For better and for worse, Dolby Atmos is everywhere now, from soundbars to TVs, phones and even cars. Of course, certain devices deliver a more convincing Atmos experience than others, so how can you put your kit through its paces?
You probably 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 more broadly assign them to discrete 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 that is replicable by any kit that has the capacity to decode it – from full home theatre systems to '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.
Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny – The Caves
The final Indiana Jones movie is something of a greatest hits, featuring reworkings of various classic Indy scenes and set pieces, and while it certainly doesn’t live up to the quality of the original movies, it’s still a fun romp with some nicely produced moments.
There are plenty of strong scenes with which you can show off your Atmos system, with the Nazi train scene near the beginning being a fairly obvious choice, but it’s actually a later chapter that takes place in some caves that we appreciate most. Without spoiling it too much, this chapter includes some underwater action that should fill your room with burbling effects, as well as a brief gunfight that involves bullets that whizz around and behind the listening position.
Between these two points there are plenty of quieter moments with soft dialogue and brilliant little audio details for an accomplished system to pick out.
Angel Has Fallen – Drone Attack
To be clear, this is not exactly what you’d call a good film. It does sound pretty terrific, though, particularly in a scene near the beginning that features a huge swarm of kamikaze drones that are sent to blow up the president (Morgan Freeman) while he tries to enjoy a fishing trip.
This scene features thrumming military VTOL aircraft flying overhead, drones zipping across your room in every direction and more sofa-shaking explosions than you’ll hear on bonfire night. It’s a thing of ridiculous wonder and perhaps the best scene on this whole list if you simply want to use your system to knock someone’s socks off.
Avatar: The Way of Water – Underwater scenes
Whatever you might think of The Way of Water as a movie (and plenty of people have very strong opinions on it), it undeniably looks and sounds extraordinary – just as you’d hope given the more than ten-year development and a budget rumoured to be in excess of $350 million.
In the style of a computer game sequel in which the developers have expanded the original with new gameplay elements, most of that monstrous budget appears to have been spent on Avatar 2's new underwater scenes, which are genuinely spectacular.
These are interspersed throughout the movie (which runs to an exhausting three hours and twelve minutes) but begin around the 58-minute mark with a fairly gentle scene full of weird and wonderful aquatic beasties. If your system is capable and set up correctly, you'll be audibly transported to beneath the sea and surrounded by the the muffled sounds of bubbles and characters swimming. This is accompanied by siren-like singing that should be clear and dynamically subtle, and twinkly treble that should appear in precise spots in the three-dimensional soundscape.
There are plenty of more action-packed sequences – both in and out of water – throughout the movie, with the Atmos effect being pronounced throughout. It's also a very bassy soundtrack overall and is best enjoyed with the volume turned up.
Nope – Ghost
It’s hard to write about Nope without spoiling it, so while we could have picked any number of scenes to showcase the awesome Dolby Atmos soundtrack, we’ve picked an earlyish one that tells the story of Ghost, one of the horses on the farm at the centre of the story.
Without giving too much away, there’s something peculiar going on in the skies above the farm, and this early scene does a brilliant job of ratcheting up the mystery and tension, largely through the soundtrack.
A good Atmos system will place the incidental sounds of the desert all around the room, and there’s lovely detail to the crunch of Daniel Kaluuya’s boots on the gravel and to the concerned snort of the unsettled horse. Then there’s another sound coming from above. Is that the wind or… something else?
As you strain to try and figure out the answer to that question, a much louder, bassier thump scares the life out of you. But it’s just music. A classic jump scare, and you’ve fallen for it.
At various points throughout the scene, your room is filled with voices echoing across the rolling landscape and more of that peculiar-sounding 'wind'. And then there’s the horse, which you can no longer see but you can hear. It doesn’t sound happy, and how has it got up there?
If it’s not yet clear, the sound design of this Jordan Peele mystery is masterful, doing much of the presentational heavy lifting, and it will hugely reward those with a system that’s spatially organised, detailed, dynamic and weighty.
Training Day – the finale
We’ve been using Training Day as a tester ever since we got it on DVD (yes, DVD) over 20 years ago. That was for video rather than sound, though, as the gritty, challenging picture was partnered by a surprisingly limp surround soundtrack.
Thankfully, Warner Bros. has finally treated Antoine Fuqua’s cult classic crime thriller to a 4K Blu-ray treatment that includes a superb Dolby Atmos audio remaster.
Precise placement of effects isn’t the main aim here. Instead, the opportunity presented by 3D audio is used to generate a more enveloping version of the bustling LA streets where Ethan Hawke’s naive officer Hoyt finds himself learning the ropes from the charismatic, crooked Detective Alonzo, played by Denzel Washington with scenery-chewing excellence. The hubbub throughout makes the city feel alive, but the superb dialogue is never anything other than crystal clear.
But the true strength of the upgraded audio presentation is its bass. The soundtrack is packed with sofa-shakingly epic hip-hop tracks by the likes of Dr Dre, Snoop Dogg and Cypress Hill, and gunshots are thrown out in thunderous style, particularly during the exhausting, action-packed finale. Your subwoofer is going to love it; your neighbours, not so much.
The Batman – The Batmobile Chase
Seeming to draw its cinematic aesthetic more from 2019’s Joker (by way of ’70s noir) than the Dark Knight’s 12 previous live-action outings, The Batman offers us a grittier, grounded, and more expressionistic Gotham than we’re used to. If you have a Dolby Atmos system, it’s also perhaps the most immersive as the outstanding sound design lets viewers dip in and out of the characters’ perspectives, intensifying dramatic suspense and thrilling action while helping to keep them rapt for its three hour run time.
But it’s not just Bruce Wayne’s viewpoint we’re treated to. In one of two uncannily realistic-sounding nightclub scenes, Zoe Kravitz’s proto-Cat Woman stalks through the Iceberg Lounge and we’re shown her sonic outlook as she passes by clubbers and leering men, while Batman's instructions, given remotely, are heard, voice-of-God style, in her ear.
At another point, we're even given a bat’s-ear-view as Batman tries to retrieve a note from a captive Chiroptera, and we are placed firmly in its cage as distressed noises spin out above and around us in a deeply unsettling maelstrom.
Dolby Atmos is also frequently used to create breathing room within the dense soundscape, allowing the heavy, liturgical score (often pulled off the screen to the sides), rich tapestry of effects and hushed voices to co-exist without competing.
Nowhere is this better demonstrated than in the car chase as Batman is pursuing the Penguin. The Batmobile rips through the middle of the soundfield while passing trucks, falling crates and sheeting rain bombard the viewer. But, the narrative of the sequence remains thrillingly clear, even with the persistently building music, guttural gunshots and spectacular sub-bass. As the camera switches from the car interior to the bumper to mid-air vehicle flip, it feels as though the potential of every possible plane is being wrung out of the speakers to exhilarating effect.
The Power Of The Dog – The Duelling Banjo
An intense psychological period drama with a slow-burn plot, The Power Of The Dog is set primarily on a remote ranch in rural Montana. the film has a particularly stark and minimalist sound design to reflect the isolating impact of the landscape while Dolby Atmos is used throughout to subtly heighten the emotional stakes in this stifling setting.
The macro of the wide vistas and the micro of the strained familial relationships are represented throughout the film in a soundtrack that frequently flits with limits of audibility and offers a real dynamic test for your speakers. There's a spectacular palette of winds to enjoy, with close breezes in the grass used to both highlight and play against the expanse of the terrain, while the lack of privacy in the family home is implied by the gusts that rattle throughout its thin walls.
The characters in The Power Of The Dog are all in some way repressed and so signature sounds are used almost as leitmotifs to represent their emotions. The film opens with hyper-macho bully Phil striding across the ranch, and the sound of his weighty boots and ringing spurs indicate his strength and domineering presence.
The boots become an unconscious device to help convey to the audience his ability to torment others. In a wordless two-minute scene in which Rose is practising the piano so she might later impress her new husband's dinner guests, Phil begins playing along on his banjo, deliberately trying to put her off. It's an incredibly intense scene to watch even in stereo, but with a Dolby Atmos system we are given Rose's perspective so we not only see how cruel Phil can be, but we feel it too.
Atmos is used to locate Rose downstairs and the banjo in the rear corner of the roof. The mix pinpoints his location as he roams around, eventually expanding to fill the ceiling giving the audience the impression that his taunts are now occupying all of Rose’s thoughts before the sound of his boots suddenly shocks Rose and brings the drama to a head.
No Time To Die – Chase Through Matera
We’re used to Bond films opening with a big set-piece, but No Time To Die switches things up, beginning instead with a flashback to Madeleine's childhood in Norway that’s much more low-key and quietly terrifying. Mirroring the bleakness of the landscape, every sound is given acres of space, building intensity without overloading the viewer with layers of sound. The film’s slow-burn start means that subsequently, the ambush at Vesper’s tomb in Matera has an even greater impact.
The explosive sequence in the graveyard leads onto one of the film’s standout sound design moments as Bond temporarily loses his hearing and the audience is given his sonic point of view. Instead of relying on a tinnitus ring, the designers filter out most of the sound, leaving just the low, vibrational elements of Bond’s gasps and movements, disorientating the viewer. Even the score gets this treatment, and for the first time, Bond’s vulnerability is alluded to before the crack of the bullet whizzes across the soundfield, and we’re back in classic 007 territory.
In the spectacular chase through Matera that follows, there are plenty of wonderful details to be found, particularly if you get the opportunity to listen on a Dolby Atmos system. After swinging off a bridge and flying into the air on a motorbike, it's a moment towards the end of this scene that we think yields the greatest sonic dividends.
The rain of bullets on the Aston Martin while Bond, thinking he’s been betrayed, belligerently sits inside alongside Madeleine, is exquisitely rendered in 360 degrees from both an exterior and a cocooned interior perspective, interwoven with the vertiginous sound of the village's relentless churchbells. As the shots are fired, each concise crack and crunch varies, keeping the relentless onslaught dramatically interesting until the sound of crystals fragmenting hints to the audience that the car, like Bond, is not infallible.
The sound of No Time To Die supports the film’s larger than life visuals and hits all the beats a well-versed audience demands but is still bursting with original, narrative sounds.
Belfast – Opening Scene
Based on the recollections of director Kenneth Branagh’s childhood growing up in Northern Ireland, Belfast is told uncynically from the point of view of 10-year-old Buddy. Despite taking place against a backdrop of civil unrest and sectarian violence that would result in the largest forced mass movement of people since the Second World War, it's Buddy’s own story that is front and centre. The Troubles sit on the periphery of the narrative and, consequently, the sound design.
The sound team aren't always literal with their soundscape, instead giving the audience subtle hints that what we are hearing is being interpreted through a child's ears. Voices of authority figures are pitched down to appear scarier, and unrealistic sound effects that Buddy would have only heard in films are sometimes used, such as the Western-style American freight train in the opening scene.
As Belfast doesn't have a traditional score, it opens up space for the filmmakers to be freer with featured sound effects and dialogue, weaving them together to form a rich, hyper-real tapestry that bubbles around Buddy. There's always a sense of something going on just out of shot that filters into Buddy's consciousness through his ears. Voices are frequently moving off centre while helicopters pepper the skies overhead, creating a soundscape that matches the story in being both epic and narrow. The general absence of music means that when it is used, it has all the impact of a massive great needle drop, providing many of the film's most joyful moments.
The film starts in spectacular sonic style, particularly if you get the opportunity to listen on a Dolby Atmos system, with a hectic summer afternoon of neighbours and children buzzing around the street. This scene will really highlight how well integrated your system is, with complex moving dialogue, every syllable of which should be audible.
As Buddy heads home he clocks a sound that seems familiar – a train. We soon realise something is amiss as the camera tracks around a bewildered Buddy and the noise of the train gradually evolves into something else. The swirling, slow-motion noises of the rioters start to meld with an expansive undulating low tone, fading down into Buddy's breath before anarchic violence bursts out from all sides, raining rocks overhead. Seamlessly the bin lid Buddy has just been playing with as a pretend knight becomes a real-life shield, used by his mother to protect him from his neighbours. The composed mixing of this scene, and indeed the entire film, keeps the chaos cohesive, helping the audience access both the narrative and Buddy's confusion without explicit explanation.
Dune – The Sandworm Reveal
Dune is that most rare of films – a subversive post-apocalyptic blockbuster entrenched in reality. To help ground its eccentric plot and surreal visuals, the sound design is used to construct a believable world full of desert landscapes and giant sandworms that the audience immediately feels a part of and protective toward. Of the 3200 custom sound effects created for the film, only four were totally synthesised. This means that rather than being faced with cold futurism found so often in sci-fi, Dune has a tactile familiarity.
The sound team have built the kingdom of Arrakis as a carefully sculpted sonic world, deeply rooted in authenticity, that delicately engulfs the audience creating a sense of intimacy as much as it does scale. In the scene about an hour into the film where we first encounter a giant sandworm, Paul and his father take a flight in an Ornithopter (a dragonfly-like aircraft) to inspect the spice harvest. The sound team manipulated organic insect and feline sounds to achieve the sound of a purring 'plane' flying high above the desert. As things start to go awry with the worm's arrival, Dolby Atmos is used expertly to create the stunning sensation of the craft dive-bombing deep into the sand storm.
What follows is an incredible, all-encompassing sonic cocktail of moaning desert winds, tinkling granular dust, colossal monsters and glitching ethereal voices that flow in succession across a dynamic range that stuns. There’s very little dialogue, but the storytelling is clear, compelling, and beautifully capped off by a moment of stillness as the rattling aircraft and beleaguered crew return to base.
Hans Zimmer’s magnificent genre-bending score is used to add even more layers of texture and emotional punch and is pulled around the space in a way that integrates, rather than dominates, the rest of the audio. There’s a continual, seamless handing-over between the FX and music that unifies the soundfield and enhances the drama without overwhelming the viewer. It’s often said that awards for best sound go to films with the most sound rather than the best sound, but with its 2022 Oscar for Achievement in Sound, we think Dune proves that it’s possible to have both.
Dune can be streamed in Dolby Atmos at home from HBO Max. Dolby Atmos is not supported by the HBO Max app on Amazon Fire TV, Android TV, Samsung TVs, VIZIO 4K Smart TVs, Xbox consoles and Xfinity devices.
The Mitchells vs. the Machines – Mall of the Globe
In a post-apocalyptic world where a sentient voice assistant (picture a very sassy Siri voiced by Olivia Coleman) has overthrown its hoodie-wearing creator, the Mitchell family have managed to evade capture from the evil robot regime and are now the human race’s only hope for survival.
Unfortunately, the Mitchells have enough of their own problems, as tensions between aspiring film student Katie and her technophobe dad Rick have reached breaking point and his hapless attempts at rebuilding a relationship with his daughter only serve to alienate her further.
The film's animation mixes 2D and 3D watercolour styles with overlays indicating Katie's own "director's" point of view, which, when combined with the punky Dolby Atmos soundtrack, creates a captivating adventure caper full of dramatic flair and just the right amount of heartfelt sincerity (as well as big-tech satire).
In the 'Mall of the Globe' battle sequence, where consumer electrical products have turned violent, there's a wealth of unusual and zany height elements that can only really be done justice by a Dolby Atmos system. From a soda can missile that whips overhead crackling with lethal transients to whizzing drones, to a raining army of kamikaze Furbies, the sound design is incredible, maintaining coherence amongst the chaos and perfectly preserving the sparkling script's insightful humour.
There's also a wonderful dynamic range at play; the gradual crescendo from the first lone killer Furby's laugh quietly reverberating up above to the supersized Godzilla Furby's climactic entrance is an exemplary display of building excitement and anticipation through sound.
This offering from Sony Pictures, which missed out on its full theatrical release, went straight to Netflix, where it truly warrants a viewing in Dolby Atmos and Dolby Vision.
Nobody – 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.
The Tomorrow War – 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 – Flight to the Orphanage
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 – Drifting in Space
Throughout the tense 90 minutes of Gravity, which sees Sandra Bullock hurtling through the vacuum of space with only the memory of 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.
Finding a disc version of Gravity with the Dolby Atmos soundtrack isn't as easy as you might think. There's the rare (and expensive) Diamond Luxe Edition and the more affordable 2015 Special Edition, which sadly is only in 1080p. A 4K Blu-ray re-release is said to be forthcoming, and you've got to hope that will include the film's ground-breaking Atmos soundtrack. In the meantime, you can watch the Atmos version of the movie via iTunes / Apple TV.
Roma – The Rescue
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 – Live Aid
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’ 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 – Giving Birth
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 an expert display of carefully controlled 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) – 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 – Desperate Sprint
In 1917 Sam Mendes achieved what may well be the zenith of single-take-style cinema. The film tracks 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 – The Getaway
Baby Driver is 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 Jon 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 – Bombing Run
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 – 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 – 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 centres on 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 – The Hunt
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! – 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.
Uncut Gems – Opening Scene
Uncut Gems follows Howard (played by Adam Sandler), a jeweller in New York’s frantically paced Diamond District, as he attempts to auction off a rare Ethiopian opal for a massive return.
The film starts with Howard getting a colonoscopy, and we quickly realise that’s a minor discomfort within the grand scheme of his life. He is maintaining a fake marriage to his wife while hiding his girlfriend from his children, and he’s $100,000 in debt to a particularly nasty loan shark. Selling the opal is his escape plan, but unfortunately, the rock catches the eye of basketball player Kevin Garnett who wants to borrow it as a good look charm for his next match, offering his valuable championship ring as collateral. Howard can’t refuse, and this begins a chain of bad decisions, each more infuriating than the last.
It’s never stated, but Howard is addicted to gambling. As he continues to fall from one debt-laced predicament to another, each time using the source of his problems as the solution, there is a sense of a modern Greek Tragedy playing out.
Throughout, the sound design walks a fine line between unwatchably overwhelming and grippingly immersive. There’s an element of an unseen Greek Chorus in the meditative vocalisations of the expansive synth-heavy score. The opening sequence begins outside an Ethiopian quarry where a miner has just been severely injured, but the external melee switches to two lone pit workers deep in the reverberant bowels of the mine. The score then bursts out and off the screen, drawing us into the scene before segueing ingeniously into Howard’s world.
There’s no question that Uncut Gems is claustrophobic to watch and listen to. Still, the Dolby Atmos sound design helps to convey the general confusion and constant danger of Howard’s chaotic lifestyle, tightly enveloping the viewer in his world until they slowly start to root for this Willy Loman styled anti-hero.
Check out our list of the best Dolby Atmos soundbars you can buy