David Lynch once said, “films are 50 per cent visual and 50 per cent sound. Sometimes sound even overplays the visual".
He’s got a point: imagine Jaws without the dramatic ‘dun-dun’, 2001: A Space Odyssey without the visceral sound effects, or even – gulp! – Jurassic Park without its memorable theme.
If you've chosen the comfort of your home over getting covered in popcorn at your local cineplex, then the quality of your own speaker system for movie nights is hugely important. And while there’s value in practical, space-saving soundbars and, even more so, Dolby Atmos soundbars, nothing beats a full-fat surround sound speaker package for the ultimate home cinema experience.
Whether you have a 5.1- or 7.2-channel system, or even a Dolby Atmos set-up with extra in-ceiling or upward-firing speakers, these film scenes will reveal how good your AV system really is. Volume dial at the ready...
House of Flying Daggers (2004) - chapter 4
Zhang Yimou’s gorgeous martial arts film has a soundtrack as vivid as its exotic picture - and the echo-game scene will be the first to detect any gaps in your system's soundfield.
Beans, hurled by a police captain in slow motion, meticulously ping around the room and bounce off a circle of drums, requiring your system to track their trajectory precisely. Integration is key here, and the soundfield should take on the dimension of – and be as tight-knit as – the drum arrangement, thus putting you at the centre of it.
Blistering percussion is a good test of dynamics too, while smashing glass and the dancer’s twinkling headpiece will challenge your speakers’ tweeters to keep a lid on the treble.
Ready for more? Later on, the five-minute bamboo-forest fight – just as awesome as it sounds – offers a similar challenge when it comes to precision and cohesiveness, as branches creak, break and soar through the air.
Unbroken (2014) - bombing raid
Want to know what Dolby Atmos is all about? Get yourself a copy of Angelina Jolie's Unbroken and head straight to the bombing raid. It's glorious from the off, opening with a choral score that should sound heavenly on your speakers. It slowly gives way to the hum of the approaching squadron of bombers and you need to be able to hear real dimension to the individual rotor blades of their propellers buzzing by.
The real meat of the action is the dog fight with the Japanese planes swopping through the soundscape, followed closely by rattling machine gun fire spiralling after them.
Atmos is about more than just height. The extra axis of sound means the designer can pick and place effects into the soundfield as well as adding that overhead dimension. This scene has both, and if you're not ducking your head every time the enemy comes in for another pass, then it's time to upgrade your equipment.
Kraftwerk 3-D: The Catalogue (2017) - chapter Autobahn
In 2017, the electronic pop pioneers released a 3D concert film (in Dolby Atmos, featuring their eight-album-spanning ’70s and ’80s oeuvre) performed during shows between 2012 and 2016. We know what you’re thinking: "hand me my debit card right now."
While the absence of crowd noise arguably detracts from the bedrock design of the archetypal gig experience, the 5.1 Dolby Atmos presentation (the Blu-ray also includes a ‘Headphone Surround 3D’ mix) offers an all-encompassing, spatial-dynamic and cohesive blanket of sound that’s as mesmeric as the languid projections behind the techno machine men. And it’s the 14-minute live version of Autobahn – one of the most precise and polished tracks – that you’ll especially want to prick up your ears for. The bottom line: it should sound sublime through your system.
And look it, too. Promising a multi-sensory celebration of melody and technology, it also happens to be one of the more visual performances, with contrasting projections displaying antique cars and driverless cars on empty, sun-kissed motorway vistas.
Baby Driver (2017) - chapter 1
The opening scene from Edgar Wright's Baby Driver won't do much for your centre channel but your front and rear pairs are going to love it.
While it begins with a ringing sound that should come from everywhere and nowhere at the same time, this sequence gets going as a test for your stereo pair. The whole scene is set to Bellbottoms by the John Spencer Blues Explosion. It's a song with serious attack and it needs to come across with - no pun intended - real drive. If you don't want to hear it again by the end of the scene, then your set-up is doing something wrong.
When the getaway begins, though, it's about how your surround speakers integrate with the fronts. The tyres should screech across the soundscape as the car slides about and it mustn't be so clumsy as to sound like the effect is simply chucked from speaker to speaker. Ideally, it moves across the space so subtly and seamlessly that you forget about your system altogether - not an easy thing to do when you're testing, we grant you.
Re-calibrating the levels on your AVR might help but there could be more fundamental issues.
Taxi Driver (1976) - chapter 1
From a Baby Driver to a Taxi one - there's not much in the way of whizz-bangs in this Scorcese classic to test out the effects chops of your home cinema system but, for music and for dialogue, it's a winner.
Expression and dynamism are the watchwords for your front and rear pairs from the minute that the title sequences of this film begin. It's a drive-by of night-time New York City set to Bernard Herrmann's incredible score which slips from languid to dangerous in an instant.
You're looking for your speakers to melt into the background and produce an all round, open sound that you can almost bathe in. It needs to lull you into relaxation before smacking you round the face with discord in a reminder of the Travis Bickle that's yet to come.
Then it's a great test for your centre speaker as Bickle answers questions at his taxi driver job interview. He's a bit of a mumbler but his words should still be nice and clear and it should be impossible for him to hide his troubled nature behind them. His controller gets the sense that there's something not quite right with Bickle and so should the audience.
Spider-man: Homecoming (2017) - ferry scene
Marvel means nothing if not great action, and the web-slinger is an awesome character to test big swushing surround effects. This mid-movie, first-time showdown between Spider-man and the Vulture is an excellent work-out for a home cinema set-up.
It begins with some pretty standard busy action - gun shots from left, right, up and down; smart dialogue; a jaunty soundtrack - and then quickly moves to a full-on swinging and flying fest from the two lead characters.
The final act is possibly the most telling, certainly for your sub. There is some wonderfully unearthly groaning and buckling of the hull when the ferry splits in two – which needs to be communicated by your system with terrifying weight to give that genuine sense of scale. That said, this is a moment for revealing your system's talents for dynamics and detail too.
The soundscape gets very bare. The music drops away and we really need to hear true empty silences between those incredible, singular effects. Weedy set-ups need not apply.
Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2016) - chapter 7
While it's easy to point to the most action-heavy sections of a film as a great workout for your speakers and AV receiver, it’s often the quieter moments that can give you just as much information on how subtle, evocative and dynamic your system can be.
The scene where we’re first introduced to Rey in The Force Awakens is completely devoid of any loud noises or even dialogue. It’s all about space and silence conveying the immense, vast emptiness of the cavernous ruins of the star destroyer should elicit a sense of awe.
Your system should also be able to convey the gentle shift in atmosphere as Rey emerges out into the desert plains of her home planet, the solid, scraping clunk of metal as she loads up her speedster, and the delicate, agile strands of Rey’s Theme. Handled bluntly, it loses that sense of wonder and adventure.
Guardians of the Galaxy (2014) - chapter 2
Home cinema sound isn't always about those blockbuster moments – and the second sequence of Guardians of the Galaxy is case in point. It's the title scene when Peter Quill, now an adult, arrives on Morag to find the Infinity Stone. The filmmaking here is all about the atmosphere and how it changes twice.
To begin with, we need an ominous feel to the deserted city. Your system will need the dynamic skill to render every drop of rain against the moody string soundtrack. Your sub will need to be big enough to hit you chest every time water shoots up from the planet's surface but not be so soft that the effect is too muffled.
Then, when Quill dons his Walkman and plays Come and Get You Love, it needs timing to bring out the real rhythmic joy and silliness of watching him dance around in the cave.
And then we get to the action as he's confronted by Ronan's men. We need clear, defined pulses from the laser blasts, the crackle of Quill's jet boots and, of course, some nice clear pre-fight dialogue. It's a complete home cinema work-out and will offer a quick pointer to where you might have a weakness.
John Wick (2014) - chapter 7
John Wick is the best thing Keanu Reeves has done since The Matrix. In fact, the retired-but-not-anymore hitman is probably cooler than Neo in every way: he has better suits, better gun-fights and better one-liners.
And the disc is a wicked test for your home cinema system. Take chapter 7, the club scene, where Wick brutalises a queue of henchman while chasing a towelled Alfie Allen through crowds of merrymakers.
There's no huge surround effects but your speaker package will still need a balletic poise, agility and huge reserves of muscle to handle the exquisitely precise choreography. The underlying track, Le Castle Vania by LED Spirals, should lead with a compelling sense of purpose and then be clearly and neatly punctuated by every hit and point-blank shot to the face without anything missing a beat.
Even your centre has work to do with moments of dialogue. Well, we say dialogue – it's more like groans and tortured death rattles. But it is centre channel business nonetheless. They really shouldn't have killed his dog.
WALL-E (2008) - chapter 22
The importance of sound in film is irrefutable, but rarely to the extent that it is in Pixar’s WALL-E, where sound is both the narrative and language of the largely dialogue-free animation. One of its most charming scenes also happens to be among the more sonically colourful too, as one of Hollywood’s most-loved robots is propelled through space on a fire extinguisher with Eve tumbling after him.
You should be able to track their position on the screen with your eyes closed, hear the faint sprays from the extinguisher and the robots’ subtle mechanical clicks – a mix of real-world sound and synthesizers – in your rear channels, and be immersed in the uplifting instrumentation and ethereal ambience created by sound designer Ben Burtt. There’s even a bit of dialogue from the red-suited humans in the middle for your center speaker to have a chance to shine.
Pink Floyd: The Wall (1982) - chapter 9
Through 95 minutes of musical montage, live action and animation, this rock opera – the brainchild of Floyd member Roger Waters – tells the tragic story of rock star Floyd ‘Pink’ Pinkerton (Bob Geldof) and his psychological downfall. Yes, it’s dark and downright depressing but - Floyd fan or not - there's no denying it’s an audio treat.
Among the first animated films with a Dolby Stereo soundtrack, it was presented on DVD in 1999 with a 5.1 Dolby Digital surround sound mix. The film didn’t win Best Sound at the 1983 BAFTA Film Awards for having just one or two good-sounding scenes.
The one backed by Another Brick in the Wall (Part II) – BAFTA winner of Best Original Song, too – is a sure highlight, and a great test for explosive dynamics and midrange solidity, not to mention your subwoofer’s tunefulness. You just might want to turn it down when the school kids rampage around their classroom!
Star Trek (2009) - chapter 5
We’ve seen it a gazillion times by now, but the scene where Bones keeps injecting Kirk with vaccines, the reveal of the USS Enterprise and the ship going into warp speed remains one of the best and funniest moments of JJ Abrams’ rebooted Star Trek.
It’s also a magnificent test for your home cinema system. You should be able to feel the height and movement of the ships that fly over the Starfleet students as they bustle about in the hanger; the change in scale and atmosphere when Bones and Kirk move to a smaller room; hear the little beeping, blinking noises inside the Enterprise; and the deadpan humour in Captain Pike’s gravelly voice.
The moment of truth comes when Michael Giacchino’s stirring score fills the entire room and reaches a beautiful flourish when you first see the Enterprise. The soaring music should end with blaring horns and a moment of awe as the pristine starship is finally revealed. And when it hits warp speed, your system should be delivering that gut-punching, precise sound effect with layers of deep, taut bass.
If you're spine's not tingling after that lot, it's time to find some new home cinema gear.
Blade Runner: The Final Cut (2017) - chapter 17
Thanks to its Ultra HD Blu-ray release, Ridley Scott’s seminal sci-fi flick gets the Atmos treatment – a presence that can be felt right from the off, with its impressive sense of heft, depth and dynamism.
Crowd scenes, like in chapter 17, hustle and bustle with effects showcasing pinpoint accuracy when it comes to placement within the soundfield. It’s also one of the better uses of overhead channels with the rain – and it rains quite a bit in Blade Runner – adding a sense of verticality that a 7.1 track couldn’t aspire to.
Vangelis’ enigmatic score gets a wonderful outing and, when combined with the effects, offers a great example of the immersion that Atmos can bring.
The Matrix (1999) - chapter 30
Keanu Reeves makes a second appearance on this list with the Wachowski's seminal film. The Matrix gets a Dolby Atmos soundtrack for its 4K Blu-ray release, and it's a belter.
Dan Davis's atonal orchestral score should fill the surrounds, and consequently your room, with an expansive quality that's an excellent, expressive accompaniment to the action on screen.
But it's in the third act when the action ramps up that the fun happens: the moment when Neo and Trinity call for guns ("lots of guns") should fill the room while the iconic Bullet Time sequences should pan through your surround speakers so well that you'll want to reach for the rewind button. Bass needs to be a big and arresting presence but also clean and tightly controlled.
It's a demanding workout for your cinema system. When rendered right, it sounds magnificent.
Mad Max: Fury Road (2015) - the whole film (yes, really)
This two-hour chase opera might sound a mess on a lesser system, but it's not supposed to be a wall of noise. You’ll need a mighty powerful system to really feel the thunderous roar of the souped-up engines - one that can convey the scale of the desert wasteland, the wind storms and the jagged, rusty monstrous cars.
Junkie XL’s soundtrack is orchestral and furious, with angry drums egging the chase on while the strings and electronic beats drive the on-screen action. You’ll need a system that’s precise and articulate enough to keep the tension of the music, the noise of the cars and the explosions all running alongside one another.
Each gunshot, engine rev and grunted Tom Hardy dialogue needs to be distinguishable. But the best part is the distorted guitar riffs that suddenly flare up whenever the camera cuts to the Doof Warrior – the red jumpsuit-wearing guitarist who’s attached to his insane rig on bungee ropes and plays a double-necked guitar that shoots flames. Yes, really.
Ford v Ferrari (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 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 GT 40 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 start of the film is ideal. As Ken Miles (played by Christian Bale) steers from the open cockpit of his Ford Cobra, you should feel heavily wind buffeted from all sides. Inside the cabin, you’re surrounded by 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.
With the right system, the layers of sound should feel visceral and thrilling without being overbearing. 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 should naturally envelop the viewer without feeling distracting or disjointed.
Blade Runner 2049 (2017) - chapter 1
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.
As with the first Blade Runner, 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 to prevent the image from narrowing.
Watching the opening scene, you should feel immediately feel blanketed in the musical atmosphere. One of the first sounds that will strike you, as well as your subwoofer(s), is the sonorous, undulating bass. If your drivers can cope with the LFE, it should feel expansive without masking the other details in the scene, like the spinner flying overhead or the buzzer waking Ryan Gosling.
Some of the most sonically revealing moments in 2049 are the quietest, and there are a lot of them, especially when it comes to the treatment of dialogue. Later on, in the scenes inside Wallace’s harsh reflective rooms, his direct voice is heard in the overhead for an oppressive, claustrophobic feel while the vocal reverb is subtly decorrelated to give a colossal sense of space. Even with rippling delays and reverb tails ricocheting all around, you should still find that the screen pulls and holds focus.
Gravity (2013) - chapter 1
Throughout the tense 90 minutes of Gravity as Sandra bullock hurtles through the vacuum of space with only George Clooney for company, the Oscar-winning Dolby Atmos mix (only available on the limited edition Diamond Luxe Blu-ray or the special edition HD Blu-ray) both 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. In the opening scene, as Bullock tumbles, we hear Clooney’s radio communication travel from the rear right to the front and back again, following her terrifying trajectory. As the voices pan around your system, it’s a great way to check the high-mid definition of your rear speakers. And it’s not just dialogue that has been allowed to float; the entire score is composed for surround. It should move, swell and clash with the action without becoming chaotic and losing rhythmic integrity.
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 tetanus 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.
Bohemian Rhapsody (2018) - Live Aid
When you first watch Bohemian Rhapsody, there's plenty to distract you, from Rami Malek's dental apparatus to marveling at Gwilym Lee's commitment to mirroring Brian May's long-term singular haircut. However, the final 20 minutes of the film that recreates, almost in full, Queen’s legendary Live Aid performance at Wembley is captivating and, sonically, the closest feeling to being a live gig we’ve had in quite some time.
The film's audio team went to great lengths to have options for 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 means that whether behind the strings of Freddie's piano, in amongst Roger Taylor's kit or jostling in the press pit, the sonic 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.