Your ears haven't lived unless they've heard Dolby Atmos, the latest evolution in multi-channel audio that's set to take us beyond the limits of conventional surround sound systems.
A premium, immersive audio format, Dolby Atmos works by adding height to the otherwise-flat soundstage of both cinema and home cinema audio set ups.
As well as adding height to the audio mix, Dolby Atmos introduces the concept of object-based audio – the idea that elements of a film's soundtrack (say, an overhead passing helicopter) can exist as their own individual item in the audio, rather than as part of a channel mix, allowing them to be placed and moved around a scene in a way that more naturally mimics real life.
With either two height speakers or four in a home set up, and coupled to a surround layout comprising five, seven or nine channels, the only limiting factor is your amplifier – the more channels to be outputted, the beefier your amp is going to need to be.
The most common home cinema configuration for Dolby Atmos is 5.1.2 (that’s the regular 5.1 configuration with two height channels), or 5.1.4 (the same, but with four height channels).
This extra height layer of sound is most commonly delivered via dedicated upfiring speakers (although if you have in-ceiling speakers, they’ll work too), if you’re using a Dolby Atmos-enabled AV receiver. Alternatively you can opt for an all-in-one Dolby Atmos soundbar, which is the ideal solution for the plug-and-play crowd.
What do I need for an Atmos setup?
In simplest terms, you need a source and a speaker.
Sources of Dolby Atmos include game consoles (Xbox One, Xbox One S, Xbox One X), some TVs (LG OLED, VIZIO M-, P-, R-Series), streaming devices (Apple TV 4K, Google Chromecast Ultra) and 4K Blu-ray Players.
The speakers are listed below!
Dolby Atmos is often referred to as an immersive sound system, or 3D audio, because it uses inventive 'sonic steerage' to create a wonderfully realistic soundstage.
But it doesn’t always do this by engulfing you with sound. It can be surprisingly subtle. Consider the opening sequence in Transformers: Age of Extinction: When T.J Miller throws a football before the discovery of the Optimus Prime truck, it bounces into the rear right channel of a traditional surround mix.
However in Dolby Atmos, the ball takes a different trajectory. It’s thrown higher and sounds less like a panning effect, meaning the result is far more convincing. Of course Atmos does the big stuff (explosions, thunder, rain) really well, too.
Dolby Atmos is a common sound format on Blu-ray discs, but can also be found on Sky 4K movie channel offerings as well as Netflix and Amazon Prime Video.
However, the 3D audio format isn’t just about film and TV soundtracks, as both BT and Sky use Dolby Atmos for sports events. It’s ideal for conveying stadium ambiance (as TechRadar can attest when attending one of the early showings of a game from BT Sport broadcast in a bar), helping to bring you closer to the pitch.
There are even Dolby Atmos mixes of classic albums. REM has remixed Automatic for the People in the format and the 50th anniversary of The Beatles’s Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club band also enjoyed an Atmos makeover.
Dolby Atmos has also been drawn into the Pure Audio Blu-ray spec. The London Symphony Orchestra recording of Asyla, Tevot & Polaris, conducted by Thomas Adès is a live recording that puts you in the centre of the Barbican Hall.
On top of that, the sound system is also a routine element on premium Xbox One games too, showing that the new format is gaining traction as a new method of reproducing sound.
So what Dolby Atmos speakers and soundbars should you be shortlisting for your sonic system upgrade? We've listed the technology you should be thinking of purchasing if you want to get into this new world of sonic adulation.
1. Focal Sib Evo Dolby Atmos 5.1.2 speaker system
A sound system to win over technophobes
Specs: 5.1.2 sub/sat Dolby Atmos loudspeakers; wireless compact subwoofer with 200W amplifier | Dimensions (Sib Evo): 252 x 162 x 162 mm (h/w/d), subwoofer 305 x 282 x 299 mm (h/w/d)
Let’s be honest. Accommodating eight or more loudspeakers in a living room is never going to be easy. However, French specialist Focal has produced a lifestyle Atmos sound system that could win over the most reluctant technophobe.
The Sib Evo 5.1.2 package combines two compact Sib Evo Dolby Atmos speakers to handle left, right and height channels, with a slim Cub Evo subwoofer and three smaller Sib Evo satellites, for centre and rear surround.
The main Sib Evo speakers cleverly incorporate a 76mm full-range up-firer for Atmos audio in addition to front-firing speaker drivers. Finished in piano gloss black, the whole set looks positively premium.
While the cosmetic design merits plaudits, the speaker cable provision is uninspiring. The rear of the enclosure has a locking terminal, but this only accepts low grade bell wire.
For the best results, it’s advisable to sit within 2m of the upfiring fronts, as this brings you within range of their reflected audio.
Bigger rooms might require a 5.1.4 Atmos configuration. While you can replace the rear satellite speakers with Dolby enabled models, they cost quite a lot per pair, so it’s not an upgrade path many will feel inclined to take.
Despite its compact size, this Focal system has range and attack. When the War Boys first roar overhead during the opening of Mad Max Fury Road, there’s a real sense of dynamic attack and spatial movement.
All the satellites share the same midrange driver and soft dome tweeter, which aids timbre matching.
The subwoofer integration is spectacularly good, crossing over effortlessly with the front soundstage at 100Hz. The sub may not do subterranean bass, but it’s gutsy thanks to a downward firing 209mm woofer and 200W onboard amplification. The system’s slam to footprint ratio is impressive.
While the Focal system can be used for two channel music, it’s really not an audiophile proposition. Stereo music can sound a bit pointy.
That said, if you want a good looking Dolby Atmos speaker package to partner a mid-range AV receiver, this Focal speaker package is definitely one to short list. And when it comes to lifestyle Atmos speaker packages, it’s a very short list indeed.
2. PSB Imagine XA Dolby-Enabled speakers
The best option for adding Dolby Atmos to your current setup
Specs: 30cm Titanium dome tweeter, 90cm clay-infused polypropylene cone woofer; sensitivity 87dB | Dimensions: 165 x 267 x 171(w/h/d)mm | Weight: 7.26kg (pair)
Not everyone planning a Dolby Atmos upgrade wants to junk their current sound system. If you have an existing multichannel layout, and simply want to add Dolby Atmos, then drafting in a pair (or quartet) of Dolby Enabled upfiring speakers will do the job.
But should you buy something cheap like the Onkyo SKH-410s, or invest in something more substantial? Canadian brand PSB offers a good deal more, for only a moderate price increase, with the Imagine XA.
These speakers, with their black ash cabinet and matching fabric grille, are a cosmetic match for the brand’s XT2, XT and XB floorstanders, but can be used with any brand. Ideally they should be located around a metre off the floor. An integrated wall-mounting bracket is provided if you don’t have floorstanders/stands/shelves (delete as appropriate) to accommodate them.
The Imagine XA speakers feature a ferrofluid-cooled titanium dome tweeter and clay-filled polypropylene cone woofer. A pair of chunky speaker terminals accept decent cable widths. They look far more expensive than they actually are, and they sound it too.
Highs are smooth and detailed, and the speaker easily creates a convinced Dolby Atmos canopy. The expanded soundstage becomes a tangible extension to the listening room.
They have some bass output too, but expend most of their energy at 100Hz and above. We’d have no qualms about partnering them with premium floorstanders or bookshelf speakers, although we’d recommend asking a dealer for a trial first, just to check they’re a good timbre match with your existing speakers.
3. KEF R50 Dolby-Enabled Atmos speakers
For superb clarity and depth
Specs: Drive units: Uni-Q driver array featuring 25mm HF vented aluminium dome HF, 130mm LF/MF aluminium drive; Sensitivity: 85dB | Dimensions: 174 x 180 x 259 (w/hd) mm | Weight: 4.5kg
The KEF R50 represent the premium end of the Dolby-Enabled speaker market. The high gloss speakers are part of KEF’s R Series line, and feature the same Uni-Q point source driver array.
A 25mm aluminium vented-tweeter and ‘tangerine waveguide’ sits at the centre of a rigid 130mm bass/mid driver, encircled by a distinctive Z-flex surround to minimise distortion.
If you want the full-fat KEF 5.1.2 Atmos experience, partner the R50s with a pair of R500 floorstanders, matching R200c centre channel, R100 bookshelves and the compact R400b subwoofer.
This ensemble sounds sensational. Alternatively, you can use them to augment an existing speaker system.
A full-range design, the R50 is capable of superb clarity and depth, with the Dolby Atmos soundstage spacious and naturalistic. They’re also extremely effective when it comes to dispersion.
While some Atmos speakers have a specific ceiling bounce, which creates a sonic sweet spot, the R50s deliver an excellent sense of height up to 3.5m away. Expensive certainly, but sensationally good.
4. Sony HT-ST5000 Dolby Atmos soundbar
For a truly cinematic experience
Specs: Power output 800w total (claimed); Drive units: 2 x Dolby enabled upfirers, 3 coaxial tweeter/woofers, 4 x mid-range drivers; 4 x HDMI v2.0 | Dimensions: 1180 x 80 x 145 (w/h/d) mm | Weight: 8.2kg
If a standalone Dolby Atmos AV receiver and speaker system doesn’t float your boat, how about this all-in-one, attractive Dolby Atmos soundbar?
It may look like a sub and soundbar twin-set, but Sony describes the HT-ST5000 as a 7.1.2 proposition. It has High-Res Audio compatible, and has Wi-Fi (with NFC), Bluetooth and Chromecast Built-in.
Build quality and design are outstanding. The bar comes with a fabric cover, which can be removed if you want to gawp at the drivers in all their glory.
Left and right are two matching coaxial speakers with gold-rimmed, high frequency tweeters, while a step-down coaxial flanked by mid-range quartet takes centrestage. On top, behind fixed metal grilles, are two upfiring Dolby-enabled drivers.
Connections include four HDMIs, all HDCP 2.2 4K ready. There’s also an optical digital audio connection, stereo minijack, and USB port.
This soundbar is particularly good at creating a wide, high soundstage. It really evokes a sense of cinematic scale with high-octane Atmos actioners like John Wick 2.
It’s debatable just how effective it is at producing a convincing overhead sound channel though. Often it seemed as if the Atmos effects were locked to the space around the TV.
It certainly helps to sit closer to the bar than further away. Indeed, if you’re more than 1.5m you probably won’t get any sense of Atmos height at all.
That said, this soundbar is a lot of fun. The wireless subwoofer has real depth, easily reaching down below 50Hz. Action movies really slam.
It also proves good as a High-Res Audio solution; it’s fully compatible with 24-bit FLAC files and DSD. Overall, this is a fine sounding soundbar, and worth investigating if you can weather the price tag.
Read the full review: Sony HT-ST5000
5. LG SK10Y Soundbar
A big bar that delivers a big sound
Specs: Power output 500W total (claimed); 2x HDMI-In with HDCP 2.2, digital optical, USB; Bluetooth, Wi-Fi and Chromecast Built-in | Dimensions: 58 x 1200 x 145 (h/w/d) mm | Weight: 5.6kg
A soundbar that aspires to do it all, the LG SK10Y boasts Dolby Atmos support, High-Res Audio certification, Google Assistant functionality and Chromecast compatibility. Thanks to a new partnership with British hi-fi specialist Meridian Audio, it also carries some impressive sonic credentials.
That being said, the SK10Y is designated as a 5.1.2 Atmos solution, which means that in addition to twin top-mounted speakers there’s a triple array on the front fascia (left, center, right), plus side-firing channels at either edge. These side drivers aren't designed to bounce sound off a wall; instead they use Acoustic Phase Matching to alter the timing of the audio, which creates an impression of surround sound.
This impression isn't as good or as true-to-the-ears as a true Atmos setup with separate upfiring speakers, but if you're in the market for a no muss, no fuss setup, LG's soundbar is one of the best.
Read the full review: LG SK10Y Soundbar
6. Creative X-Fi Sonic Carrier
This 11.2.4-channel Dolby Atmos soundbar is out of our league
Specs: Power output 2,000W total (claimed); 2 x digital optical, 3 x HDMI (ARC), 1 x Ethernet port, 1x 3.5 mm jack, 2 x ¼” microphone connectors, 2 x USB 2.0 type A connector for USB flash drives and HDDs, 1 x SD card slot and 3 x MicroSD card slots | Dimensions: 521 x 151 x 96mm (59.9 x 5.9 x 3.8 inches, L x W x H) | Weight: 35.3 lbs
You know, it just didn't feel fair comparing the Creative X-Fi Sonic Carrier to other soundbars on this list. It'd be like comparing jet-skis to yachts.
That being said, if you have the deep pockets to afford it, the Creative X-Fi Sonic Carrier is in a different league of soundbars. It features 17 speakers set in an 11.2.4-channel or 15.2-channel configuration that can put out well over 110 dB of sound and supports Dolby Atmos right out of the box.
Is $4,000 too much to spend on a soundbar - even one as awesome as the Creative X-Fi Sonic Carrier? Probably. But is a few grand worth spending to turn your basement or garage into a club / near-cinema-quality home theater? Yeah. It is.