Living in a Dolby Atmos world: how I made the jump to home overhead sound

null

If you’ve been to any half-decent cinema worth the salt it shakes over its popcorn in recent years, you’ll likely have been sonically blown away by Dolby Atmos.

The latest evolution in surround sound technology, Dolby Atmos puts audio tracks from films, games and music not just around you, but above you too. Using object-based audio mixes that assign individual onscreen elements their own audio track, sound designers can make it seem as if sounds and objects are moving all around you with pinpoint, discrete accuracy.

Ever since first being shown a demo of the technology at Dolby’s UK headquarters, I’ve fantasised about how to get it into my home. But for a while it was prohibitively expensive, difficult to install, lacked compatible content and, perhaps most off-putting of all, was difficult to determine as to how effective it’d be in my home – one in which there’s no potential to have a dedicated cinema room.

However, with falling prices, a wide range of new Atmos gear to match the specifications of your viewing room, ever-more Atmos-enabled consoles, set-top boxes and Blu-ray players and a growing library of Atmos content, it’s time to dive in. Here’s what I opted for, and here’s what I think of my time living with Atmos at home so far.

The speaker kit

When Atmos-enabled sound systems first hit the market a few years back, it wasn’t just merely a hefty financial investment in order to get involved – it was a commitment to reworking your entire ceiling too. Copying the format used by cinemas, the Atmos effect was best achieved by wiring overhead speakers into your ceiling. It gives the most obvious and pronounced Atmos effect – the sound is, quite literally, being produced above your head. But it's impractical for most homes – and certainly beyond both my DIY skills and ability to stay in one fixed abode as a millenial destined for a lifetime of renting living space.

Things on the hardware side have changed in more recent times however. Rather than solely requiring overhead speakers, it’s now possible to get all manner of soundbars and speakers that point upwards and intelligently process the audio so as to bounce overhead sounds back down to your ears from the ceiling.

Though you may scoff at their potential, they shouldn’t be written off – our expert reviewers were blown away by the soundstage and overhead abilities of the Samsung HW-K950 and Sony HT-ST5000, for instance.

But my needs were a little different. Already the proud owner of a simple 5.1 surround system, I didn’t want to lose the presence of discrete satellite speakers, even if overheads were beyond me. Plus, I wanted to pair it all with a 4K HDR receiver to handle my growing array of Ultra-HD devices.

So I opted for the Onkyo HT-S7805 5.1.2 HTiB – where the “2” of “5.1.2” stands for the two overhead channels in addition to a standard 5.1 system, and “HTiB” stands for “Home Theater in a Box”, meaning that everything from the speakers to the cabling to the receiver itself is all included in the box. Even the cables are color-coded, making it as foolproof as possible to set up. 

What’s smart about systems like the Onkyo HT-S7805 is the way their front left and right speakers play a dual purpose. The kit includes a pair of SKF-693 Dolby-Atmos enabled speakers that not only fire audio forward, but have separate drivers in the top to bounce audio from the ceiling, too.

A home theater setup like this is still a commitment and a bit of an undertaking – it’ll take up quite a bit of room in your cabinet, you’ll need to be prepared for some cable tangle nightmares and you may even need to invest in some speaker stands too. But as I see it it’s the best compromise between what’s available in a cinema, and what you can achieve with relatively little fuss at home. The Onkyo HT-S7805 ticked all the boxes.

The player

Buy a brand new dedicated Blu-ray player, especially one that’s 4K-capable, and you’re all-but-guaranteed to get Dolby Atmos compatibility included. But until I have a dedicated cinema room to go with it, space is at a premium, meaning I’m going to need to need a way of getting Dolby Atmos soundtracks playing from a multi-purpose device.

Thankfully, you’re increasingly spoilt for choice – streaming services such as Netflix include some content with Atmos sound support, and many TVs, if connected to a compatible speaker system, will output the audio.

If you’re after a single-purpose video device, Atmos content in the UK can now be beamed over the airways too, provided you’re signed up for Sky’s premium Sky Q satellite package, or BT’s Sport package. As of January 2018, Dolby Atmos movies show up in Sky’s search EPG results, with the likes of Ghost in the Shell up for grabs, in addition to the Premier League football games that both pay TV providers offer. If you’re more into playing back your own Dolby Atmos compatible video files, or Android-enabled rentals, it’s worth checking out the superb Nvidia Shield TV set-top box too, which last year received a Dolby Atmos enabling update – and also functions as a games console, smart home hub and more.

But that still doesn’t deal with disc-based Atmos soundtracks, nor does it tick a box for gaming with Atmos audio. 

Enter the new versions of the Xbox One, the Xbox One S and the Xbox One X. Where the console have the edge over the Sony alternative is their support of high-end home cinema media. As well as their gaming chops, they can play 4K Blu-ray discs, Atmos soundtracks included, and even have support for Atmos audio in a selection of games too – all features missing from both the PS4 and the PS4 Pro. 

A small but growing list of Xbox One games supports Atmos. These include:

  • Assassin's Creed Origins
  • Crackdown 3 (releasing later this year)
  • Gears of War 4
  • Final Fantasy XV
  • Mass Effect: Andromeda
  • Overwatch
  • Rise of the Tomb Raider
  • Super Lucky's Tale

Atmos is great in films, where a sound designer can really heighten the sense of immersion with some well placed sounds. But it’s arguably even better with games – as you control the action on screen, you’re effectively controlling the flow of the audio too, as objects move and sound off around you. In some instances, this can even give you a competitive advantage, thanks to the added spatial awareness the Atmos audio offers you.

While I’d opted for a speaker set-up, for $15 Dolby also offers a headphones app through the Xbox One, the Dolby Access app, which uses audio processing to give a pseudo Atmos effect even with stereo headphones. It’s not quite as impressive as a dedicated set-up, but you’d be surprised at just how well it can manage to beef up a lowly pair of cans.

It’ll be interesting to see where Microsoft and its dev teams go with Atmos in the future – hopefully towards long-term support for the format, across multiple titles. But even if that doesn’t last, the Xbox One X remains an incredibly capable Atmos-enabled multi-purpose machine.

The set-up

There’s one quality you must have in order to set up a discrete-speaker surround sound system, and that is patience. Already having my living room cabled up for my existing 5.1 system, I thought I’d be able to get the Onkyo gear installed in a relatively short space of time. However, while it wasn’t a difficult installation, it was a time-consuming one. 

Just the process of untangling all my existing AV cabling and hooking up the new speakers (which, being larger than my existing speakers, wouldn’t sit safely on my existing stands) was a painstaking process. Noting which HDMI cables were going into each port, and fiddling with the screw-in speaker cabling in the tight spaces around the rear of the receiver was quite a test, even if the package itself explained all steps thoroughly.

Once all speakers were in place and cables attached, it’s then onto configuring the soundstage. This was once a case of carefully tuning the volume and crossover of each speaker manually, but now it’s done all-but automatically. AccuEQ room calibration requires you simply plug in the provided microphone into the front of the receiver and place it at your seating position, with a series of loud white noise test tones sent out to be processed for an optimised surround stage. Barring the fact that one of my older cables had given up the ghost, preventing a tone from being produced and requiring some more fiddling with a fresh cable, it was a seamless and impressive configuration process.

The sound

I’d been worried about the quality of the Atmos experience in my home from the moment I started considering putting the system together. My living room doubles up as a dining area, making it an irregular shape, with wooden floors and high ceilings reflective to sound. Not only that, but the TV area is set into the corner in a slight alcove, which meant that bouncing audio could have been difficult.

The reality proved quite different. Once configured, the speakers sang – for the price, their general sound quality was phenomenal, with music streamed over Spotify Connect (built into the receiver) beautifully clear and warm.

But we’re here for the Atmos, and you’ll be pleased to know that it worked phenomenally well. I started off with a session watching Scarlett Johansson's Atmos-enabled Ghost in the Shell through my Sky Q box. It was exhilarating – the set up process had successfully factored in the odd shape of my viewing area, and I was transported into the heart of neon neo-Tokyo, with glass shattering, gunshots firing and futuristic ambient sounds and soundtrack cues completely enveloping me.

Next up was the Atmos-ready Blu-ray of Mad Max: Fury Road, as played through the Xbox One X. If anything, it was even more impressive. The screech of tires and clang of metal rang out throughout my home (my poor downstairs neighbours must have thought World War III had finally kicked off). But it was the sandstorm scene that really took my breath away. The fine sound of grit and sound swirling against the chassis of beat-up roadsters was incredibly immersive – the sense of overhead sound adding to the intensity of the kinetic action on screen. Perhaps what’s most admirable is the way that, after a relatively short period of time, the sound melts almost into the background – it’s so natural, it’s almost as if it’s how your brain expects to receive the sound of movement from a film, and responds accordingly.

The same went for the three Atmos-enabled Xbox One X games I played – Gears of War 4, Rise of the Tomb Raider and Assassin’s Creed Origins. Gears of War was very ‘in-your-face’, as you’d expect from the bloody sci-fi shooter series. Gunfire ricocheted all around, and the sound of overhead gunships was so pronounced as to make me make my character look up and behind me to check its movements – something I doubt I’d have done without Atmos. 

Assassin’s Creed Origins was impressive in a more subtle way – walking the ancient Egyptian market streets, listening to the merchant’s chatter, the passing horses, the overhead eagles, and really feeling like I’d stepped back in time. 

But it was the icy climes of Tomb Raider that impressed the most on Xbox One X, with the wind howling through broken trees, the chill of overhead rustlings and wind chimes transporting me into Lara Croft’s world. Atmos can take you anywhere.

The verdict

It’s not for the faint of heart – there’s lots of gear and options available, your home viewing scenario to consider, and a substantial chunk of change to put to one side. But home-focussed Atmos gear like the devices I tried has come on leaps and bounds in recent times. It’ll take some investment to get a truly cinema-beating listening experience in your living room, but Atmos for the home, using the set-up listed above, is about as immersive as it gets.