Dolby Atmos looks to be the next big thing in home cinema circles, with Dolby pairing up with AV and speaker manufacturers to bring this new and immersive cinematic experience into the home. Fortunately, we've heard a demo.

This week, whathifi.com was invited to Dolby's London office to experience how its new sound format - Atmos - will work in the home. 

We've experienced Dolby Atmos in the cinema before, with last year's demos and a handful of special film screenings (such as Oblivion, Godzilla, X Men: Days of Future Past and Gravity) showcasing just how immersive Atmos can be. 

 

What is Dolby Atmos?

First, a brief explanation of Dolby Atmos. The idea is simple, yet clear: adding overhead sound to that produced by the existing surround system to create a dome-shaped soundfield, with effects whizzing above the audience's head in a realistic manner. It's an incredibly immersive experience.

Instead of being channel-based, Atmos is object-based, and this has made all the difference in how a film's soundtrack is created. It allows filmmakers to put a sound object anywhere they want in a 3D soundscape to create a more lifelike soundtrack. 

Instead of being restricted to sending music, effects and dialogue to specific channels to invoke surround sound, engineers can now map an object's movement in space - an arrow whizzing, birds flying, leaves rustling, a character speaking - from point A to B and let Atmos work out the trajectory from speaker-to-speaker.

Atmos allows up to 128 individual sound objects in a mix, which also contains metadata about the type of object, its parameters and how it's meant to move around in a soundtrack.

The mapping happens in real-time, too, and most importantly to home cinema owners: Atmos is scalable.

Since it doesn't rely on channels, this means the metadata stored in an Atmos soundtrack can be adapted to any given number of speakers in a room.

Atmos in the home

Which brings us nicely to how Atmos works in the home. Dolby's newly-developed Spatial Coding technology is the brains of the operation here, which intelligently reads and adapts the metadata stored in a film's Atmos mix to the speaker configuration you have in your home.

All your need to do is tell your Atmos-equipped AV receiver the number of speakers you have and where they are in the room (not dissimilar to how you'd calibrate your current 5.1 or 7.1 AV system), and it will map the Atmos soundtrack around your speakers accordingly. It's that simple.

AV manufacturers have already got the ball rolling with bringing Atmos into the home theatre setting, with Onkyo, Pioneer, Denon and Marantz announcing new lines of AV receivers that will support it.

So you'll need a new AV receiver to reap the benefits of Atmos. But will you need to throw out your speaker package, too, and start drilling holes in your ceiling to get that overhead sound sensation? Not at all. Dolby acknowledges that not everyone will be able to install in-ceiling speakers into their homes to create the Atmos experience.

Their solution: upward-firing Atmos speakers that sit on top of your existing speakers and fire sound up to reflect off the ceiling and create the illusion of sound coming from above.

Dolby Atmos-enabled speaker modules by KEF

Onkyo is already offering free  SKH-410 speaker modules with its new upmarket receivers, but the ones we viewed in the demo were manufactured by KEF (pictured above).

Dolby recommends adding these modules (or the in-ceiling speakers if you're able to go that route) in pairs for the Atmos soundtrack to travel consistently around your room.

It's an easy fit: they're designed to be compact and modular, and you don't have to move your speakers an inch to accommodate them. You can even place them on a bookshelf, as long as nothing obstructs the sound waves being beamed up to your ceiling.

 

More after the break

The demo: how does Atmos sound?

Dolby ushered us into a modest living room-sized demo room, where a 7.1 system with Dolby Atmos-enabled KEF speaker modules and in-ceiling speakers were waiting for us.

We were shown the same clips as in the cinema room - a Leaf trailer (developed by Dolby with Pixar and was shown before the film Brave in cinemas), the intro chase scene from Star Trek: Into Darkness, a clip of Red Bull racers Sebastian Vettel and Mark Webber driving their F1 cars in a tunnel, and a couple of bespoke Atmos trailers. We weren't told at first if the clips were being played via the in-ceilings or the KEF modules (it was the modules all along), but the effect was fantastic.

We weren't expecting the huge scale you get in an Atmos cinema, but the sounds whizzing all around you, and the sense of immersion - it's all there. The upward-firing modules do a great job at making us believe that sound is coming right from above us, while integration across all speakers is seamless.

The tension and energy of Kirk and Bones running through the jungle is palpable and arrows seem to fly right at us and whizz past in a hugely exciting manner.

But it's the quieter, subtler moments - such as a sycamore seed being gently buffeted around by a breeze in the Leaf trailer - that really impressed us. It feels tangible; you can hear the rustling of leaves and wind going around you, not just around the edges of the room.

Switching between in-ceilings and the modules was interesting. Admittedly, the in-ceilings do give a stronger impression of overhead sound, but the upward-firing modules perform almost as admirably. 

 

 

KEF module sitting atop a KEF R700 front speaker

For those curious, here's a complete list of the products used in the Atmos home demo:

The 7.1 system consisted of seven KEF R700 speakers for the front, centre, surround, and rear channels, with two B&W CT SW15 subwoofers for the LFE channel (powered by a B&W SA1000 sub amp).

Two Onkyo PA-MC5501 amplifiers were used, one for powering the seven surround speakers, the other for powering the in-ceiling and Atmos-enabled speaker modules from KEF.

The source was a bespoke Dolby-produced Atmos software renderer running on a Windows laptop (for logistical reasons of switching between demo clips, speaker configurations and showing us the renderer interface).

Clips were shown on a 51in Samsung PS51D6900 TV; yes, our screen was a three-year old plasma telly with no hint of 4K Ultra HD, but we hardly noticed that it wasn't a giant 4K screen, as the Atmos soundtrack was captivating and entertaining.

Atmos Blu-ray discs

Some good news: Atmos Blu-ray discs will be available later this year in the run up to Christmas, while streaming content will also be available in Atmos next year.

Here's some even better news: the Atmos Blu-ray discs are backwards compatible. The current formats - Dolby TrueHD (for lossless Blu-rays) and Dolby Digital Plus (used by video streaming providers and on secondary language Blu-rays) - have been updated to support the Atmos film mix. 

There's no need to update your Blu-ray player or stock up on new HDMI cables, as HDMI 1.4 specification fully supports Atmos. Dolby obviously recommends buying the Atmos Blu-rays when they come out, as you'll already have the content available if and when you do decide to upgrade to Atmos.

There's no word on pricing or names of titles yet, but we imagine that the major Hollywood blockbusters will soon be available in Atmos.

What next for Atmos?

Dolby has also hinted that they're bringing Atmos into mobile headsets to make gaming more immersive and we've been promised a demo of that later in the year, so check back here for that.

We're excited by Atmos. With special effects and movie soundtracks becoming more complex and sophisticated, it stands to reason that the cinema experience has to step up its game as well. And why wouldn't we want to bring that immersive experience into the home? 

MORE: Dolby Atmos - What is it? Where can you get it?

Comments

dobyblue's picture

F1?

Please tell me more about the F1, was it just to demonstrate how it can take regular 5.1 material and create an Atmos-phere with it so to speak? Was it a specially encoded clip for Atmos and does that mean the 2014 Season Review might possibly be Atmos-enabled? Not that you would have F1 cars whizzing across your roof, but I'm interested nevertheless.

Kashfia Kabir's picture

Hi dobyblue, 

Hi dobyblue, 

The F1 clip was specially created with Red Bull to showcase Atmos. Here's a link to the director's site where you can get more info and see the full clip: http://www.peterclausen.de/en/our-work/dolby-formula-1/ 
(The one Dolby showed us was the 60 second clip.)

Cheers, 
Kash

praggers1's picture

Dolby Atmos

Not too sure if I want to turn my floorstanders into a Dr. Who space monster. 

Not too sure if the wife will let me put speakers in the ceiling!??

 

Sliced Bread's picture

It's nice to finally see a

Very interesting read.  

It's nice to finally see a big speaker brand module.

I wonder if the Atmos speakers would work just as well sitting either of the Centre speaker, maybe toed out a little?

 

Maybe cosmetically they might be a little tidier.

Andy Summers's picture

I'll think about this one?

This overhead surround idea has been done before. Local cinema down town had something similar with x2 surrounds on the back wall and x4 on each side wall and x6 fitted flush into the ceiling and that was for STAR WARS, December 1977.

Even UCI that I worked at as trainee projectionist around 1989 all the 10 screens, had EV Eletro-Voice and the surrounds for the smaller screens 1 to 4 and 7 to 10, had around x5 I think and the large screens 5 and 6 had x8, all of which was mounted to the suspended ceiling. The cinema was only geared up for 35mm optical A-type and SR with a Dolby CP55 and SRA5 for Spectral Recoding mixes.

I've had EX in the home since 1998 and could have wired up the extra height matrix as used some years later for only one film We Where Soldiers, where the overhead was dubbed Sonic Whole Overhead and only fitted one cinema in the USA.

When I saw THE PEACEMAKER (1997) at local, myself and another projectionist, who I was chatting with at the MGM screen 1, Bournemouth, 1998, when they had installed Dolby DA20, and when standing at the back of the cinema left side rear or between the x6 sets of split-surrounds mounted to the wall, (and some few fitted in the ceiling that was wired to the common surrounds) while watching THE PEACEMAKER (1997) opening titles with the train leaving the station, the camera moves upwards and the train exits off screen at 45 degree angle or underneath the screen and masking area but the sound to both us made no sense at all. We then both commented and agreed it should have "below surround" and that was thinking back in 1998.

I even have matrix below surround in my home THX cinema as well as overheads that can be used as and when to expand on film for entertainment.

Too bad the Atmos doesn't have discrete below stereo surrounds as its going to be a bit disappointing to a trained listener. I don't only listen to the film I'm watching where the sound images are moving (on-screen and off-screen pans) and lot of them have continuity issues that don't seem to match the locations when sounds pan off-screen to the surrounds. Some effects sound okay other sound effects a bit awkward due to what the mixers have to mix with.

I see maybe a newer version or mkII Atmos in a few years, maybe? Even the home Atomos 32 channels doesn't offer below surrounds nor does the professional 64 channel.

I watched a video that is on the web BBC visited a small studio room a few years ago, and "Ambisonics" was mentioned in the video where they had a go at below surround years ago.  

I knew briefly about Ambisonics when doing my projection training at UCI, as lot was covered for the current time on theory and practice.   

Also the cost of home Atmos and didn't they do a height width with PLIIz that to me sounds like PLIx only they turned around and used it up front on left right speakers where it gets the source sound from that would explain why it couldn't do centre channel height. Dolby have used a Dolby CP45 in the past modified for Dolby EX and I have my own working version up and running around 1998 in the home. I even spoke to Dolby labs New York, offices around 9pm UK time, for at least 25 mins and the chap on the other end of the line, (Chris or Kris) Kristofferson, seemed so interested with my idea.

I was really pissed off when I read in home cinema magazine, a year later and thinking to myself? That's my idea! Bloody cheeky bugger. If Dolby labs had any brains they would have come with this EX idea years ago in middle 90's not one year after I mention about in depth on the telephone.

I don't get no credit on this. It was a free idea.

Anyway this PLIIz they called it I bet it has the same functions as PLIIx as I have listened too it very closely and depending on film mix if there is any in-phase + and anti-phase out of phase - sound mixing going on then the decoder will see it and route the sound around in different location in the room.

I bet when most get their hands on the cheaper AVR thou not really cheap they have sell the AVR that they only bought no more than year ago and now try and get £800 or what ever they can for it ob eBaY.

Funny there only paying for extra 4 channels of discrete where they paid more less the same or more for an AVR that claims to do height and width with PLIIz, what a con.  

I've owned CB radios in the past that had more channels than Atmos 64, 200 channels on modified Cobra 148 GTL-DX, and that was around 1983, and only cost £100.00.
   
I'll be watching the Atmos extra 4 channel and 32 bandwagon for the next few years for the lowest price.

My home cinema consists of

Common AVR Onkyo TH SR-875 THX Ultra2
Sony SDDS DFP-D3000 (THX approved)
x2 Dolby CP500 (THX approved)
x2 Dolby CP45
Dolby CP65
Dolby CP55 (THX approved)
Dolby SRA5 SR
x2 Lucasfilm Ltd THX Sound System (3417) (THX approved)
dts CAD-5

And a lot more.