What is Dolby Atmos? Everything You Need to Know

A decade ago, Dolby Atmos was an up-and-coming technology. It was hailed as the evolution of cinema sound and introduced 3D immersion in a world where stereo reigned supreme.

Then, the technology jumped off the silver screen into households and onto mobile devices via streaming. It’s now available across TVs, cinemas, smartphones, soundbars and headphones.

But what exactly is Dolby Atmos? How does it work? Where can you get it? And is it the future of immersive sound? 

We have the scoop on everything you need to know about this innovative sound technology.

What is Dolby Atmos?

Dolby Atmos expands 5.1 and 7.1 setups to include speakers that are positioned in a room to create an all-enveloping, 3D audio experience.

In a cinema setting, you can place up to 64 speakers above, in front and around you. This setup adds a height dimension to sound and creates a hemisphere of speakers that lets filmmakers and sound designers direct specific sounds to particular locations..

The essential element to know about with Atmos is the concept of audio objects.

Historically, sounds were sent via specific channels. Portions of the sound were directed to particular speakers.

With Dolby Atmos, sound designers don’t have to route sound to a specific channel.

Instead, Atmos allows designers to specify the origin of a particular sound and where it moves to. Meanwhile, the Atmos system intercepts that data and plays it back in a virtual 3D space.

The result is audio that seems to come from within the room you’re sitting in. You can hear raindrops falling around you, and helicopters sound like they’re flying above you.  

Atmos uses ambient, static sounds that don’t need to be directed to a specific placement.

This technology supports up to 128 audio channels. Ten of these are used for the base layer, while the remaining 188 channels go to audio objects.

Leveraging object-based sound also enables the scaling of sounds across several formats.

The best way to render a Dolby Atmos soundscape is to use a 64-speaker setup. That said, less elaborate speakers can deliver a similar experience.

With Atmos, the number of speakers doesn’t really matter. Instead, the principle of audio objects and the reproduction across multiple systems is key.

So, whether you’re listening to a 64-speaker setup in a cinema or seven speakers at home, you can enjoy accurate, immersive sounds. 

Where is Dolby Atmos Used?

You need three things to experience Atmos.

These include:

  • Content with a Dolby Atmos soundtrack
  • A device that supports that connect
  • An audio system capable of reproducing Atmos audio

If you have these three things, you can enjoy Dolby Atmos in the following scenarios.

Content

Over the years, Dolby Atmos has infiltrated the film industry. Movies like Avengers, Roma, Dune and Mad Max were produced using this technology.

In turn, this has led to the emergence of theaters that support Atmos. Over six thousand movie theaters around the world support Atmos.

Dolby Atmos titles are even available on leading streaming services. These include Netflix, Amazon Prime and Disney Plus.

Popular Atmos titles on Netflix include The Dig and Army of the Dead. Amazon Prime Video includes the Jack Ryan TV series, while Disney Plus offers Star Wars.

In addition, most Apple Originals support Atmos, making the Apple TV store one of the best places to buy or rent or buy Atmos titles.

Furthermore, you can get Dolby Atmos content on sports broadcasts. Also, several Xbox and PC titles like Horizon 4, Battlefield 1, Gear 5x and Call of Duty support Atmos for gaming.

Mobile

To experience Dolby Atmos on mobile, you must connect your device to headphones.

Doing this allows Atmos to function through object-based rendering and binaural headphone rendering.

The two technologies work as follows:

  • Object-Based Audio: Each sound has information that tells it where it should be placed in the speaker configuration. 
  • Binary Headphone Rendering: Uses heat-related transfer functions (HRTFs) to create surround sound through headphones. 

Dolby merges these two technologies to deliver a virtual, enveloping sound experience on mobile. 

Some of the mobile devices that support Dolby Atmos include:

  • Amazon Kindle Fire HDX 8.9
  • Amazon Fire HD 10
  • OnePlus 8T and 8 Pro
  • Sony Xperia OnePlus 7 Pro, 5 II and 8 Pro 
  • iPhone 11, 11 Pro, 11 Pro Max, 12 , 13 and 13 Pro Max
  • Samsung Galaxy S21, S20, S10+, S10 and Note 9 
  • Huawei P20, P30 and P20 Pro 

You can also get Dolby Atmos on:

  • JVC XP-EXT1 headphones
  • Xbox Wireless Headsets

Furthermore, Apple Music’s new Spatial Audio allows you to listen to Atmos content with any headphones

Music

Atmos isn’t for film enthusiasts. It is also available for the music industry.

Dolby Atmos Music pretty much does the same thing as Atmos does for cinema. It delivers music in a 3D soundscape.

Currently, Amazon Music, Tidal and Apple Music offer the most extensive collection of Dolby Atmos Music.

Is Dolby Atmos Expensive?

How much you’ll spend for Dolby Atmos primarily depends on your devices.

Headphones and mobile devices supporting the technology aren’t as expensive. However, Atmos-enabled speakers and TVs have a hefty price tag.

Most Dolby Atmos soundbars from Bose and Sonos, for instance, cost around $900. High-end options cost more than that.

Dolby Atmos gadgets are expensive for two reasons:

  • Licensing for the Atmos certification is costly
  • Atmos requires more speakers to receive immersive sound technology

Over the last few years, Dolby has made efforts to make Atmos compatible with as many products as possible. It wants to make the technology as popular as Stereo sounds, which means it aims to be a lot less expensive. 

How to Get Dolby Atmos in Your Home

Dolby and home theater brands have stepped up to introduce more products that support Atmos.

Soundbars, for instance, are becoming increasingly compatible with Atmos film soundtracks. Some now include upward-firing speakers designed to direct sound toward the ceiling.

Other soundbars reproduce the Atmos effect virtually using digital processing.

If you have a surround speaker setup in your home, the best way to experience immersive audio is to add up-firing speakers. These Atmos-enabled speakers rebound sound off the ceiling to deliver the same effect as overhead speakers.

The beauty of this is that you won’t have to drill holes in your ceiling thanks to Atmos height virtualization.

You’ll also need an AV receiver that can decode Atmos files so that you can experience Atmos from a surround speaker setup. Fortunately, many AV receivers support Dolby Atmos.

While you won’t recreate the full 64-speaker theater setup with these AV receivers, you can still enjoy Atmos in your space.

Most home Atmos AV receivers can reproduce 128 audio objects with as few as seven speakers. Plus, if you want to go all out, you can opt for an AV receiver that supports up to 34 speakers.

Would you prefer not to add up-firing speakers to your existing setup? If so, you can opt for speaker modules to transform your current setup into an Atom-enabled system.

You’ll only need to place the modules on top of your existing speaker to add the overhead functionality.

Additionally, you can mount the actual overhead speakers on your ceiling.

Keep in mind that two overhead speakers will deliver a powerful and satisfying effect. However, four speakers will give you the best sound quality.

Dolby states that for the best Atmos experience, you shouldn’t use more than 12 speakers.

Compatible Devices

Fortunately, most devices with an HDMI connection are Atmos compatible.

Speakers

For starters, there are different types of Dolby Atmos speakers. These include reflective, up-firing or add-on speakers and ceiling-mounted, down-firing speakers.

Some of the most sought-after Dolby Atmos speakers include:

  • Elac Debut 2.0 A4.2
  • Sony SSCSE
  • Pioneer SP-T22A-LR
  • NHT Atmos Mini
  • Klipsch RP-140SA
  • Onkyo SKH-410

Soundbars

Atmos-enabled soundbars offer a more affordable way of experiencing this technology in your home.

Some of the best Dolby Atmos soundbars include:

  • Sonos Beam Gen 2
  • Sonos Arc
  • Bluesound Pulse Soundbar+
  • Sony HT-A7000
  • Sennheiser Ambeo Soundbar
  • Sony HT-A9 speaker system

TVs and Media Players

For the best Atmos experience with your television, you’ll need to direct the sound output to an AV receiver or soundbar.

To do this, you’ll need an HDMI ARC connection and Dolby Digital Plus audio support.

Most newer TVs will work perfectly, but any model before 2018 may have problems.

Top-rated Dolby Atmos TVs include:

  • LG CX
  • Vizio V-Series
  • Vizio OLED
  • LG GX
  • Sony X950G

The best Dolby Atmos-enabled streaming media players include:

  • Apple TV 4K 32GB (2nd Generation)
  • NVIDIA – SHIELD Android TV Pro – 16GB
  • Chromecast with Google TV – 4K
  • Roku Ultra 2022 4K/HDR/Dolby Vision streaming Device
  • Sony – UBP-X700/M streaming player

Height Virtualization

Virtualization, at its core, means the act of creating a virtual version of something.

With this technology, it refers to the ability to create a virtual Atmos experience with standard, non-Atmos enabled hardware.

Dolby Atmos height virtualization is an innovative technology. It uses digital signal processing to create the feeling of overhead sound in speakers at a listener’s height.

The technology uses state-of-the-art height cue filters. These simulate the natural spectral information a listener’s ears receive from audio coming from over.

For this reason, you don’t have to mount Atmos-enabled speakers on your ceiling.

Atmos height virtualization supports several configurations. For instance, the technology allows you to use two to seven listen-level channels to create the sensation of two or four overhead speakers.

Height virtualization makes it possible to experience Atmos without burning through your wallet for high-end soundbars and Atmos-enabled speakers.

Summary

The future of home audio is immersive, and Dolby Atmos is opening up new possibilities for sound designers to create a more realistic audio experience.

In addition, Atmos height virtualization technology is making Atmos more affordable.

All you need to do is get the right gear to experience immersive sound as you have never before.