surround sound Tag

My Love/Hate Relationship with Dolby Atmos

My Love/Hate Relationship with Dolby Atmos

I have a friend who turns his nose up at surround sound. Press him on the matter and he’ll demur and hedge his argument, but it’s pretty clear he thinks stereo is where it’s at for movies and music alike.

 

And I think he’s absolutely bonkers.

 

I mention that not to pick on my friend but rather to empathize, because I imagine the face I make at him is the same face our own John Sciacca makes at me when I admit that I just don’t like Dolby Atmos—at least not for movies.

That may seem strange given that I’m on record as lauding the format—with its overhead speakers and innovative use of audio objects instead of channels—when applied to video games. You haven’t really played Overwatch until you’ve heard Pharah scream, “Justice rains from above!” from above your actual head.

The weird thing is, I love Atmos with gaming and generally hate it with movies for pretty much exactly the same reasons. And to understand why, you’re going to have to do a little homework.

 

Take a lawn chair out onto your front yard and sit in it with your back to the street. Your neighbors may give you strange looks, but this is for science. Just run with it.

 

Now pull out a book and start to read. At some point, a car might drive by behind you. If the book is decent enough, chances are you won’t even notice, unless you live on a street so remote that passing traffic is an oddity.

 

Keep on reading until a plane or helicopter passes overhead. Your concentration immediately broke, didn’t it? OK, maybe not if you live near an airport or airbase, and planes flying overhead are a regular occurrence. But for most of you, I’m sure, if something flies over your head, you’re gonna drop your book and look upward.

For me, Atmos is a lot like that. It triggers something in my primate brain. A fight-or-flight mechanism, if you will. I’m reminded of vervet monkeys, who have different words in their rather complex vocabulary for “python” and “eagle.” If a monkey shouts “python,” nearby members of its tribe scan their surroundings. If the cry is “eagle,” on the other hand, the other monkeys drop what they’re doing and run for the nearest hidey hole.

And Atmos generally does that to me. There’s just no denying that sound coming from overhead is hardwired into our brains as something we must focus on. And in a video game, that can be critically important. These virtual worlds often contain threats coming from every direction. Hearing that a baddy is attacking you from overhead can be the difference between virtual life and death.

 

But unlike video games, movies aren’t sandboxes. Our focus is on a rectangle of space right in front of us. Someone else gets to decide where our eyes turn. It’s an inherently horizontal experience. Surround sound coming from the sides and behind doesn’t violate that experience. Sounds coming from overhead do. As with our daily lives, anything that happens outside of that horizontal plane is somehow distinct, different, disconnected.

 

And that can actually be kinda cool with movies like Ready Player One or others that live or die purely on audiovisual spectacle. Heck, it’s even great with movies like The Last Jedi, where the overhead sound effects generally work to add ambiance and a sense of space, not vertical sensationalism.

 

But such mixes are few and far between. For the most part, Atmos serves only to distract from the narrative experience for me. And just to be clear, I’m not saying John or anyone else is wrong for liking that effect. I’m merely rebelling here against the increasingly pervasive notion that if you don’t have an Atmos-capable sound system by now, you’re somehow doing home cinema wrong. Try to seek out an Atmos demo before you decide if this “immersive” audio technology is right for you. And if it’s not—if tried-and-true surround sound does the trick—don’t feel like you’re selling your movie-watching experience short. I mean, as long as you’re not just watching movies in stereo . . .

Dennis Burger

Dennis Burger is an avid Star Wars scholar, Tolkien fanatic, and Corvette enthusiast
who somehow also manages to find time for technological passions including high-
end audio, home automation, and video gaming. He lives in the armpit of 
Alabama with
his wife Bethany and their four-legged child Bruno, a 75-pound 
American Staffordshire
Terrier who thinks he’s a Pomeranian.

Why You Have to Have Dolby Atmos

Imagine watching a movie where sound travels around the room with pinpoint accuracy, helping you follow a character as they move around or enhancing the sensation of bullets whizzing past your head, planes streaking through the room, or helicopters hovering directly over your head! That is the promise of Dolby Atmos, which delivers the most realistic and immersive surround sound experience ever.

 

In my opinion, Dolby Atmos is the most exciting development to hit the home market in years and has an even greater impact on the movie/TV-watching experience than 4K HDR video. In fact, when forced to choose between watching a movie in 4K HDR without Atmos or 1080p Blu-ray with Atmos, I go the Atmos route every time. I’ve given dozens of demonstrations both in my showroom and in my home, and after experiencing a properly set up and configured Atmos system, no one has preferred the older, 5.1-channel sound. Atmos is a must have for a luxury installation.

 

Dolby Laboratories launched Atmos commercially in 2012 with Pixar’s Brave, and hundreds of films have been mixed with it since then. (Click here for a complete list.) It is now supported by every major movie studio, and the number of movies, concerts, and even video games with Atmos soundtracks is growing all the time. Atmos content is available on Blu-ray and Ultra HD Blu-ray discs, titles

downloaded from the Kaleidescape Movie Store, and from streaming services like Vudu, Netflix, Amazon, and iTunes.

 

How do you get it?

 

Experiencing Dolby Atmos in your entertainment space requires three basic things: An Atmos-compatible media player, an Atmos-compatible receiver or processor, and a speaker system that can handle however many channels you and your integrator decide to go with.

 

Compatible players include any Blu-ray or Ultra Blu-ray player, including Xbox One. Many streaming players support Atmos, including Roku, Amazon’s Fire TV Stick, and the new Apple 4K TV. Receivers and processors are available from companies like Marantz, Yamaha, Anthem, Denon, Sony, Onkyo, Pioneer, and Integra.

 

What kinds of speakers do I need?

 

Dolby Atmos systems can support far more speakers than the 5.1 of Dolby Digital—up to 64 in commercial movie

WHAT MAKES ATMOS DIFFERENT?

 

Atmos is the latest in a long line of Dolby surround technologies dating back to the ‘70s. But, unlike previous versions, which were all channel-based (that is, the specific number of speakers the audio was mixed for in the studio), Atmos uses an entirely new process called “sound objects.”

 

Audio used to be mixed with a fixed number of speakers, up to 7.1 channels (front left, center, and right, surround right, surround back right, surround back left, surround left, plus a .1 channel reserved for low-frequency effects such as explosions). With Atmos, audio designers are no longer limited to a fixed speaker layout but have up to 128 sound objects they can move anywhere around the room, allowing sounds to be more precisely located.

 

These objects also have size and weight. Thus, a massive starship hovering overhead has a different feel—and plays out of more speakers—than, say, a bouncing tennis ball. All 128 of the audio objects from the original theatrical mix are retained and represented in the home release.

 

To precisely locate objects around the room, Atmos installations support far more discreet speaker channels, including multiple height speakers placed above listeners to create sounds that truly come from overhead. In fact, theatrical installations can have up to 64 speakers. Obviously, that is more speakers than home installations can support (Dolby Atmos for home cinema only supports up to 34 speakers), so Atmos uses something called a channel renderer to create a custom mix on the fly to remap audio objects to whichever speaker configuration is being used, meaning that nothing is lost between the theatrical and home audio mix.

theaters. One of the most significant changes with Atmos is the creation of two distinct speaker layers, with a bed of speakers at ear level and a second height layer that places sounds distinctly overhead. (See “What Makes Atmos Different?” above.)

The most common entry point for enjoying Atmos at home is a 5.1.2 speaker configuration. (In plain English, that means there are five speakers at ear or floor level, one subwoofer, and two speakers above ear level, for the height channels.) Most luxury installations use a 7.1.4 configuration (shown below). This provides a very immersive experience, with full 360-degree audio 

Why You Have to Have Dolby Atmos

pans around the listener as well as good hemispherical coverage overhead.

 

For an even more engaging experience, companies like Marantz, Denon, Acurus, Storm Audio, and Datasat have receivers and processors that support more than 7.1.4 channels. And for a truly premium home experience, companies like Trinnov and JBL offer processors that can support the current maximum up to 24.1.10.

(While there are Dolby Atmos soundbars that do a fair job of creating an immersive audio experience, these would never be appropriate in a luxury installation, so I won’t be covering them here.)

 

Do I need speakers in my ceiling?

 

Yes. And no. (But mostly YES!) Having sounds all around the listener, including overhead, is key to creating a realistic, fully immersive sound environment, and locating speakers in the ceiling is the best way to help accomplish this. 

 

Fortunately, nearly any traditional, quality in-ceiling speaker is compatible with Atmos. (Dolby recommends using speakers with a wide dispersion pattern—that is, one that sends out sound more like a shotgun blast than a rifle bullet.) So choosing a model from the same manufacturer as your front speakers typically offers the best sonic match.

But if you can’t place speakers above you—due to a coffered ceiling or an open-beam design or difficulties running wire to the speaker locations—companies like Definitive Technology, Sony, Onkyo, Pioneer, Klipsch, and KEF offer floor-standing Atmos speakers with modules (shown at right) that can create an overhead speaker effect.

 

These angled modules sit atop the front and rear left and right main speakers, firing sound upward, where it’s reflected off the ceiling and bounced back down to listeners. While these can be great problem solvers, the audio effect of these upfiring modules is impacted by room design—ceiling composition, angle, and height, and seating distance—making it harder to predict performance compared to a true overhead speaker installation.

Why You Have to Have Dolby Atmos

Dolby Atmos is a now a proven technology, widely adopted in both movie theaters and at home, and is almost always included as part of a modern luxury installation. If you’ve been looking to elevate your home audio experience to the next level, Dolby Atmos is a terrific place to start!

John Sciacca

Probably the most experienced writer on custom installation in the industry, John Sciacca is
co-owner of Custom Theater & Audio in Murrells Inlet, South Carolina, & is known for his writing
for such publications as
 Residential Systems and Sound & Vision. Follow him on Twitter at

@SciaccaTweets and at johnsciacca.com.