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What is Dolby Atmos? (And does your home theater need it?)

What is Dolby Atmos
(Image credit: Getty Images)

If you want to know what is Dolby Atmos, the likelihood is that you're already curious about getting the best audio setup you possibly can for your headphones and speakers. Essentially, Dolby Atmos is a ground-breaking 3D sound platform that can bring panoramic sound to audio devices, making your listening experience more immersive. 

When used in conjunction with the best Blu-Ray players (opens in new tab) and the best soundbars (opens in new tab), Dolby Atmos is able to simulate a fully 3D audio environment. This means that dynamic sound can reach your ears from all around you, including from above. Whether you're listening to audio from movies, games or music, this means that you're having an enhanced experience with much more detail than would have previously been possible. 

This is just a small insight into what Dolby Atmos is, but we've explored how the system works and whether it's worth investing in below. 

What is Dolby Atmos? 

You might be interested to know that Dolby Atmos isn't actually a new technology. In fact, it was debuted in 2012 with the release of the Pixar movie Brave. It was immediately noted for its ability to create rich soundscapes that drew viewers deeper into the cinematic experience. 

Within a few years, Dolby Atmos technology was made available to home theater setups. This disrupted to traditional speaker setup of stereo, 5.1 and 7.1, as new height channels that recreated sounds on the vertical plane were added. This meant that sounds weren't just created at ear-level, they could be transmitted at various different heights for a more immersive experience. 

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 aren't tethered to fixed points within an environment. Instead, they can move around the space according to the relevant action on screen. For example, if you're watching a movie scene with a helicopter flying, ordinary 5.1 or 7.1 setups would mean that the aircraft could be heard flying from behind you, past you and in front of you. 

What is Dolby Atmos?

Dolby Atmos can significantly improve your home theater experience, providing cinema-quality audio in your living room.  (Image credit: Getty Images)

However, Dolby Atmos means that 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. This means that you could hear the helicopter hovering directly above you.

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 such as the Onkyo TX-SR494 AV Receiver (opens in new tab) or the Sony STRDH590 5.2 Channel Surround Sound Home Theater Receiver (opens in new tab) 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 such as the Sony SSCSE Dolby Atmos Enabled Speakers (opens in new tab) 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.

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