Dolby Atmos: The ins, outs and sounds of a 5.1.2 system

An in-depth guide to the next big innovation in speaker tech

Dolby Atmos

Dolby Atmos promises to be the future of sound. With its object-oriented audio engineering and its up-or-down-firing speakers, Atmos is changing the way home theaters are set up and, more importantly, how sound is distributed in the room.

In the past, we've explored how exactly Dolby Atmos is the future of cinema sound, as well as how the technology is hacking our ears. But this is the first time we've taken the technology home, set it up on our own and tried to replicate the life-changing auditory experience of hearing Dolby Atmos in theaters.

The experiment was challenging to say the least, taking hours of research and planning, setting up the system and finally finding something to watch with it.

Consider this a field guide into next-level home entertainment. Or, if you don't plan on making the leap into the aural unknown, a sneak peek at what's to come in the next five years.

Dolby Atmos

Step 1. Finding the system

Surprisingly, finding a Dolby Atmos-compatible system is the easiest part of the process. Major audio manufacturers – like Onkyo, Denon, Yamaha and Pioneer – all make audio/visual receivers capable of processing Dolby Atmos audio tracks, with few distinctions for the layman between the mid-tier models.

For the one-day experiment, I went with an Onkyo TX-NR747 receiver and its SKS-HT594 5.1.2 home theater in a box, which is five speaker units with surround sound and a subwoofer. I paired these up with a pair of old Pioneer tower speakers I have, and the result was a room-filling orchestra composed of tweeters, subwoofers and drivers.

Dolby atmos

Why this setup instead of a Klipsch or purely Pioneer pairing? The SKS-HT594 has front left and front right speakers that do double duty as both left and right channels, as well as the additional two height channels needed for Dolby Atmos.

The takeaway here is that, as long as both the receiver and speakers are Dolby Atmos-ready, you're all set.

This means I didn't need to completely rewire my entire living room and saved myself a bunch of time. Now, down the road, I could see myself switching to a 9.1.2 or even a 9.1.4 setup (left/right audio, center, three sets of L/R surround, a subwoofer and four ceiling speakers), but I decided not to get greedy on my first time working with Atmos.

The takeaway here is that, as long as both the receiver and speakers are Dolby Atmos-ready, you're all set. Confused about where to start shopping? Dolby offers a handy catalog of all the current Atmos-ready products.

Step 2. Wiring and configuring the system

With system in hand, it came time for the fun part: wiring. Like most systems, Onkyo's HTiB (or home theater in a box) comes with color-coded cables. Match positive ends to positive terminals of the same color, and you're in business.

The only real difference between Dolby Atmos and your run-of-the-mill speakers is that the former will have two sets of terminals – one for front left and right audio and one for height left and right – instead of one. Make sure both are connected to the proper terminals on the receiver.

Once the stars have aligned and your speakers are connected, run the setup on the receiver to calibrate the the system.

I won't walk you through the long and sometimes arduous process of setting up a system, but make sure when you select a configuration you choose something with three digits (e.g. 5.1.2 or 7.1.2, etc), which indicates that you want to enable Dolby Atmos.

After you've got your system placed perfectly comes the moment of truth.

Step 3. Finding content and testing it out

We're in the home stretch. Now, all I needed to find was some Dolby Atmos content. The best place to start? YouTube, of course. (Protip: It seems like whenever I test out a new technology – 4K UHD, for instance – YouTube always seems to have a sample of what I need.)

When it comes time to test out your Dolby Atmos system, check out the reference videos provided straight from Onkyo or another audio company to make sure you really can hear a difference.

So, what are you looking for? Dolby Atmos creates a sound bubble of audio. You should be able to hear raindrops falling from the sky and thunder in clouds that sound like they're 10 feet above your head. Ideally, it should feel like your room is filled with sound from every direction.

Two videos are particularly helpful in this regard: Amaze, a short one-minute clip of a rainforest in a thunderstorm, and Conductor, an even shorter movie of a little girl conducting nature sounds. In both videos you should be able to hear objects move from one speaker to the next and overhead noise. If you don't, re-check the connections or dive back into the settings.

Dolby atmos

While I've heard those sound effects in Dolby's labs on cinema-quality speakers, they weren't there with the same force or fullness during my in-home experience. Instead of the rain engulfing my living room, it sounded distant, as if rain was outside the windows. As for the plethora of animal sounds packed into Dolby's demos, they again sounded accurate and real, but not as if they were within the same room.

It's another scenario wherein marketing and press previews can paint a more vivid picture than what the mainstream ends up seeing.

It's another scenario wherein marketing and press previews can paint a more vivid picture than what the mainstream ends up seeing. (You know, like the Big Macs in the ads versus what's in the wrapper?) It's also a matter of the equipment available to me against what, say, Onkyo can muster for a demo.

Plus, Dolby Atmos works best in a smaller room with a level ceiling. Changing the slope of the ceiling messes with the reflection angle of the surround sound. In my medium-sized, cathedral-ceiling apartment, I again didn't have the best of luck recreating the nuanced and perfectly balanced audio experience I've had at Dolby's labs, but that said, there were a few moments when everything came together and worked perfectly.

Dolby atmos

Atmos is a lot like 4K, in a way

If everything sounds right to you, Dolby outlines five other primary sources for Atmos content, including games on PS4, Blu-ray, TV shows and movies from Netflix, content on the Amazon Fire TV and, lastly, films on Vudu, the Walmart-owned video streaming service. Now, problematically at the time of testing, I didn't have all of these on hand - and I expect you might find yourself in a similar situation.

The good news is that, while the technology is still in its infancy, it's still really clever and interesting technology that will revolutionize the home cinema once it becomes the standard

I'm not overly fond of replacing my DVD collection or older Blu-ray collection with Atmos-enhanced discs, nor does the idea of paying more for Dolby Atmos speakers sit well with me. But, like the advent of Blu-ray, new technology is expensive. We're reluctant to upgrade to something we're still unsure of until it comes down in price and eventually becomes the status quo.

The good news is that, while the technology is still in its infancy, it's still really clever and interesting technology that will revolutionize the home cinema once it becomes the standard in the same way 5.1 or 7.1 surround sound is now. Like Ultra-HD, there's not a lot of content out there to support the tech, but do a bit of digging and you'll uncover some auditory gems.

Dolby atmos

The big question: Should you upgrade your system to Dolby Atmos?

If you're an entertainment junky keen on having the latest and greatest tech – i.e. you already own a 4K TV and a seriously sweet surround sound system – then yes. But if you're an average movie or TV buff, I would wait until the tech begins to normalize.

Still on the fence? Wait until CES 2016, where I'm sure we'll hear even more about Atmos and its main contender, DTS:X.

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