Making its way from film sets and post-production suites all the way into living rooms, Dolby's Atmos surround-sound technology has quickly become one of the most important technologies in home cinema.
Over the past few years, Dolby Atmos has firmly transitioned from the "future of home cinema audio" to very much the here and now. That’s not only thanks to the surround-sound technology gaining traction in Hollywood, but also its support throughout the chain - it runs from from content creation and hardware to device support.
While it's still not universally part and parcel of the cinema experience in the UK, the good news is you can now have the Atmos experience at home, whether that’s through an Atmos-enabled home cinema amp and speaker package, a soundbar like the Sony HT-ST5000 or even a pair of headphones.
As far as stuff to watch goes, plenty of Ultra HD Blu-rays support the codec, and both Sky Q and BT now broadcast sport (mostly football) in Dolby Atmos. The former even has a small selection of movies on offer with Atmos. Netflix has brought Atmos streaming into living rooms, too.
But what exactly is Dolby Atmos? And what do you need to get involved? Allow us to explain.
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What is Dolby Atmos?
Dolby Atmos is, at least according to Dolby, "the most significant development in cinema audio since surround-sound." And we'd have to agree, really, whilst recognizing DTS:X (a similar object-based surround technology) is also making headway.
Atmos is a surround-sound technology that was originally developed in 2012. It expands upon the current 5.1 and 7.1 surround-sound set-ups with 'Atmos' speakers placed at points all around the room. And we mean all around.
Speakers can be placed along walls, in ceilings and even behind the screen itself in order to totally immerse an audience in sound. From everywhere. Up to 64 speakers can be used in a Dolby Atmos cinema, but in a domestic environment it's unlikely you'll have the room (or the will) to house such a speaker count.
Instead, there are a number of simpler options: the addition of two or four ceiling speakers in your system; installing add-on speaker modules on top of your existing main floorstanding or bookshelf front left/right speakers (one set, for a .2 configuration) or your left/right front and rear/surround speakers (two sets, for a .4 configuration); the purchase of a purpose-built Atmos speaker system.
When a Dolby Atmos system is installed, the room receives a complete calibration, allowing sound mixers to precisely ‘place’ sounds and voices at exact points in the soundfield rather than just to specific channels. Each speaker in an Atmos system has its own discrete feed, enabling new front-, surround- and ceiling-mounted height channels.
Dolby Atmos in the home
Given that a cinema-style installation isn't a practical solution for most people, AV manufacturers have stepped in to make it realistic in the domestic situation - and even, in some cases, affordable.
And you have options. The golden path starts with a compatible AV receiver with the ability to decode an Atmos soundtrack. Most receivers that have come to market in the past couple of years support the format – even at the budget end – including, of course, all our 2017 Award-winners.
The best news: domestic arguments aren’t necessary, as you don't have to make holes in your ceiling for installing in-ceiling speakers. Atmos speaker packages often incorporate upward-firing drivers into their front speakers - so that sound is reflected off the ceiling and towards your listening position to create a pseudo-overhead effect.
Pioneer was one of the first out of the blocks with a complete Atmos speaker package, the S-73A, in 2014 - and it's since been joined by the likes of Klipsch’s Reference and Focal’s Sib Evo packages, as well as the Jamo S 807 HCS we recently awarded four stars to. There's even a wireless Atmos speaker system, thanks to Damson's S-Series (although it's not quite along the lines of the packages mentioned above!).
Atmos can also work with existing home cinema systems. Dolby Atmos-enabled speaker modules are available - when placed on top of your speakers, they allow your system to deliver Dolby Atmos sound from a compatible AV receiver.
KEF is one such brand, with its R50 and, more reently, Q50a modules. The modules aren't limited to being used with KEF speakers - it can be placed on top of any speakers you already own. AV Industry brands Elipson, Tangent and Eltax have all announced new, budget (from £150) Atmos modules too.
Dedicated Atmos speaker packages are still in relatively short supply, though, which brings us to Option Two: Atmos soundbars. They tend to use upward-firing drivers to disperse sound overhead. The Yamaha YSP-5600, Samsung HW-K850 and LG SJ9 are three models we've reviewed, but so far only the big-bucks Sony's HT-ST5000 (a 2017 Award winner, no less) has seriously impressed.
Other manufacturers aren't so sure, with Sonos saying Atmos doesn't make sense on its new, compact Beam soundbar.
As for Blu-ray players... Dolby says you shouldn't need a new player to support Atmos as long as it a) fully conforms to the current specifications and b) can output a bitstream audio signal for your AV receiver to decode.
More after the break
Dolby Atmos content
Plenty of films have now been produced in Dolby Atmos, the first of which was Disney Pixar’s Brave back in 2012. That list has expanded six-hundred-fold (and the rest). Yes, really.
And many have made their way to Ultra HD Blu-ray, too. With all major Hollywood studios now supporting the disc (Disney was the last), the title count is now well into three figures, with the likes of Blade Runner: The Final Cut, John Wick: Chapter 2, The Greatest Showman, Jack Reacher: Never Go Back and Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol.2 among the latest releases. You can find a more extensive list of available (and upcoming) Ultra HD Blu-rays (many with Atmos tracks) here.
There are currently over 40 cinemas in the UK and Ireland that are fitted with Dolby Atmos technology (including the Empire Leicester Square in London) and over 2,700 screens worldwide. You can see a full list of Dolby Atmos cinemas on the Dolby website. Dolby and Odeon are also planning to bring Dolby Cinemas to the UK.
Aside from the disc, the choice where movies are concerned is limited to the Netflix app, which is so far only supported by LG’s 2017 TV range and Microsoft's Xbox One X, Xbox One and Xbox One S games consoles. The choice on Netflix is limited, too, with just a few titles, such as Okja and Death Note, available in the codec.
Dolby Atmos is also now available, via Sky Cinema and the Sky Store, to owners of a Sky Q 2TB box and relevant subscription package. And Rakuten is another film rental service providing Atmos content - albeit only to LG 4K TV owners.
Perhaps an imminent game-changer, though, will be the Apple TV 4K's forthcoming support of Atmos this September. According to Apple, iTunes is - 'this fall' - set to become home to ‘the largest collection of Dolby Atmos-supported movies anywhere’.
Away from films, live sports (mostly football) broadcasts are available to subscribers of BT's top-tier Total Entertainment package or Sky Q, and PC versions of Star Wars Battlefront and Overwatch are among the first titles to support Atmos for gaming.
Dolby Atmos on the go
Dolby Atmos works on tablets like the Amazon Kindle Fire HDX 8.9 (and two Lenovo models) via connected headphones, though it won't be quite as immersive as with a soundbar or surround-sound system.
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.
MORE: What is binaural audio?
'Object-based audio' is the foundation of Dolby Atmos. Each sound in a scene has information explaining where it should be placed in the speaker configuration, and Dolby claims to have married these two technologies together to create a virtual, enveloping surround-sound experience on a mobile platform.
As for compatible smartphones, the new Samsung Galaxy S9 and S9+ flagships are two of the first handsets to come with Dolby Atmos processing for a wider sound experience, with the Huawei P20 and P20 Pro also following suit. We didn't find it all that useful in the Samsung Galaxy S9 Plus, mind you - while it produces a 'slightly wider effect', it 'slightly blurs and compresses the sound compared to regular playback... we prefer to keep it off most of the time.'
Dolby Atmos in music
Not only limited to movie soundtracks, Dolby Atmos also increasingly has music in mind.
Since the first Blu-ray Audio disc with Atmos arrived in late 2015, R.E.M. have released an Atmos mix of their seminal Automatic For The People album (and to good effect, too) and trance artist Matt Darey has specifically written his latest album for the surround technology. London's Ministry of Sound nightclub has even been kitted out with a 60-speaker, 22-channel Atmos system.
Atmos may only be infiltrating the music indsutry one album at a time, but as our (albeit limited) experience of the matrimony is nothing but positive, we say the more the merrier...
The future of Dolby Atmos
So where else do we want to see Atmos? Virtual reality is one area of interest for Dolby - the company has already designed content-creation tools to deliver Atmos soundtracks to a virtual experience – as in in-car (although Dolby hasn't divulged any specific plans to launch Atmos in the automotive world).
Dolby has also experimented with Atmos installations in nightclubs, one of which you can find at London's Ministry Of Sound. DJs now have the tools to more literally raise the roof - they can make Atmos mixes and edit them in real-time so certain elements of a track move around the room.
Perhaps the biggest and most immediate area for expansion is more affordable hardware, though. More budget (to midrange) Atmos speaker solutions please, everybody.