Audio is subject to interpretation. Some people don’t pay attention to the audio capabilities of their devices and are quite content if what they hear is clear and enjoyable enough.
And there’s another cohort, called “audiophiles,” that likes to listen to and appreciate every detail in a piece of audio/music with keen ears. But many of the elements these audio nerds get picky about tend to not affect the average listener’s experience.
There are a few things about audio that the two commonly agree on—Dolby Atmos technology is one of them. Its end goal is to excite the listener and provide an audio experience like never before.
But does Dolby Atmos succeed in doing that? Or is it just a badging that promises wonders on paper but offers negligible improvements in real-world use?
Read on to find the answers to the questions and more.
- What is Dolby Atmos Exactly?
- Is Dolby Atmos Worth It?
- Is Dolby Atmos Possible Within a Compact Space?
What is Dolby Atmos Exactly?
Dolby Atmos is metadata that compatible audio hardware use to offer a broader and more immersive surround sound experience. It’s a 360° audio experience with sounds coming from the sides, front, back, and above.
Introduced in 2012, Dolby Atmos comes integrated with soundbars, TVs, gaming consoles, laptops, smartphones, headphones, etc.
Traditional two-dimensional systems do not provide the 3D aural soundstage. Dolby Atmos piggybacks over current surround sound signals to deliver the 3D audio experience.
Atmos warrants a capable ensemble of audio gear and compatible source material to weave its magic. Also, the speakers must be strategically positioned or in line with their sound channel. The number of speakers required is usually two to four, but more could be added.
A 5.1 setup denotes “five satellite speakers and a subwoofer.” When two Atmos speakers are added, it goes by the 5.1.2 nomenclature.
A maximum of 34 speakers can be part of a Dolby Atmos setup, as in 24.1.10—which, of course, is overkill or unnecessary for a home setup and in most other situations.
If you already have a 7.1 or 5.1 audio setup, Dolby Atmos will add a few more speakers to the arrangement. A maximum of four speakers will get employed for height channels.
Not to mention, the greater the number of speakers, the more precise the placement of each audio object must be.
Atmos Detailing and Physical Setup
The realistic and immersive sound Dolby Atmos reproduces is courtesy of the multiple speakers it accommodates and the 128 discrete audio tracks—out of which 10 audio channels are for stems and the remaining 118 for sound objects.
Here’s a video that explains what audio stems are:
The number of speakers in a Dolby Atmos setup can vary based on requirements and available physical space. A 9.1 configuration, for instance, would comprise 10 speakers:
- Left, right, and center (3)
- 1 LFE (low-frequency effects)
- Left surround and right surround (2)
- Side left and side right (2)
- Top side left and top side right (2)
Atmos allows content producers to position certain sounds in a particular location or route them through specific speakers and assign them movement within a 3D space.
If a character runs from the screen’s right to left, Atmos will reflect that through audio. The sound object could be anything: footstep, bouncing basketball, tap water dropping, etc.
Object-Based and Height Channels
“Object-based” denotes placing individual sounds anywhere in space, resulting in a multi-dimensional, all-encompassing audio experience.
Thanks to height channels or the locational audio information they provide, the sound of an airplane flying or taking off will sound realistic or as if a plane is moving above your head. Dolby Atmos treats the airplane as a discrete sound object.
With a conventional 5.1 or 7.1 surround sound setup, the sound will emanate from all sides but at the same height as the listener. The structure will not recreate the sound of an aircraft flying above you.
“Height channels” denotes audio channels positioned above the listening region or the plane horizontal to the listener’s ears. That means you’ll need in-ceiling or upward-firing speakers.
The Klipsch RP-140SA Dolby Atmos Speaker and ELAC Debut 2.0 A4.2 Dolby Atmos Modules are solid upward-firing speakers. Look to Klipsch CDT-5650-C II In-Ceiling Speaker and Polk Audio 80F/X-RT In-Ceiling 2-Way Round Surround Speakers for in-ceiling options.
Unlike upward-firing speakers, in-ceiling speakers provide height channels without bouncing sound off ceilings.
Atmos-Certified AV Receivers
Atmos-enabled audio-video receivers (AVRs) deliver the power, connectivity, and sound needed for the best Atmos experience.
The AVR automatically detects the number of speakers in the setup, their type, and exact positioning in a room.
Equipped with that knowledge, the object audio rendering (OAR) technology kicks in, unpacking metadata to size individual audio objects correctly and relay them via designated speakers.
To learn more about how object-based audio rendering works, watch this video:
AV receivers, however, could feel overwhelming or too technical to casual consumers. If you agree and are looking to buy one, here are our recommendations:
- Denon AVR-X4700H 9.2 Channel AVR
- Marantz NR1711 7.2 Channel Slim AVR
- Sony STR-DN1080 7.2-ch Surround Sound AVR
Is Dolby Atmos Worth It?
Dolby Atmos is worth it if you can afford it. If upgrading to Atmos from a 5.1 surround sound system, Atmos will sound fuller. And a jump from a relatively archaic audio setup to Atmos would be game-changing.
Atmos’s three-dimensional, 360-degree audio experience is akin to the audio you listen to in movie theaters. But the applications of Dolby Atmos are varied, as elaborated below.
Dolby Atmos achieves the same effect in music as for movies and other visual content.
Atmos technology lends songs an increased sense of depth and space that traditional or the current recording setups do not. When implemented well, Dolby Atmos Music renders stereo sound monophonic.
But when the implementation is not well done, the music could sound bad.
It, of course, depends on the music genre and also your listening preferences. For live tracks or concert-style music, Atmos could make you feel like you’re at the venue live.
Music, in general, is mastered and processed a certain way. When additional processing is added in the form of Atmos, things could go either way. There could be no effect at times, particularly if you’re listening to music on a mobile device through its built-in headphone jack.
Dolby Atmos Music has no special hardware requirements. A capable Dolby Atmos setup for movies is Atmos Music-ready.
The music source should be Atmos-enabled, whether listening through headphones or speakers. Premium music subscriptions such as Tidal Hi-Fi and Amazon Music HD provide that, but not all songs on those apps are Dolby Atmos-enabled.
The best Atmos music source, however, are Blu-ray discs. Blu-ray Dolby Atmos Music boasts Dolby TrueHD, a lossless, 24-bit high-res audio format.
You can also experience Dolby Atmos music in clubs that have Dolby Atmos systems installed. The setup affords the DJs to control the audio in a 3D area around the club.
For Home Theater
Dolby Atmos is no more confined to home theaters. It has branched out to other domains, such as music. But home theater is still Atmos’ home ground, which it cannot afford to overlook.
Therefore, if the question is whether Dolby Atmos is worth it in a home theater, it is. Dolby Atmos puts you into the middle of the action as if you’re right there. The overhead sound, audio objects, and the clarity, power, and richness of Dolby Atmos turn your space into a complete entertainment zone.
Like other content forms, Dolby Atmos boosts the audio experience during gaming, particularly in first-person shooting games. Although Atmos-enabled games are hard to find, things are improving and are certainly better on the hardware front.
The Xbox Series X and S devices released in December 2020 were the first gaming consoles to provide Dolby Atmos and Dolby Vision gaming out of the box, besides Windows Sonic and DTS:X sound.
The default audio on them is Windows Sonic, which you can change to Atmos in the settings.
The games currently supporting Dolby Atmos include:
- Call of Duty (Modern Warfare/ Cold War/ Vanguard)
- Crackdown 3
- Assassin’s Creed Origins
- Battlefield 1
- Final Fantasy XV
- Far Cry 6
- Diablo II, etc.
For the complete list, click here.
How does Atmos sound in games? Dolby Atmos puts you in the center of all action, letting you easily pinpoint specific locations during gameplay. Games sound livelier, and you can detect different sounds and their distance from you to react quickly and more accurately.
In non-FPS games, Dolby Atmos offers an all-enveloping and more immersive experience, provided the game developer incorporates Dolby Atmos encoding in the soundtrack’s audio element.
You can enable Dolby Atmos gaming through headphones, an Atmos-certified soundbar, or speakers with AV receivers to boot.
Gaming with headphones is not just convenient and budget-friendly, but you also don’t require a unique set of cans to enable the Atmos feature. (More on Dolby Atmos and headphones below.)
Also, most current smartphones support Dolby Atmos through their built-in speakers, with some phones supporting certain variations of Atmos to enhance their gaming chops.
Dolby Atmos works with portable audio-reproducing devices too, such as headphones, with live audio object tracking functions.
How do you get Dolby Atmos through headphones? Dolby employs audio object metadata to correctly position the sound anywhere within the 360° space.
Here’s a demo Dolby Atmos video for headphones listening:
The best part is that Atmos works with any set of headphones since it doesn’t need a stipulated number of speakers, or there’s no special chip or hardware the headphones must have to support Atmos.
The virtual surround sound effect is created with Dolby Access software and your gaming console or computer’s processor.
That means even dual-driver headphones and Bluetooth headphones can offer Atmos audio. However, better-quality headphones would provide more quality output.
Multi-driver headphones will deliver more expansive audio than headphones with a single driver. But if the drivers aren’t tuned properly, all that additional hardware could be impeding.
Since sound is subjective and different people have different preferences, you should listen to Dolby Atmos audio via headphones in stores before zeroing in on a pair.
Some 4K TVs have Dolby Atmos technology, such as the TCL 6-Series 4K QLED TV and LG OLED55BXPUA 4K OLED TV . The integrated Atmos capabilities don’t replace a dedicated Atmos home theater setup, but they get close.
The Dolby Atmos tech built-in works perfectly fine for TV shows, but serious movie lovers will appreciate a subwoofer tagging along. You do not need Dolby Atmos-enabled TVs to enjoy Atmos sound.
A set of compatible speaker systems or receivers and other necessary hardware will provide Atmos capabilities to any TV.
For Virtual Reality
Virtual reality pairs well with the immersive audio experience Dolby Atmos provides. They complement each other the best.
When watching a movie or gaming in VR, Atmos’ accurate audio reproduction enables viewers to hear the voices and empathize with them better.
Is Dolby Atmos Possible Within a Compact Space?
Not all physical spaces can accommodate the army of speakers and other gear needed to get real Dolby Atmos effect rolling.
An all-in-one audio solution such as a soundbar with Dolby Atmos integration is a good choice for people with limited area and confined budgets or who just don’t want to buy expensive audio equipment.
Capable soundbars, such as the following, recreate the overhead sound effect when properly set up:
- Sonos Beam (Gen 2) Soundbar
- Bose Smart Soundbar 900 Dolby Atmos
- Sonos Arc - The Premium Smart Soundbar
- Sony HT-A5000 5.1.2ch Dolby Atmos Soundbar
- LG S75Q 3.1.2ch Soundbar with Dolby Atmos
- Vizio M-Series 5.1 Premium Soundbar with Dolby Atmos
Soundbars may not replicate what a set of dedicated speakers achieve. But they do get closer. If you can, pair them with subwoofers and wireless rear speakers to expand on the setup.
Note: Dolby Atmos and Dolby Audio are not the same. Dolby Audio is 2D audio tech that won’t provide the same audio immersiveness as Atmos.
Dolby Atmos and Streaming Devices
To listen to Atmos’s movies, music, and TV content, you’ll need compatible speakers or a soundbar, a Dolby Atmos audio-capable TV, and an Atmos-enabled receiver.
Do you need Dolby Atmos?
No one “needs” Dolby Atmos. It’s not mainstream yet, and certainly outside most buyers’ budgets.
Moreover, other surround sound audio setups do an excellent job already. Atmos only adds to that experience through a few other dimensions.
With that said, going back can be difficult if you’ve experienced Dolby Atmos.
How challenging is erecting a proper Dolby Atmos setup?
Dolby Atmos doesn’t require a standard number of speakers and audio gear to work. It can do with less or more, as discussed earlier.
If you want the entire thing (including ceiling-mounted speakers), you’ll need help with installation all by yourself.
Setting up and rolling with a Dolby Atmos-compatible soundbar, on the other hand, is as easy as plugging the device into your TV’s optical or USB port and switching it on.
Is HDMI essential for Dolby Atmos?
If there are Dolby Atmos-certified speakers and receivers in your home theater setup, you’ll need HDMI. You can also use DisplayPort if your devices support the standard.
HDMI is required to effectively get the signal from your TV, streaming device, or Blu-ray player to your soundbar or AV receiver. TOSLINK or any other digital optical connection cannot handle the data Dolby Atmos uses.
If transmitting Dolby Atmos signal from your TV, it must have HDMI ARC support. However, eARC is better.
Suppose you still choose to use an optical cable instead of HDMI to hook up your television, soundbar, or AVR. In that case, the signals will get converted to Dolby Digital 5.1 or a simpler surround sound format.
Audio reproduction has evolved and will continue to go forward. Before Dolby Atmos, several audio technologies built on what was already there and improved it.
Similarly, Dolby Atmos is not wholly built from the ground. It employs other audio tech and builds on them to offer a more engaging, realistic, and immersive audio experience than its predecessors.
Is Dolby Atmos worth the experience? Yes, it’s worth the experience. But it could be quite a hassle to set it up, particularly the various speakers required to experience sound clearer and richer than 7.1 or 5.1 surround. The entire range can cost you serious money too.
If you have the funds and the inclination but are skeptical, walk into a physical audio store that offers Dolby Atmos demos and get some first-hand experience. Most stores that sell audio gear should have a dedicated space for the audio listening experience.
Catherine Tramell has been covering technology as a freelance writer for over a decade. She has been writing for Pointer Clicker for over a year, further expanding her expertise as a tech columnist. Catherine likes spending time with her family and friends and her pastimes are reading books and news articles.