Dolby Atmos has been around for a short while now, with the sound technology gaining traction in Hollywood. But the majority of UK cinemas have still yet to equip their screens with compatible sound processors and speakers.
The good news is that you can now have the Atmos experience at home with the right equipment. Denon, KEF, Marantz, Onkyo, Pioneer and Yamaha all have products on the market that will allow you to add the extra speakers and get the necessary electronics to create the desired effect.
But, what exactly is Dolby Atmos? And what do you need to get involved? Allow us to explain.
What is Dolby Atmos?
Dolby Atmos is a surround sound technology, developed in 2012, that expands upon the current 5.1 and 7.1 surround-sound set-ups with Dolby Atmos speakers placed at points all around the room. And we mean all around.
Speakers are placed along walls, in the ceiling and even behind the screen in order to push sound towards the audience. Up to 64 speakers can be used in a Dolby Atmos cinema, which is where the technology first appeared, and the idea is to totally envelop the audience in sound for a more immersive experience.
In a domestic environment it's unlikely you'll have room for 64 speakers, so there will be a number of simpler options: the addition of two or four ceiling speakers in your system; alternatively installing add-on speakers on top of your existing main floorstanding or bookshelf front left/right speakers (one set for a 0.2 configuration) or your left/right front and rear/surround speakers (two sets for a 0.4 configuration); or the purchase of a purpose-built Atmos speaker system.
When a Dolby Atmos system is installed, the room receives a complete calibration which allows sound mixers to ‘place’ sounds and voices at exact points in the room. Each speaker in an Atmos system has its own feed, enabling new front, surround and ceiling-mounted height channels.
Dolby Atmos in the home
Given that a full, cinema-style installation isn't a practical solution for most people, with a large number of speakers installed around the room, a simpler solution is required. That’s where the AV manufacturers come in to play.
The first thing you'll need is a compatible AV receiver to decode the Atmos soundtrack from a Blu-ray disc. Pioneer's Award-winning SC-LX88 is the one to beat at the moment. It delivers a big and powerful soundfield, and successfully shows off the added benefits of Atmos.
Yamaha has also released an Atmos compatible receiver in the form of the RX-A3040. While this amp also serves up a large and powerful sound, it sacrifices a little in the way of subtlety and clarity. But still, a fine performer.
Onkyo has released two AV receivers: the TX-N1010 and TX-N3030, a network AV controller, two home cinema in a box packages, and two speaker packages. Along with the new products, Onkyo has announced a firmware update for the TX-NR636, TX-NR737 and TX-NR838 AV receivers. The update means that owners won't need to buy a new AV receiver to benefit from Atmos (just the extra speakers).
And you won't have to have in-ceiling speakers. Dolby’s hardware partners will also produce side speakers that aim to do a similar job of delivering an enveloping sound without needing speakers attached to your ceiling.
Pioneer is one of the first to market with a complete Atmos speaker package: the S-73A. While the package does a great job of creating the Atmos surround sound, with effects whizzing above your head, the overall sound could be more detailed.
But it's definitely a move in the right direction, and we've no dobut more companies will release their own complete speaker packages in the future.
Atmos can also work with existing home cinema systems. Dolby Atmos-enabled speaker modules will be available, which, when placed on top of your speakers, will allow your system to deliver Dolby Atmos sound from a compatible AV receiver.
KEF is one such brand, releasing the R50 speaker module. The module isn't limited to being used with KEF speakers - it can be placed on top of any speakers you already own.
More after the break
Dolby Atmos films
Plenty of films have now been produced in Dolby Atmos, the first of which was Disney Pixar’s Brave back in 2012. Other films including Pacific Rim, Noah and Gravity have been released in the format and the upcoming Avengers: Age of Ultron is expected to use the sound technology too.
Plenty of directors have said nice things about Atmos, too. Guillermo Del Toro said: "With Atmos, I found creatively a complete game changer.
"I think that everybody talks about 3D imaging, and Atmos is 3D sound... I truly embrace Atmos, I think that every theatre should embrace it and it’s my preferred method for mixing sound, in the world right now."
While Peter Jackson, also a fan of 3D film, said: "Dolby Atmos provides the completely immersive sound experience that filmmakers like myself have long dreamed about."
There are currently nine cinemas in the United Kingdom that are fitted with Dolby Atmos technology, including the Empire Leicester Square, London and the Showcase in Leeds. You can see a full list of Dolby Atmos cinemas on the Dolby website.
The majority of DVD, Blu-ray, HD TV and other surround sound audio sources offer a 5.1-channel soundtrack.
This means if you have a 7.1 (or more) speaker configuration, your AVR is sending the 5.1 signal to your extra speakers.
With Dolby Atmos, there is one mix for all speaker configurations. This takes into account whether you have ceiling speakers or Atmos-enabled front speakers or add-on speaker modules – and will hopefully be matched by content with Atmos surround sound mixes.
A 5.1.2 set-up will be a traditional 5.1 setup with either a pair of ceiling speakers or a pair of Atmos-enabled speakers, which are the '2' in 5.1.2. Meanwhile, a 7.1.4 set-up will be a 7.1 setup with either two pairs of ceiling speakers or a pair of Atmos-enabled front speakers and a pair of Atmos-enabled surrounds.
It's also claimed Atmos AV amps will do their best to get more from traditional surround sound set-ups and 5.1 soundtracks. We look forward to finding out.
Dolby Atmos content
So, you’ve got your compatible kit to get Dolby Atmos in your home, now all you need is some content to play and revel in the full-room sound experience.
Dolby says you shouldn't need a new Blu-ray player to support Dolby Atmos as long as you have a player that fully conforms to the current Blu-ray specification. And the crucial bit: Dolby has said that compatible Dolby Atmos movies will be released in both Blu-ray disc and streaming formats.
The first film to come with a Dolby Atmos soundtrack on Blu-ray was Transformers: Age of Extinction, in November 2014. Since then, few other films have been released, but that should slowly be changing. Michael Bay seems to be championing the sound technology, with Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles also currently available with an Atmos soundtrack.
Dolby has released a list of films that will feature an Atmos track in the US, with titles such as The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1 and Gravity to be released in March – but getting UK confirmation is tricky. Not least when many of the discs in the US don't confirm the Atmos soundtrack on the release information. We're seeking clarity from Dolby in the UK.
The full list of US Dolby Atmos Blu-ray releases is:
- The Expendables 3 (Blu-ray)
- Gravity: Special Edition (Blu-ray)
- The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1 (Blu-ray)
- John Wick (Blu-ray)
- On Any Sunday: The Next Chapter (Blu-ray)
- Step Up All In (Blu-ray)
- Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (Blu-ray)
- Transformers: Age of Extinction (Blu-ray)
- Unbroken (Blu-ray)
Dolby Atmos on the go
Amazon has released the latest Kindle Fire and Kindle Fire HDX tablets, and Dolby says the Kindle Fire HDX 8.9 can support Dolby Atmos sound via connected headphones, although it remains to be seen if an immersive sound experience can be achieved through a pair of headphones.
Atmos on a tablet works through 'binaural headphone rendering' and 'object-based audio". Binaural headphone rendering creates surround sound through headphones via heat-related transfer functions (HRTFs). To explain how this works, Dolby gives an example of a car honking its horn. If it honks to your right, your right ear gets the full blast, while the left ear gets a less intense sound because the sound has to travel around your head. The brain recognises the differences, telling you to look to your right to see if the car is near you.
Dolby has reversed this process to create virtual surround sound from the single speakers in headphones, producing the effect that sound is coming from all around you.
'Object-based audio' is the foundation of Dolby Atmos. Each sound in a scene has information that explains where it should be placed in the speaker configuration and Dolby claims to have these two technologies together to create a virtual, enveloping surround sound experience on a mobile platform.