Not long ago, the term Dolby Atmos was used exclusively to refer to an immersive sound experience that you could only get in theaters. But in the last few years, you’ve been much more likely to see the words splashed across the display stickers and boxes of 4K TVs, home theater receivers, soundbars, and streaming services like Netflix and Disney+. It’s even making its way into the streaming music world.
But despite this massive branding effort on home entertainment products, you might still be wondering what Dolby Atmos is, why you should care about it, and what you’ll need to experience it for yourself in the comfort of your home. We’ve got the answers to that and a whole lot more.
There’s a lot of info to absorb here, so we’ve broken it all down below and will continue updating this article as things evolve.
Dolby Atmos in the theater: How is it different?
image courtesy Dolby Labs
In theaters, Dolby Atmos significantly expands the speakers used, as well as the way surround sound is employed, opening up new possibilities for movie-makers to provide a more realistic, immersive sound experience. Before the advent of Dolby Atmos, theaters could only reproduce a maximum of eight individual tracks of surround sound, spread out among varying numbers of speakers.
For example: With the 7.1-channel surround sound still used in most theaters, you get three channels in front (left, right, and center), two side surround channels (left and right), two rear channels (left and right), and one subwoofer channel. When designing a film’s soundtrack, directors are guided by these different channels to steer sound effects around the room. But no matter how many speakers get placed in a certain area — say, the left side of the room for the left surround channel — all of those speakers were restricted to one channel of sound, so they all played the same sound at the same time.
By contrast, Dolby Atmos is capable of processing up to 128 channels of sound, which can be routed to up to 64 individual speakers. This way, sound engineers can essentially leave the usual restrictions of channels behind, instead placing “sound objects” in pinpointed locations and moving them throughout the theater.
With Atmos, the ceiling can also be lined with any number of full-range speakers that work in concert with all of the other speakers in the room so these objects can be placed just about anywhere within a virtual hemisphere. In a way, you can chase the sound with your ears, tracking it and correlating it to the on-screen action. For example, if it rains in the movie, the rain comes from directly above you. If a helicopter flies overhead and to the right, the sound will start in the back of the room, move overhead, and disappear off to the right side.
Of course, for the home theater, Atmos is scaled down considerably.
More than movies: Dolby Atmos Music
A more recent development in the Dolby Atmos ecosystem is Dolby Atmos Music. Atmos Music takes the same immersive multichannel audio format used to create Atmos soundtracks for movies and applies it to the music production process. The result is an entirely new way of listening to music.
If you have a Dolby Atmos-capable A/V receiver, soundbar, or TV, you can access Dolby Atmos Music via the Tidal app on one of these streaming devices: Apple TV 4K, Fire TV Stick 4K, Fire TV Cube, Fire TV Stick (2nd gen), Fire TV (3rd gen), and Nvidia Shield TV or Nvidia Shield TV Pro (2019 or newer models).
You’ll also need a Tidal HiFi subscription, which normally costs $20 per month. Alternatively, you can get Dolby Atmos Music via Amazon Music HD if you own an Amazon Echo Studio smart speaker.
How does Dolby Atmos work at home?
We’ve got some good news: There are now more ways than ever to experience Dolby Atmos at home, and some of them don’t require new speakers or new wiring. In fact, you may already own everything you need for Dolby Atmos.
Discrete Dolby Atmos speakers
To get the most authentic Dolby Atmos experience, you need a conventional 5.1, 7.1, or 9.1 surround sound speaker setup, plus the addition of two or four overhead ceiling-mounted speakers. We describe these speaker setups in greater detail below. It’s the best Dolby Atmos sound you can get, but it’s also the most expensive and the most invasive as it involves considerable re-wiring and probably some drywall holes and repairs. If you don’t mind a bit of ceiling cutting and wire-fishing, we’ve got a great guide to installing Dolby Atmos ceiling speakers.
This option also requires a Dolby Atmos-capable A/V receiver (see below).
Dolby Atmos-enabled speakers
Bill Roberson/Digital Trends
An excellent alternative to wiring up overhead speakers is to buy Dolby Atmos-enabled speakers. These speakers deliver the additional “height” channels by bouncing sound off your ceiling to your viewing position. You can buy Atmos-enabled speakers as combo speakers — front or rear left and right speakers that have integrated Atmos modules on top, like those used in the Pioneer Elite Dolby Atmos speakers, or the more nimble Sib Evo from Focal.
Or, for people who have already invested in a set of surround speakers that they love, you can opt for stand-alone “Atmos modules” that sit atop your existing front or rear left and right speakers, like Klipsch’s R-26FA and R-14SA.
Whichever route you take, you’ll need some additional speaker wires that follow the same path as your existing front and/or rear speakers back to a Dolby Atmos-enabled A/V receiver.
Dolby Atmos-enabled soundbars
This is the perfect option for someone who wants to get the benefit of Dolby Atmos without the hassle of wiring (or re-wiring) an entire room, or for those with smaller spaces. Though each manufacturer tends to take a different approach when reproducing Dolby Atmos sound from a single device, Dolby Atmos-enabled soundbars always include a set of the upward-firing drivers to achieve the same ceiling-reflected height sound as Dolby Atmos-enabled speakers. Some of these soundbars, like Sennheiser’s Ambeo Soundbar, do a spectacular job of recreating the 3D quality Dolby Atmos is known for.
You’ll find a diversity of approaches to the height-channel challenge among soundbars. Vizio’s Elevate soundbar has rotating speakers that automatically angle upward for Atmos content, while JBL’s Bar 9.1 Atmos soundbar uses a set of fully wireless detachable speaker pods to get even closer to the sound of a discrete set of speakers. Even Sonos has gotten in on the Atmos act with its Arc soundbar for fans of the multiroom audio brand.
Even the most impressive soundbar can’t quite match the accuracy of dedicated speakers, but unless you’re surround-sound connoisseur, we doubt you’ll be disappointed. If you want to know more, we have a separate guide featuring all the information you could want on Dolby Atmos soundbars.
Virtualized Dolby Atmos
Simon Cohen / Digital Trends
A recent trend aimed at bringing the cost and complexity of Dolby Atmos down to manageable levels is something called Virtualized Dolby Atmos. This is clever software and audio engineering that lets a Dolby Atmos-enabled A/V receiver mimic the effect of Dolby Atmos but without the use of discrete or Atmos-enabled speakers. The more speakers you have, the more convincing Virtualized Dolby Atmos will sound, but you can even get subtle hints of it with just a two-channel stereo configuration. This is also why some TVs can claim to deliver Dolby Atmos sound through just their modest built-in speakers.
You can also find soundbars that offer this virtual Dolby Atmos sound. These tend to more affordable than their Atmos-enabled counterparts, thanks to fewer speaker drivers, but not always. Bang & Olufsen’s pricey Beosound Stage is actually more expensive than many full 5.1.4 soundbar systems, and yet it reproduces Dolby Atmos sound virtually, with only a 3.1 channel setup.
Make no mistake: Virtualized Dolby Atmos is not going to sound as spectacular as the other options, but if you’re on a tight budget (or you simply refuse to place multiple speakers a