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 promises to be the future of sound, and yet it's something that very few people are talking about. In more or less words, it's a new audio format that will allow you to hear sound in a 360-degree bubble. 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 we've never sat down to truly explain what the technology is, why it's important and, most importantly, how you can get it in your own home. Until now.

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

You can consider the results of the experiment 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

The basics: what is Dolby Atmos?

Dolby Atmos is a new audio format – like stereo sound or surround sound that takes recorded audio from a movie soundtrack or a video game and spits it out in a more immersive way. Dolby Atmos gives sound a more three-dimensional effect – imagine the difference between hearing a helicopter flying a few hundred yards away versus directly over your head.

The technology is being developed by Dolby Laboratories, an audio company that specializes in sound reproduction and encoding. You've probably seen their logo on DVD or Blu-ray boxes or on the latest audio equipment.

The first film to be mixed in the new format was Pixar's Brave in 2012 and there has since been several films, a few television shows and a handful of video games that have utilized the technology since.

That said, Dolby isn't the only one working on an object-based 3D-surround system – one of its rivals, DTS, has its own version called DTS:X.

So how does Dolby plan on creating a sound bubble? For the answer to that question, all you have to do is look up. 

Dolby Atmos creates a bubble of sound by bouncing beams of audio off your ceiling and then to your ears. As you might imagine, this takes a bit of calibration, and a fairly flat ceiling. As long as you have the latter and don't mind doing the former when it comes time, let's press on.

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.

The latest addition to the Dolby Atmos-supported line-up is the Samsung HW-K950 Soundbar. What's most appealing about the soundbar is its ease-of-use. Just plug it into your receiver and set up the satellite units and you're off to the surround sound races.

Dolby atmos

But why did I choose Onkyo's package for 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, which was great for my small San Francisco apartment.

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 7.1.2 or even a 7.1.4 setup (left/right audio, center, two 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

Let's turn on the system and connect it to a Dolby Atmos-supported TV. Now, let's queue up some Dolby Atmos content via Vudu.

So, what are you looking for once you've got your content? 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. If it doesn'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. (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 small, 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 three other primary sources for Atmos content, including games on PC like Star Wars Battlefront and Battlefield 1, Blu-rays and movies from 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. Like the advent of Blu-ray, new technology is expensive. 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

Should you upgrade to 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. 

Right now you need a lot of rather expensive components to get Dolby Atmos sound – your receiver, video player and the content you're watching all need to support it. If one of the above doesn't, you won't be able to get 3D sound.

The technology is almost ready for mainstream consumption with a number of game developers working on titles that support Atmos and Hollywood seemingly loving the technology. That said, like 4K TVs a few years ago, Dolby Atmos is still a bit of an outlier at this point and is best reserved for the people who have time to tinker around with audio settings to get things just the way they like it.

Still on the fence? Wait until CES 2017, where I'm sure we'll hear even more about Atmos and its main contender, DTS:X.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Nick Pino is the senior home entertainment editor at TechRadar and covers TVs, headphones, speakers, video games, VR and streaming devices. He also occasionally writes about Pokemon when no one is watching.