What is Dolby Atmos, and how can you get it?
Here's how to get the most exciting thing in home audio right now
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Remember when 3D was the next big thing in HDTVs? You'd pop on some red-and-blue tinted shades (or, in later years, slightly cooler black ones), and try to stay still, hoping to get a taste of the incredible imagery you'd seen in theaters.
You could think of Dolby Atmos as the audio version of that—but unlike 3D TVs, it's not going anywhere but up. A three-dimensional sound format that aims to be as impressive for your ears as Dolby Vision is for your eyes, Dolby Atmos is no flash-in-the-pan tech a la 3D TVs. It is the future of cinematic audio—and maybe even music.
Here's everything you need to know about Dolby Atmos.
What is Dolby Atmos?
Dolby Atmos is essentially a new form of surround sound. It was originally designed for movie theaters and later popularized for use in the home. But unlike traditional surround sound setups—which "surround" you with speakers at the front, back, and sides—Dolby Atmos and its competitors like DTS:X add a height element to the equation.
According to Dolby Laboratories, Dolby Atmos grants two key advantages over a traditional surround sound setup:
- The addition of height audio creates "a full audio atmosphere, realistically depicting objects moving overhead."
- Sounds can be precisely placed within the aural space around the room, depending on your speaker setup.
In addition to the height element, Dolby Atmos is an "object-based" sound format, meaning that sound engineers mixing in Dolby Atmos have the freedom to orient any recorded sound—from a spaceship to a mosquito—virtually anywhere along the horizontal or vertical planes.
In movie theaters, Dolby Atmos allows for up to 64 different sound positions along with the bass element handled by subwoofers. That means an Atmos-ready theater could theoretically have 64 different sound objects whirling around you and overhead at a time (though that's a highly unlikely scenario).
While Atmos looks different in the home—there are no home theater setups that can handle 64 different sound positions at once—it can be an incredible addition to your home theater setup if done right. Read on to learn the best way to score some of that sweet Dolby Atmos immersion for your living room.
Dolby Atmos for home theater: the basics
Understanding how Dolby Atmos works in your home requires learning a bit about speaker configurations. While Dolby Atmos is mixed with dozens of speakers for cinema, at home it's constrained by more conventional audio equipment.
If you've been shopping around for speakers or soundbars, you may have noticed certain numbers keep popping up, such as 5.1.2, 7.1.4, 5.1, and so on. These numbers represent speaker-channel configurations.
The first number is a count of the conventional speakers/channels within the setup. For example, the "5" in 5.1.2 refers to 5 different speaker channels, usually including left, center, and right speaker channels up front, as well as left and right surround channels set behind the listening position.
The second number refers to subwoofers. That's why it's almost always ".1" (as in 2.1-channel, or 5.1.2-channel), though some setups do employ dual subwoofers for extra accuracy and power.
The last number—the "2" in "5.1.2" or the "4" in "7.1.4"—refers to the height channels, which are integral to creating the added immersion of a 3D-audio configuration such as Dolby Atmos. The most height channels you'll see in a home theater setup is 4, but that's enough to make some very cool things happen.
The Dolby Atmos soundbar is born
In the early days of Dolby Atmos, home theater setups usually utilized ceiling-mounted speakers to deliver the height-channel information.
However, the difficulty of ceiling mounts soon gave way to upward-firing speakers, which bounce sound off the ceiling, back down to the listening position. This helped make Dolby Atmos more approachable, allowing a height speaker to be set on top of a traditional speaker.
It wasn't long before we saw the first Dolby Atmos soundbars introduced, beginning with Yamaha's YSP-5600 in 2015. Since then the technology has exploded into a wide variety of soundbars in multiple shapes, sizes, and styles.
Samsung's 7.1.4-channel HW-Q90R soundbar is one of the more advanced Dolby Atmos soundbars, offering 7 conventional speaker channels (including five in the bar itself and two wireless surround speakers), 1 wireless subwoofer, and 4 upward-firing (or height-channel) speaker drivers.
But at nearly $1,700, the Q90R isn't for everyone, and there are plenty of other Dolby Atmos soundbar options, at a variety of price points.
It's also important to note that you can still send Dolby Atmos to sound systems that don't have height channels—you just won't be getting the real deal. If your soundbar or speaker setup only offers, say, a 2.1 or 3.1 configuration, you can still watch movies and TV shows that support Dolby Atmos, but your soundbar will either be utilizing a more basic format, or will try to "virtualize" the Dolby Atmos experience using digital signal processing.
Soundbars vs speakers
If you've got the funds to install speakers around a room (and potentially in your ceiling), you'll be rewarded with powerful Dolby Atmos immersion. Companies like Denon, Yamaha, and Marantz offer relatively affordable Dolby Atmos receivers, while speaker setups from the likes of Polk, Klipsch, SVS, and others can help keep your costs relatively low.
That said, such a system requires a good deal of space, plenty of speaker wire, and is still likely to push past the $2,000 mark.
While not as immersive or dynamic as a traditional setup, a Dolby Atmos soundbar is the easiest, most affordable solution. You should still expect to pay at least $500 (and often a lot more)—but it's the best route for novices and those on tight budgets.
Premium Atmos soundbars, such as Samsung's aforementioned Q90R, come with up-firing speakers alongside a wireless subwoofer and wireless surround speakers for impressive immersion. If the Q90R's price point is too rich for you, though, Vizio's impressive 5.1.2 Dolby Atmos soundbar, the SB36512-F6, also comes with up-firing speakers (two instead of the Q90R's four), a wireless subwoofer, and wired surround sound speakers for less than $500.
More recently we've seen more pared-down Dolby Atmos soundbars that drop some of the surround frills. The $799 Sonos Arc referenced above is a prime example, offering up- and even side-firing drivers, but no surround speakers or a wireless subwoofer (though you can add both options for a fee). While it's not going to be as immersive as full surround soundbars, it does offer powerful, premium sound and impressive expansion of Dolby Atmos content thanks to its height-channel speakers.
In addition, there are Dolby Atmos compatible soundbars, like Sony's 3.1-channel HT-G700, which can decode an Atmos signal, but don't include height channels at all. Instead, bars like the G700 rely on digital signal processing to create a perceived Dolby Atmos effect. As you can imagine, these solutions aren't as effective as multi-channel, multi-speaker soundbars—though they are more compact and (usually) cheaper.
From Sonos and Samsung to Vizio, LG, Sony, and many others, Dolby Atmos soundbars are becoming increasingly common, and therefore, increasingly easy to bring home.
Dolby TrueHD vs. Dolby Digital Plus: the Atmos connection
Depending on the setup you choose, it may be important to know a little bit about the two sound formats that "carry" Dolby Atmos information: Dolby TrueHD and Dolby Digital Plus. The metadata for a Dolby Atmos soundtrack becomes embedded in either format, which is then used to deliver Dolby Atmos to your system.
Dolby TrueHD is the lossless/uncompressed format, while Dolby Digital Plus is the lossy/compressed—and therefore lower quality—format. Which format you'll use really depends on where you get your Dolby Atmos content.
Since Dolby TrueHD is a lossless format, and as such takes up a lot more data, it's generally confined to physical or downloaded media such as Blu-ray discs or premium video games. Since Dolby Digital Plus is more compact, it's utilized in Dolby Atmos-compatible streaming services like Disney+, Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, and others.
Most importantly, Dolby TrueHD usually can't be decoded by a TV directly, so if you want to get the highest quality sound from your physical media, you'll need to plug your Blu-ray player or gaming machine's HDMI output directly into a receiver or soundbar, which can then decode the audio data directly and pass the video up to your TV.
On the other hand, most newer TVs (usually 2017 or later) can decode Dolby Digital Plus, allowing you to stream Dolby Atmos content directly from your TV and pass the audio down to your soundbar or receiver over HDMI ARC (Audio Return Channel connection.
There is an exception, in that some premium TVs from around 2019 or later offer an advanced version of HDMI ARC called eARC. With eARC, while your TV can't decode Dolby TrueHD, it can pass the TrueHD information directly to a sound system with HDMI eARC, allowing the audio device to decode the audio and send it to your ears. This is still rare, however, which is why most Dolby Atmos soundbars include at least one HDMI input, so you can plug in a Blu-ray player or other source device in and get Dolby Atmos sound directly.
Soundbars that don't include an HDMI input, such as the new Sonos Arc soundbar, can make it more complicated to source a wide array of Dolby Atmos content. Luckily, Sonos' soundbar does include HDMI eARC which will make its omission of an HDMI input less of an issue as time goes on and more TVs incorporate eARC.
Dolby Atmos-compatible TVs
As mentioned, not all TVs are able to pass along a Dolby Atmos signal to your sound system. If you want the most compatible TV, and you want to get the highest quality playback from media sources connected to your TV directly, you'll want to find something that has HDMI eARC to connect to an HDMI-eARC soundbar or receiver.
However, if you just want to stream Dolby Atmos from services like Disney+ and others, you'll just need to make sure your TV was made within the last few years and supports Dolby Digital Plus. Here are some popular US TV brands that currently support Dolby Atmos compatibility:
How to stream Dolby Atmos
Just because you have a Dolby Atmos-compatible TV hooked up to an Atmos sound system doesn't mean you'll suddenly be blasting Atmos all day. You still need to find video content with Dolby Atmos encoded audio. And while that's getting easier as more streaming services begin to get on the Atmos train, it's still no piece of cake.
You can find Dolby Atmos content on Disney+, Apple's iTunes service, Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, and Vudu. The easiest method is to stream one of those apps directly from your TV's smart platform.
Each service has a limited number of titles, usually only supported by newer releases, though Disney+ seems to be one of the most loaded Dolby Atmos-compatible streaming services when it comes to movies, offering a wide selection of Marvel and Star Wars movies in Atmos, along with several other titles.
You can also source Dolby Atmos content via a select number of streaming devices:
- Roku Ultra, Roku Streaming Stick+, Roku Premiere
- Amazon Fire TV Stick 4K, Fire TV Cube (gen 2), Fire TV (gen 3)
- Nvidia Shield TV
- Apple TV 4K
- Xbox One
That said, it's important to note that not all video streaming services with Dolby Atmos content are compatible with all devices. For instance, while many newer Roku devices support Dolby Atmos, they can't currently source it from Netflix or Amazon Prime Video, whereas the Apple TV 4K supports Dolby Atmos on both services, among others. As you can tell, widespread Dolby Atmos compatibility is still very much a work in progress.
What is Dolby Atmos Music?
Okay, so now you know how to get down with Dolby Atmos at home. But what about music? Doesn't it deserve an upgrade, too?
If you've invested in a premium sound system or soundbar with Dolby Atmos, you're probably going to want music that's formatted to take advantage of everything your setup offers.
The good news is, Dolby Atmos Music is looking to transform how we listen to (and even think about) our favorite songs. Producers and musicians alike are discovering a whole new way to play with the instrumental elements of songs new and old by mixing and remixing them in Atmos. The bad news? Dolby Atmos Music is pretty hard to get ahold of at the moment.
Hi-fi streaming service Tidal is currently the frontrunner in Dolby Atmos Music. The service's "Tidal HiFi" tier ($19.99/month) has a small but growing collection of songs. While most smart TVs won't be able to take advantage of the service natively, it's available on a wide range of streaming devices, including Apple TV 4K, Fire TV Stick 4K, Fire TV Cube, Fire TV Stick (2nd Gen.), Fire TV (3rd Gen.), and 2019 or newer editions of Nvidia's Shield TV and Shield TV Pro.
That means the easiest way to get Dolby Atmos Music in your home is to download the Tidal app on one of those devices and become a HiFi subscriber. As long as your TV is already Atmos-enabled and connected to your Dolby Atmos sound system via HDMI ARC, you'll be able to listen to this exciting new musical experience.
A secondary option is to use Amazon Music HD, Amazon's subscription-based music streaming service, which supports Dolby Atmos Music. Unfortunately, the only way to do that at the moment is to use Amazon's Echo Studio speaker. And while it's one of our favorite smart speakers, and does some very cool things with its multi-driver setup, it's not going to give you the same experience as a multi-speaker system or soundbar.
That said, for those willing to take the Tidal plunge, we can attest that Dolby Atmos Music is an incredible new experience that, in some ways, is even more impressive than Dolby Atmos for films and TV shows. Without the need to keep dialogue—a massive part of the sound of nearly any movie—front and center, music mixed in Dolby Atmos can do some cool things in the right hands.
While Dolby Atmos Music is limited for now, here's hoping it's adopted by more services and artists in the near future.