device to play Dolby Atmos content, next you’ll need speakers and amplification to create your perfect sonic environment. There are three main categories to consider when making choices about outfitting your home theater with Dolby Atmos.

  • Multi-speaker set-ups paired with an audio-video receiver are the most common method of creating a Dolby Atmos setup. They rely on an AV receiver to power and decode the audio signal before sending it to a system of surround sound speakers (and Atmos height speakers). They are also, by far, the priciest options: to have a full-fledged Atmos home theater this way, you’ll need a receiver, a powered subwoofer, and between nine and eleven separate speakers.

  • Soundbars enabled for Dolby Atmos are a good alternative if a big, bulky surround sound setup isn’t your thing. Soundbars are ideal for situations where space and budget are limited, or if you simply prefer a minimalist approach. Soundbars that support Dolby Atmos come with multiple speakers built into the main unit that bounce sound off of walls to create the height speaker effect. And while they do sound impressive, they aren’t as capable as a multi-speaker setup, so they sacrifice some audio quality.   

  • Headphones. Dolby-Atmos enabled headphones are designed to create the object-based audio effect directly to your ears. Hearing Dolby Atmos through headphones can be somewhat intense, as they offer a much more personalized experience than a traditional Dolby Atmos setup. That said, most Dolby Atmos headphones do best with video game consoles that support Atmos, pairing the intensity of gaming with the drama of a powerful soundtrack.

 

Our Picks

Ready to dive in to building your own Dolby Atmos home theater? Here are our top picks for the most common kinds of setups.

For the Home Theater Purist

If you love everything home-theater related and enjoy hearing your media with the best surround sound available, you’ll need to spend a little extra to get good Dolby Atmos hardware — but it will be worth it. Here’s the gear that will get you there.

  • Audio Video Receiver: The Denon AVR-X6400H is a powerhouse that can drive all eleven speakers needed for Dolby Atmos, as well as up to two subwoofers for extra bass. We love the AVR-X6400H for its home theater chops, but it’s also an incredible system for streaming and listening to music.

  • Speakers: Klipsch’s RP-250 reference premiere surround sound speaker package has seven incredible speakers and a massive subwoofer, and they all pair perfectly with a set of Klipsch R-14SA Atmos Speakers. You’ll need a lot of room to set them all up, but they’ll deliver an Atmos experience few similarly priced packages can match.

  • Streaming Box: the NVIDIA Shield TV is our current streaming box champion; it supports more audio formats and streaming apps than any other box on the market. The fact that it’s also got Google Home’s digital assistant built-in is just gravy.

  • Blu-ray Player: Sony’s UBP-X800 is a powerhouse that supports HDR, has built-in WiFi, and even includes a few streaming apps of its own.

 

For the Soundbar Fan

If you’re big on sound, but don’t have enough space for a full set-up — or you just want an affordable Dolby Atmos solution that doesn’t break the bank — here are our picks.

  • Game Console: Microsoft’s Xbox One supports streaming Dolby Atmos titles on Netflix, and also just so happens to include a built-in Blu-ray player that supports disc-based Atmos, so you’ll get the best of both worlds.

  • Soundbar: LG’s SK9Y soundbar is far and away the best Dolby Atmos soundbar available — it delivers incredible audio through its multiple speakers, it’s got Chromecast functionality built-in, and it includes a potent subwoofer. It’s not cheap — but if you’re serious about getting Atmos from a soundbar, this is definitely your best bet.

 

For the Gamer

Dolby Atmos isn’t just for movies and TV shows! Many new video games include Dolby Atmos soundtracks, so players can immerse themselves even further in the action. Here are our top picks for making Atmos a part of your gaming rig.

  • Game Console: Microsoft’s Xbox One features Dolby Atmos integration, making it a much better choice than a Sony Playstation or Nintendo Switch. Best of all, it directly supports Dolby Atmos headphones, so no expensive audio-video receiver or speakers are necessary. (Just be aware: after buying an Xbox One, you’ll need to purchase, download, and install the Dolby Atmos for Headphones app. At $15, it’s a small price to unlock object-based surround sound for games.)

  • Headphones: Plantronics, one of the biggest names in office headsets, has developed the RIG 600s, which work with the Xbox One to create soundscapes that put the user right in the middle of the action. They’re capable, they’re comfortable, they’re well designed — and surprisingly affordable.

Written by:
  • Jaime
    Jaime
    Writer