Dolby Atmos can turn your room into a dome of immersive sound for movies and TV shows - here's everything you need to know
- Dolby Atmos is an immersive audio format capable of producing surround sound from all directions - including from above.
- Movies and TV shows that feature Dolby Atmos audio are available on Blu-ray discs and streaming services, like Disney Plus, Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, and Apple TV Plus.
- To play Dolby Atmos audio, you need a compatible soundbar or speaker system, as well as a TV or media player with support for the format.
- Dolby Atmos products are available from many brands, including Vizio, Samsung, LG, Sony, Pioneer, and more.
Dolby Atmos audio is one of the most notable home theater advancements of the last decade, enhancing the movie watching experience with support for scalable sound effects from all directions - even from above your head.
What began as a premium surround sound format that only enthusiasts could afford to adopt has now become a mainstream feature available on many soundbars. And, with support from popular streaming services, like Disney Plus and Netflix, the number of Dolby Atmos movies and TV shows continues to grow every day.
But, while you've likely seen the Dolby Atmos logo show up when browsing Star Wars movies on Disney Plus, you might be left wondering exactly what the format does and what gear you need to take advantage of it.
Here's everything you need to know about Dolby Atmos - including how the format works, and what products and services support it.
What is Dolby Atmos?
Dolby Atmos is an immersive audio format for movie theaters and home theaters. Atmos was first introduced in theaters back in 2012 with the release of Pixar's "Brave", before expanding to home theater products and home video titles in 2014.
The core of what makes Dolby Atmos audio so special rests in one key process: object-based mixing.
Before Dolby Atmos technology, most soundtracks for movies and TVs shows used a process called "channel-based mixing." Under this method, audio mixes were designed with a fixed number of channels for a fixed number of speakers. For instance, in a 5.1 speaker setup, there's a channel for left, right, center, left surround, right surround, and low frequency speakers. Sound designers then had to place all of a movie's audio effects within those specific channels/locations to create surround sound.
With Dolby Atmos, however, mixers are no longer limited to designing sound within fixed channels. Instead, they can now create individual audio objects. This means that instead of being designated to a set channel, sound effects can now exist as independent objects in a virtual environment.
For example, if a filmmaker wants to place a hovering helicopter into a movie's soundtrack, they can now position and reposition that individual effect wherever they'd like in a virtual mixing space. Special metadata then tells a Dolby Atmos system where that specific sound is and how it should be directionally positioned to match the speakers or soundbar in your actual room.
In other words, audio mixes don't have to be rigidly designed for 2.1, 5.1, 7.1, or other specific speaker setups. Since effects exist as objects, they can simply be scaled to work within whatever Dolby Atmos configuration you have. This means you can enjoy a Dolby Atmos audio mix on a simple stereo speaker system. Then if somewhere down the line you decide to upgrade to a system with more speakers, that same audio mix will seamlessly scale to your upgraded setup, placing sound effects wherever they're supposed to go all around your room.
Since object-based mixing frees sound designers from the confines of typical channel placement, Dolby Atmos audio can also now come from locations above your listening area. Effects like rain, soaring spaceships, and falling debris can sound more realistic than ever, turning your living room into a dome of immersive audio with overhead effects.
What audio gear do I need to play Dolby Atmos?
To enjoy Dolby Atmos audio, you'll need a sound system that supports Dolby Atmos. For a traditional home theater setup, this means having an audio-visual (AV) receiver with Dolby Atmos processing that's wired to multiple speakers. If you want to save some space and money, you can opt for a soundbar system with built-in Dolby Atmos capabilities instead.
Since Dolby Atmos is a scalable technology, you have several options when it comes to the number of speakers you need to use, making it easy to set up an Atmos system for different budget levels. Atmos systems are classified using a string of three numbers separated by decimal points.
For example, one popular Atmos configuration is called a 5.1.2 system. The first number represents how many standard ear-level speakers are included (left, right, center, surrounds). The second number indicates if the system includes a separate subwoofer. The final number indicates how many height speakers are included for overhead sound.
Current Atmos configurations for the home start with simple 3.1.2 setups and move all the way up to 9.1.4 or 11.1.2 setups. If you're looking to turn your entire house into a ring of speakers, the home theater version of Atmos is technically capable of up to a 24.1.10 setup - but no consumer gear actually supports a system that massive right now.
When it comes to enjoying the overhead benefits of Dolby Atmos audio, you have two primary options. First, you can install actual in-ceiling or on-ceiling speakers in your room. This will provide the most realistic overhead audio since the sound will genuinely originate from above your head. Unfortunately, the process of installing speakers in your ceiling can be tricky, inconvenient, and costly. Thankfully, there's a far simpler solution you can opt for instead: up-firing speakers.
Up-firing speakers are special ear-level speakers that are angled specifically to beam sound upward in order to bounce audio off of your ceiling. This process simulates the effect of sound coming from above. Up-firing drivers can be built right into bookshelf speakers, floor-standing speakers, or soundbars. They can also be purchased as separate modules that you can place on top of existing speakers to add height support.
It's important to note that the effectiveness of up-firing speakers relies heavily on the height and design of your room. For the best performance, Dolby recommends a flat ceiling with a height between 7.5 and 12 feet. Though not as convincing as actual in-ceiling speakers, up-firing speakers can still provide an engaging sense of overhead audio.
When it comes to entry-level Dolby Atmos systems under $500, we recommend Vizio's 3.1.2 Dolby Atmos soundbar and 5.1.2 Dolby Atmos soundbar. For more enveloping performance, you can step things up with a full receiver and speaker package, like this Sony 5.1.2 system with a 7.2-channel receiver, or this Elac 5.1.4 speaker bundle with a Pioneer VSX-LX303 9.2-channel receiver.
Where can I find Dolby Atmos movies and TV shows?
Once you've got Atmos-capable audio gear, you'll need to find movies and TV shows with Atmos audio mixes to actually play. Thankfully, that shouldn't be too difficult since Dolby Atmos content is readily available on Blu-ray discs and streaming services. Disney Plus, Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, Apple TV Plus, and Vudu all offer a growing selection of titles with Atmos.
Dolby Atmos playback from these services is available via apps on smart TVs and media players from a variety of manufacturers. With that said, app support for Atmos can vary from device to device.
For instance, Netflix supports Atmos playback through its app on LG smart TVs, but it does not currently support Atmos playback through its app on many Roku TVs. You'll need to check each service's webpage to see exactly which devices support Atmos playback from their app.
It's also important to note that the version of Dolby Atmos used on streaming services is not lossless. This means that the audio quality has been compressed to create a smaller file suitable for streaming. In order to enjoy lossless Dolby Atmos soundtracks with the very best audio quality, you'll need to watch Dolby Atmos movies on Blu-ray or 4K Blu-ray discs. Studios like Disney, Warner Brothers, 20th Century Fox, Lionsgate, and Sony all support Dolby Atmos on Blu-ray.
What is DTS:X?
Though Dolby Atmos dominates the immersive audio market, competing audio tech maker DTS does have a competing format with similar object-based mixing technology and overhead audio support. This format is called DTS:X.
For all intents and purposes, DTS:X essentially performs exactly like Dolby Atmos. The basic version is scalable to a variety of speaker setups with support for up to 11.1 discrete speakers, and there's a DTS:X Pro version that can scale all the way up to 30.2 discrete speakers. Overhead audio is also supported with DTS:X through in-ceiling speakers or up-firing speakers.
DTS:X support is now commonly found on many AV receivers that also support Dolby Atmos. Select soundbars from companies like Samsung, LG, and Sony also support the format. With that said, actual movies and TV shows with DTS:X audio are far less common than those with Dolby Atmos.
FandangoNow is currently the only major streaming service to support DTS:X, but availability is limited. DTS:X is only included on special IMAX Enhanced movies through the service, and right now you can only watch them on select Sony TVs.
When it comes to Blu-ray and 4K Blu-ray, DTS:X support is a bit more widespread, but still not as common as Dolby Atmos. Studios like Universal, Paramount, Lionsgate, and Warner Brothers all offer DTS:X tracks on select discs.
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