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What is Dolby Atmos and does your Home Theater need it?

What is Dolby Atmos? Read our article to find out.
(Image credit: Dolby Digital.)

You’re probably aware of surround sound systems, but what is Dolby Atmos? Could it make your home theater sound setup even more immersive? 

That’s what Dolby claims its ground-breaking 3D sound platform can bring to your living room, but the technology can go further than that. It brings incredible panoramic sound to a host of audio devices, including headphones and earbuds.

Dolby Atmos, when implemented with the best blu-ray players and the best soundbars, can simulate a fully 3D audio environment, with dynamic sound reaching your ears from all around you, including above. That can elevate movies, music and games to unprecedented levels of immersion, enveloping you with rich, detailed audio. 

But how does it work, and is it worth investing in? This article will take a closer look at this remarkable technology.

What is Dolby Atmos? 

If you’ve been to a modern cinema multiplex within the last few years, chances are you’ve experienced Dolby Atmos already. The audio giant debuted its technology in 2012, with the release of Pixar’s movie Brave. Dolby Atmos blew audiences away with its ability to create amazingly rich soundscapes that moved seamlessly with the action on the big screen, pulling viewers deeper into the cinematic experience than ever before.

Within a few years, it was made available to home theater setups and upended the traditional speaker setup of stereo, 5.1 and 7.1 with the addition of height channels that recreated sounds on the vertical plane, not just those at ear-level.

How does Dolby Atmos work? 

The vital addition of height channels differentiates a Dolby Atmos home setup from a standard 5.1 or 7.1 surround sound system. To reproduce truly accurate surround sound, Dolby Atmos treats individual sounds as ‘objects’. These audio objects are untethered to fixed points within an environment and can instead move around the space according to the relevant action on screen. If you take the example of a helicopter flying during a scene in a movie, with previous 5.1 or 7.1 setups the aircraft might be heard flying from behind you, past you and in front of you. With Dolby Atmos, however, the helicopter – or rather the audio object that carries the sound of the helicopter – can rise or fall according to the relative height of the aircraft in relation to you and the Atmos AV receiver.

Dolby Atmos gives sound engineers in games, movies and other forms of entertainment incredible freedom to dedicate audio channels to specific objects that can be choreographed within a scene. Distant birdsong and conversations in a crowd, planes flying overhead, and explosions in action-packed sequences… With Dolby Atmos, all such individual elements can be manipulated to build the most immersive, detailed soundscapes.

How to use Dolby Atmos at home 

Now you know what Dolby Atmos is, you’re probably wondering how you can enjoy this audio experience at home. Well the good news is, if you have an existing 5.1 or 7.1 (or more) surround sound system, you can modify your setup to be Dolby Atmos-enabled with just a few additions.

The most important piece of equipment is a Dolby Atmos-enabled audio-visual receiver (AVR.) With a little configuration, this device will detect how many speakers you have and use an Object Audio Renderer to relay audio objects through the most appropriate speaker.

Like a lot of home theater equipment, Dolby Atmos-enabled AVRs aren’t cheap, but you can pick up good models like the Onkyo TX-SR494 AV Receiver or the Sony STRDH590 5.2 Channel Surround Sound Home Theater Receiver for about $350.

The next pieces of equipment you’ll need to really get the most out of Dolby Atmos are upward-firing speakers. These speakers ‘bounce’ soundwaves off the ceiling to accurately represent sounds above the listener. Dolby recommends two of these upward-firing speakers in front and two behind the listener. Models like the Sony SSCSE Dolby Atmos Enabled Speakers cost about $230.

Some of the best soundbars such as the Samsung HW-Q90R are now Dolby Atmos-enabled too, enriching the experience further from wherever you’ve placed it.

It may require some investment to experience Dolby Atmos at home for yourself, but if having the best audio is important to you, then it provides arguably the most thrilling and authentic audio experience available right now.

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Rich Lee is Tech Editor at Top Ten Reviews and writes about all forms of consumer technology, especially products that make domestic life easier and more fun. When he's not pouring over current affairs, pop culture and the latest developments in tech in his free time, Rich is probably pouring his seventh coffee of the day and pondering where to go out for dinner.