Dolby Atmos: The ins, outs and sounds of the object-based surround system

Dolby Atmos

Dolby Atmos promises to be the future of sound, and yet it's something that hasn't quite made its way out of the inner circles of audio enthusiast forums. 

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 setup 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 have 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

Right now, there are two ways to bring Atmos to your home: either buying a TV that straight-up supports Dolby Atmos, or building a sound system of your own out of Dolby Atmos-capable equipment. 

The former is obviously a bit easier than the latter, however it's a bit more expensive. The Dolby Atmos-ready LG W7 OLED is fantastic with a built-in 5.0.2 soundbar that's just all-too-happy to bring you room-filling audio for a mere $6,999 (£6,999 or AU$13,499). 

If you don't have $7,000 burning a hole in your pocket, however, there are plenty of cheaper entry points – an Xbox One S or an Oppo UDP-203 4K Blu-ray player hooked up to an LG SJ9 Soundbar would do the trick.

If you'd rather just expand the home system you already have, 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. 

The key point here is that as long as you have Dolby Atmos content fed through a Dolby Atmos player to a pair of Dolby Atmos speakers, you're all set. 

For our 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. 

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 slightly more powerful setup, 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.

If you're still a bit hazy about where to start shopping for Atmos products, Dolby offers a handy catalog of all the current Dolby 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 whole setup process for your 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-capable player (Xbox One or a Dolby Atmos-enabled Blu-ray player). Good job! Now, all that's left to find is some Dolby Atmos content.

Thankfully, that's a task that becomes easier with each and every passing day. The best way to test out the new system is with Netflix's DeathNote, BLAME! or Okja (available with both Dolby Atmos and Dolby Vision, a version of HDR that enhances the colors and contrast of your favorite films). 

How do you know it's playing in Dolby Atmos? Look for the Atmos icon next to the title of the film.

If you're looking for more content to watch, check out one of the 100+ titles available on 4K Blu-ray that have Dolby Atmos. (For a full list, click here.)

For gamers, however, native Dolby Atmos content is still a bit sparse. Right now, only two games are mixed for Dolby Atmos: Overwatch and Star Wars Battlefront – both of which require the PC versions of the game. 

There is another way to get Dolby Atmos in games, though. 

Dolby has recently launched the Dolby Access app on Xbox One and Windows 10 PCs that upmixes stereo and 5.1 surround mixes to Dolby Atmos. The app is free to try and available to own for $14.99. Upmixed content never quite sounds as good as native Atmos, but hey, $15 is a whole lot cheaper than a brand-new soundbar or receiver, that's for sure.

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

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 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 times when everything came together and worked perfectly were some of my favorite times spent in front of my TV.

Atmos is a lot like 4K, in a way

Dolby outlines three other primary sources for Atmos content: there are games on PC like Star Wars Battlefront and Battlefield 1, Dolby Atmos-compatible Blu-rays and movies from streaming services like Netflix and 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 landscape is still a bit scattered at the moment. It's something Dolby has done its best to correct, but because it depends on partnerships to bring content to the masses (see: Microsoft, LG, Netflix, Vudu, Oppo, etc...) finding all the content in one spot is, at this point, a technical impossibility.

The good news is that the technology is still in its infancy. In conversations with top Dolby engineers, they've admitted that there are still some kinks to the distribution process that they hope will be alleviated when the platform grows larger and more robust. In my opinion, it's still really clever and interesting technology that will revolutionize the home cinema once it becomes the standard, rather than something reserved for audiophiles like myself.

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 real ear-candy.

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 and comes down a bit more in price. 

The technology is almost ready for mainstream consumption with a number of game developers working on titles that support Atmos and with Hollywood seemingly loving the technology which means now might be the best time to jump on the bandwagon.

Like 4K TVs a few years ago, Dolby Atmos isn't for everyone. It's not the easiest thing to wrap your head around and content isn't as much of a buffet as it is a fine three-course dinner. It's an investment in the future of audio technology, one that will pay off down the road but right now feels like a bit of a risk.

Still on the fence? Wait until CES 2018, where I'm sure we'll hear even more about Atmos and its main contender, DTS:X.