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 and impressive technologies in home cinema.
Since the very first Dolby Atmos installation in the Dolby Theater in Los Angeles (for the June 2012 premiere of the Disney/Pixar animated film, Brave) Dolby Atmos has transitioned from the "future of home cinema audio" to very much the here and now.
That’s not only thanks to the immersive surround sound technology gaining traction in Hollywood, but also its support throughout the chain – it runs from content creation and distribution right the way through to hardware and device compatibility. Video streaming services, TVs, AV receivers – you name it, there's a good chance Dolby Atmos is part of the package.
Dolby has also developed Dolby Atmos Music tracks, which add a whole new dimension to music listening, and London's Dean St. Studios has recently unveiled a new state-of-the-art PMC loudspeaker system for Dolby Atmos Music projects, the first at an independent recording facility in the UK.
It's the combination of Dolby Atmos and Dolby Vision to create the Dolby Cinema experience that remains the big draw for most though, having picked up many an award, including our Innovation of the Year Award in 2019.
Atmos might be a part of every cinema experience, but it is available in an increasing number of cinemas around the world – there were over 6,000 locations as of July 2020. Even better, you can now enjoy this pinpoint-precise surround sound experience at home, whether that’s through an Atmos-enabled AV receiver and speaker package, or through an Atmos soundbar.
But what exactly is Dolby Atmos? And what kit do you need to get involved? Allow us to explain...
What is Dolby Atmos?
Atmos is, in Dolby's own words, "the most significant development in cinema audio since surround-sound." And we'd have to agree, really (whilst also recognising that rival 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 surround channels coming from overhead.
Speakers have been placed along walls (at all heights) and even behind the screen itself, but the crucial point about Atmos is that you can place speakers in the ceiling, enveloping the audience in a dome of sound.
Up to 400 speakers can be used in the top Dolby Atmos cinemas, but in a domestic environment it's unlikely you'll have the room (or the desire) to house such a system.
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); or 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.
Now, 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 all of the most recent What Hi-Fi? 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, back in in 2014 – and it's since been joined by the likes of Klipsch, Focal, Jamo, Elac and others.
One of the best speaker packages is the Elac Debut 2.0 5.1 Home Theatre System, which has Dolby Atmos topper speakers available, while the affordable Jamo S 807 HCS is a fun, endearing and practical 7.1 Dolby Atmos speaker package.
You can also buy a wireless Atmos speaker system, thanks to Damson's S-Series (although this £650/$649 system is not quite in the same league as the packages mentioned above) and more recently, Atmos soundbars such as the Sonos Arc (£799/$799) can offer a convincing Atmos presentation with little fuss.
Atmos can also work with existing home cinema systems. Dolby Atmos-enabled speaker modules are available which, when placed on top of your speakers, allow your system to deliver Dolby Atmos sound from a compatible AV receiver.
KEF is one such brand, with its Q50a and R8a modules. The modules aren't limited to being used with KEF speakers – they can be placed on top of any speakers you already own. As mentioned above, this strategy has been adopted by Elac too. AV Industry brands Elipson, Tangent and Eltax have all announced budget Atmos modules, too.
Dedicated Atmos speaker packages are still in relatively short supply though, which brings us to the option briefly covered above: Dolby Atmos soundbars. They tend to use upward-firing drivers to disperse sound overhead. So far, the Sony HT-ST5000 has seriously impressed, as has Sennheiser's stunning, but pricey, Ambeo Soundbar.
Special mentions should also go to the small-but-mighty Sony HT-ZF9, powerful Samsung HW-N950 and punchy LG SK10Y. Inevitably, the excellent Sonos Arc will likely become one of the best-selling Atmos soundbars. And if you want Atmos on a budget, look out for the Sony HT-G700.
LG has also announced a slew of new soundbars featuring Dolby Atmos. The flagship LG SN11RG model totes a 7.1.4 speaker configuration, support for hi-res audio, Dolby Atmos and DTS:X.
As for Blu-ray players, Dolby says you don't need a brand new player to support Atmos, as long as your player fully conforms to the latest specifications and can output a bitstream audio signal for your AV receiver to decode.
Now, increasing numbers of TVs (including LG's 2017, 2018 and 2019 and 2020 OLED models) support Atmos too. It's not quite the same as having a room full of speakers, and most TV's can't fire audio overhead, but LG claims the general quality of audio is still an improvement over a standard stereo signal.
In 2019, Panasonic introduced the five-star GZ2000 4K OLED TV, which does have its own upward-firing Dolby Atmos speakers built into the rear of the set. It's one of the most impressive OLED TVs we've tested – and the 2020 version, the Panasonic HZ2000, looks set to continue its audiovisual success.
OnePlus announced plans to join the party back in 2017, and its OnePlus TV Q1 and Q1 Pro QLEDs with Dolby Atmos support have finally arrived (well, in India anyway).
Meanwhile, Hisense's 2020 TVs all feature support Dolby Atmos. The flagship U8QF panel supports Atmos and features a built-in front-firing speaker tuned by audio specialist JBL.
Dolby Atmos Height Virtualization
No Atmos speaker set-up or soundbar, no Atmos experience? Not quite. In realising that not everyone can afford dedicated Atmos speakers/soundbars – and no doubt in an effort to expand the reach of the technology – Dolby has created processing designed to create a ‘virtual’ Atmos experience from regular, non-Atmos-supporting hardware.
Dolby Atmos Height Virtualization, for example, aims to simulate the overhead sound experience of Atmos through speakers at listener-level, i.e. not overhead. Like DTS:X's sibling DTS Virtual:X, it’s designed to create an immersive, 360-degree soundfield from a 5.1, 7.1 or even stereo speaker configuration.
The technology works by applying height cue filters to overhead audio components in a mix before it is dished out to speakers in front of the listener. Dolby says these filters "simulate the natural spectral cues imparted by the human ear to sounds arriving from overhead… special care has been taken to equalise the associated filters so that the timbre of the audio remains natural anywhere in the listening environment".
A number of output configurations are supported. For example, using two to seven listener-level channels to create the sensation of either two or four overhead speakers.
Dolby Atmos content
Plenty of films have now been produced in Dolby Atmos since 2012 – the list has expanded six-hundred-fold (and the rest). Yes, really.
And many have made their way to Ultra HD 4K 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 2049, Roma, Mad Max Fury Road, Alita: Battle Angel, Avengers: Endgame, Us and Tenet among the latest and best releases.
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 6000 screens worldwide. You can see a full list of Dolby Atmos cinemas on the Dolby website.
Dolby and Odeon have also opened the first Dolby Cinemas in the UK. The newly named Odeon Luxe Leicester Square was the first. It includes an 800-seat auditorium, which features no fewer than 400 Dolby Atmos speakers and 'spectacular Dolby Vision technology'. Pricing starts at around £10 per ticket, rising to £40 for the best seats in the house.
Aside from the disc, Dolby Atmos titles can be found on most of the major streaming services.
Atmos through the Netflix app is so far supported by certain LG TV ranges, Sony Bravia Android TVs, Apple TV 4K and Microsoft's Xbox One X, Xbox One and Xbox One S games consoles, and Atmos titles include Bird Box, Lost in Space, and Marvel's Jessica Jones.
Amazon Prime Video has featured a small number of Atmos titles, but once again hardware compatibility is pretty limited – this time to Amazon’s Fire TV and Fire TV Stick, Microsoft’s Xbox One, Xbox One S and Xbox X consoles, the Apple TV and LG and Samsung 4K TVs (2017 or newer).
A wider selection of Dolby Atmos content is also now available to owners of a Sky Q 2TB box and relevant subscription package via Sky Cinema and the Sky Store. And Rakuten is another film rental service providing Atmos content – albeit only to certain LG 4K TVs.
Most titles available through Apple TV+, including most Apple originals, support Dolby Atmos. And the Apple TV rental store set perhaps offers the largest collection of Atmos titles anywhere.
Provided you have the necessary AV gear, Disney Plus streaming service serves up plenty of films, including all of the Star Wars feature films, in Atmos.
Away from films, live sports (mostly football) broadcasts are available to subscribers of BT's top-tier Total Entertainment package or Sky Q, and a number of PC and console titles including Gears of War 4, Battlefield 1 and Shadow of the Tomb Raider support Atmos for gaming.
Dolby Atmos on mobile
Dolby Atmos works on tablets such as the Amazon Kindle Fire HDX 8.9 via connected headphones, and on the Amazon Fire HD10 , though this won't be quite as immersive as a soundbar or surround sound system.
Atmos here 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 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 OnePlus 8T and OnePlus 8 Pro, Samsung Galaxy S20, S10+, S10 and Note 9 come with Dolby Atmos processing for a wider sound experience, with the likes of the Huawei P20, P20 Pro and P30, Sony Xperia 1 and OnePlus 7 Pro and 8 Pro also following suit. Regarding iOS devices, the iPhone 11, 11 Pro and 11 Pro Max all support Dolby Atmos, as does the incoming iPhone 12 lineup.
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".
And you can now get Dolby Atmos in your cans too: JVC XP-EXT1 headphones boast Dolby Atmos without all the speakers, although we've yet to test them ourselves.
Dolby Atmos in music
It's not only limited to movie soundtracks, you know. Dolby Atmos also increasingly has music on its mind. The format may have been designed for surround sound in films, but it is now getting into music.
Since the first Blu-ray Audio disc with Atmos arrived in late 2015, Dolby Atmos-mixed music has started streaming.
That's mainly down to Dolby's 2019-penned partnership with Universal Music Group to bring 'thousands of songs transformed in Dolby Atmos from a diverse list of artists across a wide range of genres, from hip-hop, pop, and rock through jazz and classical music'. Dolby Atmos Music is essentially a way of remixing songs using the Dolby Atmos technology, and an increasing number of tracks can be found on Tidal and Amazon Music HD. Tidal Connect has now enabled one-touch casting of hi-res and Dolby Atmos music, too – it's like Spotify Connect, but it's capable of higher quality.
The first tranche of 50 releases included Kraftwerk's 3D The Catalogue, Hans Zimmer's Live in Prague and R.E.M.'s Automatic For The People (25th Anniversary Edition). The first electronic album specifically written and produced for the format was Wolf by trance pioneer Matt Darey, but John Williams' Live in Vienna concert recently got the Dolby Atmos treatment, and a new AvidPlay tool lets artists self-distribute their music in Dolby Atmos to Amazon Music and Tidal – so Dolby and Avid are clearly encouraging indie artists to create Dolby Atmos Music too.
The co-operation between Tidal and Dolby opens up support to include most Atmos-compatible kit, including the Award-winning Sony HT-ST5000 soundbar, the Sonos Arc soundbar and the Philips 65OLED984 TV, to name but a few.
Owners of Dolby Atmos-enabled Android TVs from Sony and Philips need only update the Tidal app to allow playback of Dolby Atmos Music tracks though their TV’s built-in Atmos speakers.
Meanwhile, German record label Mindmap has also released a special immersive audio compilation mixed in Atmos (available on Tidal) by Fritz Hilpert, who was nominated for the "Best 3D Surround Sound Album" at the 2017 Grammys. The electro-soul compilation features renowned international electronic music artists, such as Berlin-based electro duo Booka Shade.
You can see a full list of these releases on Dolby's website.
London's Ministry of Sound nightclub has even been kitted out with a 60-speaker, 22-channel Dolby Atmos system. 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.
Atmos may only be infiltrating the music industry 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 appears to be a growing area of interest for Dolby. As supported above by the Atmos Height Virtualisation technology, the company is designing tools to deliver Atmos soundtracks in a virtual (and therefore more accessible) experience.
More music in Atmos appears to be a priority of, and potential area of growth for, Dolby too.
There's no doubt the all-encompassing, Atmos- and Vision-supporting Dolby Cinema venture will continue to spread. We'd also like to see Atmos in the car, although Dolby hasn't yet divulged any specific plans to integrate this audio format in the automotive world.
Perhaps the biggest and most immediate area for expansion is more affordable hardware, though. While AVRs – both budget and high-end – are almost all onboard, we'd like a greater choice of affordable speaker solutions and soundbars please. The first wireless speaker to fully support Dolby Atmos Music was the Amazon Echo Studio, but hopefully this is just the first of many.