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
Nobody (2021) – the final showdown
Born of the John Wick playbook (this and all three of the John Wick films were written by Derek Kolstad), Nobody actually turns out to be far more enjoyable than its progenitor thanks to a wittier script, a more seemingly pathetic main character and, most of all, Bob Odenkirk – an inspired and surprising choice who convinces both as a man on the cusp of death by suburban boredom and one capable of ripping someone’s throat out with his bare hands.
This is a brutal, gory affair with superbly choreographed fight scenes that have an unusually bruising realism to them, not to mention a healthy dose of very dark humour.
The sound is strong throughout and the music is great, but it’s the epic final showdown that will give your sound system the most enjoyable workout. Beginning at around 72mins with a crunching car chase soundtracked by Pat Benatar’s brilliant Heartbreaker, this scene eventually turns into an 18-rated version of the Home Alone break-in scene, with the family home replaced by a warehouse and the paint cans by claymores. A well-sorted Dolby Atmos system will send bullets and shrapnel flying across your room and the regular explosions should set your sofa shaking.
Nobody is currently available as a premium rental through various streaming services, but iTunes (aka the Apple TV app) appears to be the only one carrying it in Dolby Atmos (and Vision, for that matter).
The Tomorrow War (2021) – time-jumping to 2051
While its take on time travel is almost hilariously simplistic and naive, The Tomorrow War is a hugely enjoyable sci-fi action flick with a superb Dolby Atmos soundtrack (as well as an excellent 4K HDR picture).
The unusual premise sees soldiers from the future travel back to 2022 in order recruit and train troops who are then sent forward to 2051 to fight in an extinction-level war against invading aliens. So badly is this future war going, that a global draft is quickly implemented, and that’s how charming science teacher Dan Forester (Chris Pratt) ends up being sent forward in time to shoot aliens in the
face neck and stomach.
There’s lots of impressive Atmos action throughout the film, but the scene in which Dan and his even greener civilian squad mates are sent forward in time is arguably the best. Beginning at the 32:25 mark with a quiet, backstory-filling chat between our main man and the equally lovable Charlie (played by Veep’s Sam Richardson), chaos quickly ensues as a siren blares to announce the squad’s early deployment.
As the civvies-turned-soldiers line up in a hangar, the portal to the future fills the ceiling above and fills the space above your head with roaring audio – assuming your system is doing its job correctly. There’s a huge amount of drama and intensity to this build-up that those listening through basic speakers simply won’t experience, and the time jump itself is an AV roller coaster with a spectacularly shocking climax. From this point, the action doesn’t let up for what feels like ages, so buckle up and enjoy the ride.
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.
As pointed out by reader Utopianemo in the comments, finding a disc version of Gravity with the Dolby Atmos soundtrack is exceptionally hard (the rare Diamond Luxe Edition is the version you're after). A 4K Blu-ray is finally due in October 2021 and you've got to hope that will include Atmos. In the meantime, you can watch the Atmos version of the movie via iTunes / Apple TV.
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 (2019) – 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.
While The Sound of Metal is available to stream (including in 4K as part of an Amazon Prime subscription), it seems that the Dolby Atmos soundtrack is exclusive to the Blu-ray.
Soul (2020) – the great before vs New York
The latest in a long line of Disney animated features to tackle the family-friendly subject matter of death, Soul follows middle-aged jazz musician Joe, who is still waiting for his big break while he teaches elementary school. After a golden opportunity arises, Joe meets an untimely end but manages to get waylaid in ‘the great before’, where souls are made before they come to Earth. There he meets '22', a soul without a purpose who isn't keen on becoming human.
Dolby Atmos is used to build two diverse, realistic and otherworldly environments with liberal use of all the available channels creating an enthralling sonic experience. In ‘the great before’, the rears and overheads are filled with springy reverb and a large, enveloping soundscape. The soft atmospherics remain intentional and precise, melded together with Trent Reznor’s delicate electronic score.
The animation style is abstract, and many of the characters don’t have clear faces to help convey dialogue, but even a bohemian shaman (voiced by Graham Norton) crisscrossing the echoing astral plane in a pirate ship sounds clear, precise and natural.
In contrast with the ethereal eccentricity of the great before, Soul’s autumnal New York is incredibly tactile, bustling and full of life. There's a great surge of sound when Joe and '22' first leave the hospital that sweeps over the viewer and doesn’t let up. The cacophony of New York as experienced for the first time is overwhelming, from the guttural pile driver and passing firetrucks to the thronging crowds and helicopter overhead.
On Earth, Jon Batiste takes over scoring duties, and the jazz accompaniment is beautifully layered and lush, bounding along with the buzz of the city. The authenticity of each space that Joe plays in - from a small club to the school classroom to his empty apartment post-show - is incredibly well-realised, transportative and at times devastating.
Soul might have skipped a cinematic release and headed straight to the small screen, but it’s well worthy of a proper Dolby Atmos set-up to do justice to its well-crafted, split personality soundtrack.
Mad Max: Fury Road (2015) – chapter 3
Another post-apocalyptic follow-up set 30 years after its predecessor, Mad Max: Fury Road acts as both a sequel and a reboot of the series. Tom Hardy steps into the role of former cop Max Rockatansky, adrift in a world that's been engulfed by the desert and haunted by the memories of those he's failed to save.
Visually Fury Road is relentless, and while you certainly wouldn’t call the soundtrack subtle, it is incredibly focused and stunningly layered, directing the viewer’s attention within the often dense picture while maintaining an epic sense of scale.
From gunshots echoing through the desert wasteland and sandstorms tearing overhead, to Max’s internal headspace (and his close mic’d often mumbled dialogue), this two-hour chase opera boasts impressive dynamism and some exceptional moments of sonic respite.
However, the pace never lets up, and this clip at the start of the hunt shows how Atmos can help ground even the most outlandish of scenarios. As the cars and their unique engine sounds steer across the soundfield, they're accompanied by Junkie XL’s furious orchestral soundtrack.
Distorted guitar riffs suddenly flare up whenever the camera cuts to the Doof Warrior and his double-necked, flame-shooting guitar. Angry drums egg the chase on while the strings and electronic beats are carefully woven into the action.
mother! (2017) – the final third
In Darren Aronofsky’s mother! Jennifer Lawrence plays ‘mother’, who lives with her poet husband, ‘him’ (Javier Bardem), in a secluded, creepy house that is besieged by a series of uninvited guests.
But this isn't just a simple home invasion horror. Mother! is also a parable about climate change, a meditation on fame and an interpretation of the Bible. Most importantly, though, it has an ingenious Dolby Atmos soundtrack (courtesy of Requiem for Dream's Craig Henighan) that does all the heavy lifting.
Apart from the opening and closing scenes, everything is filmed subjectively from mother’s perspective, either over the shoulder, in close-up or POV and the only long shots are when she’s alone. To bring us even closer to the central character’s experience, the film reflects the environment that mother hears. Everything, not just what is shown on screen, is given a defined position that is always slightly elevated.
The house's presence as a character is intensified through seemingly innocuous sounds such as creaks and rattling pipes manipulated to become more human-sounding. As the invasion progresses into a fever dream, the small sonic exaggerations increase and become overwhelming in number and intensity.
But even with chaos erupting and people swarming the house, dialogue and actions remain detailed, clear and precisely placed, fading in and out of mother's focus. The latter third of the film builds into a sustained bedlam with some tremendous low-end effects to test your subwoofer.
It's certainly not for everyone, but if you can withstand the weirdness, mother! shows just how adaptable and avant-garde Atmos can be.
While you can watch mother! for free via an Amazon Prime subscription, you'll only hear the 5.1 version of the soundtrack if you do so.
Check out our list of the best Dolby Atmos soundbars you can buy