It's in your soundbar; it might be on your phone; soon, you may even find it in your car. Dolby Atmos is seemingly everywhere. But even if you have equipment that supports 3D audio playback, what should you watch to make sure you get the most of it?
You may already know that Dolby Atmos expands upon a traditional surround set-up by adding channels to bring sound from overhead. But Atmos is about more than just shoving some speakers in your ceiling and waiting for a chunky aeroplane sound effect.
The technology is used by filmmakers in the mixing stage to place sounds and voices at exact points in the soundfield rather than simply assign them to specific channels. So, in addition to the traditional combination of up to 9.1 channels, Dolby Atmos can deliver up to 118 simultaneous sound objects, creating an enveloping soundstage – even (at least to an extent) if you are listening using 'virtual' Atmos-enabled headphones.
As well as adding thrilling movement to action sequences, Dolby Atmos can subtly enhance perspective and immersion in both effects and music. In the hands of a great sound designer, it is a tool that provides the flexibility to build sonic landscapes that can transport, terrify and move you.
One note: because some of the best Dolby Atmos scenes appear quite late in their respective films, there may be some minor spoilers below.
Blade Runner 2049 (2017) - Chapter 6
Set 30 years after the events of its predecessor, Blade Runner 2049 is not so much a sequel but an extension of the original's universe, only this time with more plot. In this scene, as K and Joi fly out of Los Angeles towards the orphanage, the soundscape transitions from loud – the waves crashing against the flood barrier – to eerily quiet as the rain hits the windshield wipers, with occasional bits of clearly projected dialogue.
While the storm batters the car, low, distant rumbles of thunder become a more constant barrage from the sky. The bullets fired from below streak across the room, and the music builds again, with more menace this time. Suddenly, a spark of lightning plunges everything into near silence as all power is lost, and all that is left is the sound of the rain. These sonic contrasts make for a serious challenge – every dynamic shift needs to be handled confidently so that every dramatic point is delivered.
Reinforcing those loud effects is the Hans Zimmer-composed, Vangelis-like soundtrack with its sonorous, undulating bass. As with the first Blade Runner film, 2049 notably embeds sound into the score, blurring the lines between effects and music to create a unified sonic landscape full of tonality, motion and texture. In fact, it’s the music that gets the most Dolby Atmos treatment; using the surrounds for big, intense moments prevents the image from ever narrowing, with both image and audio maintaining an epic scope.
Gravity (2013) - Chapter 1
Throughout the tense 90 minutes of Gravity, which sees Sandra Bullock hurtling through the vacuum of space with only George Clooney for company, the Oscar-winning Dolby Atmos mix (available only on the limited edition Diamond Luxe Blu-ray or the special edition HD Blu-ray) helps the viewer find focus within the confusing geography of nothingness while also heightening the sensation of disorientation.
In a film where becoming untethered is a constant threat, the sound team decided to set the dialogue free from the centre of the screen and allowed it to track with the actors. So in the opening scene, as Bullock tumbles, we hear Clooney’s radio communication follow her terrifying trajectory. The placement of the voices is brilliantly precise and convincing, but it’s not just the voices that have been allowed to float; the entire score is composed for Atmos, moving, swelling and clashing with the action.
With little ambience to play with, the surrounds are used effectively to show changes of space within… well, space. While Bullock starts drifting, the camera zooms right inside her helmet, and sonically we join that space for the first time – the air, breath and hint of tinnitus subtly cloaking us. More dynamic is the fire scene later in the film that burns overhead until the airlock is shut, damping everything down before more deep thuds from above. There’s plenty for your vertical channels to grapple with here.
Roma (2018) - Chapter 24
From the same director and sound mixer as Gravity, Roma proves, in our opinion, that Dolby Atmos has even greater immersive potential in intimate films than in blockbusters, where it has the capacity to blur the line between realism and reality. Unlike the other films on this list, there’s no score in Roma, which frees up the rest of the soundtrack to be dense and bold while remaining sincere and specific.
In Roma, the fluidity of Atmos aligns with Alfonso Cuarón’s photography concept – slow long takes – to give the audience a window into a particular space, and to access the characters and story in a frank and potent way. As the camera pans, the detailed soundscape – birds, dogs, hail, street vendors and even dialogue – joins in the change in perspective, drawing the viewer into the frame and producing an eloquent but voyeuristic sense of movement throughout Mexico City in 1970/71.
The film's emotional climax comes as maid Cleodegaria Gutiérrez wades into the sea to save her employer's children, despite not knowing how to swim. The ominous intensity of the deepening waves and surf slowly coming ever closer to swamping Cleo’s head is powerfully rendered in the surrounds and height channels.
Bohemian Rhapsody (2018) - Chapter 22
When you first watch Bohemian Rhapsody, plenty of factual queries crop up that might distract you from the drama. Just how many cats did Freddie Mercury really own? Would Queen always resolve every conflict by writing a hit single? Has Brian May only ever have one haircut?
However, the final 20 minutes of the film that recreates, almost in full, Queen’s legendary Live Aid performance at Wembley is exquisitely captivating and the closest feeling to being at a live gig we’ve had in quite some time.
The film's audio team went to great lengths to have sonic options that matched every camera angle of this marathon scene. Along with the 16-track archive recording secretly made by the BBC at the time, they were able to capture PA ambience with the help of Queen’s sound engineers, who played back the film tracks in an empty stadium kitted out with 22 mics before a gig.
The result of this attention to detail, combined with Dolby Atmos’s location placement, means that whether the camera is behind the strings of Freddie's piano, in amongst Roger Taylor's kit, or jostling in the press pit, the audio perspective has astonishing realism.
The scene opens with a camera flying over the raucous stadium crowd and a swooping sensation of height and movement. As we move around the stage, we hear the proximity of each amp and instrument, and within the crowd, we are surrounded by thousands of chanting voices. Even the long shots from the cheap seats should feel engulfing, transportive and irresistibly enjoyable, particularly as the crowd gradually begins to sing along to the first verse of We Are The Champions, building to an almighty choral roar that's almost impossible not to get swept away in.
A Quiet Place (2018) - Chapters 8 and 9
You'd be forgiven for thinking a film about the importance of silence might not have much to keep your Atmos system interested. In actual fact, the sound effects in A Quiet Place are unexpectedly compelling, making full use of the capabilities of object-based mixing to create a terrifying 3D soundscape.
This film is a masterclass in suspense, and the dynamic range of the effects is a huge contributing factor as the pervading silence heightens each bare footstep and every rustle in the cornfield or creak of a floorboard.
And it's not just delicate sounds that have an impact. In the scene in which Emily Blunt's character attempts to give birth in total silence, she seeks safety in the basement. The thuds of the alien thrashing around above are captured with ominous weight in the overheads. As the creature descends the stairs and stalks around, its proximity and movements are palpable. Your ears prick with every breath, so much so that when fireworks are finally set off as a distraction, the thunderous explosion releases the tension, for a brief moment at least.
Ford v Ferrari (aka Le Mans '66) (2019) - the races
You couldn’t make a movie about the Le Mans 24 hours race without some pretty epic driving sequences, and James Mangold's Ford v Ferrari (titled Le Mans '66 in some countries) delivers 30 minutes of racing that arcs the final third of the film. Containing interplay between internal and external space, crashes, rain and a searing, wide-panned score (in the same key as the Ford GT40 engine, no less), this set piece is a sonic masterclass in authenticity and power with a very human story at its centre.
But, for giving your surround system a quick runabout, the shorter Willow Springs race toward the film's start is ideal. The layers of sound are visceral and thrilling without being overbearing. As Ken Miles (played by Christian Bale) steers from the open cockpit of his Ford Cobra, the audience is heavily buffeted by the wind from all sides. Inside the cabin, you’re surrounded by the vibrations of the smashed windshield, rattling suspension and gear change transients. Meanwhile, in seamless transitions to exterior shots, the continuous directionality of the cars as they zip across the screen, or skid off the track, is precisely located.
There’s very little underscore here, but pay close attention to the internalised moment where all the focus is on Miles’ breathing, and harmonic drones subtly start to creep into the rears. It's an impressionistic bit of sonic storytelling in the midst of action that naturally envelops the viewer without feeling distracting or disjointed.
1917 (2019) - Chapter 17
In 1917 Sam Mendes achieved what may well be the zenith of single-take-style cinema. The film follows the journey of two young British privates tasked to deliver a message across no-mans-land in order to prevent another battalion from going over the top and falling into a German trap. The cinematography cleverly and subtly engages with the viewer, who acutely shares in the real-time unfolding of the landscape, perils and futility of the soldiers' odyssey.
The Atmos soundtrack mirrors the camerawork creating a sense of first-person realism without being literal. By inhabiting the same perspective, the sounds of the landscape are revealed to the audience as they are being revealed to the soldiers. This means that unknown threats such as the distant planes in the barn scene remain atmospheric until they come sharply into focus as we slowly realise a dogfight is going on overhead and one crashes to the ground. The prolonged intensity is made possible by the sonic respites after every loud scene, softening the soundtrack to keep the audience engaged.
Toward the end of the film, as Private Schofield doggedly attempts to call off the attack, he sprints across the top of a trench while soldiers charge across his path. The layers of sound around him are brutal, terrifyingly located and, given the context, not gratuitously used. Shell explosions, gunfire and raining debris are heard from all directions as Schofield powers on; but it's not just a cacophony – there's an authentic sense of personal toil and proximity that heightens the drama and danger.
Baby Driver (2017) - Chapter 1
Baby Driver follows the story of a getaway driver, Baby, who suffers from chronic tinnitus. He listens to music in his headphones to alleviate the ringing in his ears, creating a soundtrack to everything he does. And it's a pretty great soundtrack.
The audience hears the world as Baby hears it, and that point of view is set up brilliantly in the opening scene. We first hear a growing high pitched ring that morphs into a sustained string note that shifts seamlessly into the breaking sound of a car. Then Baby hits play on his iPod, and Bellbottoms by the John Spencer Blues Explosion starts to play. It's a song with serious attack that bursts to life from the entire system, giving you a sense of being in a private sonic bubble.
The sound often works in tempo with the music, highlighting syncopated beats. The constant movement and organic realism of these effects prevent the sound design conceit from ever feeling gimmicky or clumsy. As the getaway begins and the tyres screech across the soundscape, the car slides about while the sonic integration between the fronts and rears is tight and seamless.
Elsewhere in the soundtrack, Atmos is frequently used to meld effects and score together and create a unified accompaniment that's almost like a traditional musical. In the warehouse scene after the Tequila shoot-out, there are low-key sonic components that continue to reverberate after each small sound effect – a light switch, a stool creaking, a bag dropping – decaying into the rears and adding an underlying tension to an uneasy quiet moment.
Unbroken (2014) - chapter 1
Angelina Jolie's Unbroken is an early example of the power of Dolby Atmos as well as brilliant sound design. It's glorious from the off, opening with a reverberant choral score that slowly gives way to the hum of an approaching squadron of bombers, with each propeller given an individual dimension as the rotor blades buzz past.
Atmos is about more than just height; the extra axis of sound means the designer can place effects into the soundfield and add to the overheads. This scene has both as the Japanese planes swoop, followed closely by rattling machine gun fire spiralling after them.
There's a real sense of contrast in size and exposure inside the aircraft as we switch between locations. Despite the roar of the wind and the mechanics of the plane, sounds such as the gunner's chair, the creaking of an old leather jacket and radio dialogue are all detailed and brought in and out of focus as the dog fight unfolds.
The Sound Of Metal - the final scene
The Sound Of Metal captures the pain of a musician, Ruben, who is losing his hearing and searching desperately for treatment. While it may not have extravagant soundscapes in the traditional sense, it uses Dolby Atmos to immerse the audience into a non-hearing world, exploring the realm between sound and vibration.
If that weren't ambitious enough, after Ruben gets cochlear implants, the filmmakers reintroduce sound to create a new digital, distorted world. The sound team created 20-30 layers of Atmos from the location recordings on set and separated the soundscape into components – harmonics, noises and transients – before recombining it to create ‘Frankenstein sound’.
As cochlear implants do not give a sense of location, the soundscape is modulated to disorientate the viewer. Directionality becomes warped to match how the brain would perceive them. The disorientating synthetic sounds aren't easy to listen to, but rather than alienate the viewer, it draws us in, creating a powerful finale.
Check out our list of the best Dolby Atmos soundbars you can buy