video game 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.

Gaming Is Way Better With Atmos

It’s 1989 and I’m helping my dad buy a new TV, because even at a young age I was that kid. The kid who knew things about technology. (Granted, that reputation was pretty hard-won after an incident at age seven when I dismantled the backside our then-new 25-inch solid-state Zenith console TV, fresh off the truck, and exclaimed that the delivery guy was ripping us off because the set was missing all of its vacuum tubesbut that’s a story for another day.)


Anyway, back to 1989. Pop and I are standing in our city’s brand-spanking-new Circuit City, right in front all of the Sonys and JVCs and Sylvanias, barking at each other like a couple of rabid mutts. The source of the conflict? I needed—needed, I tell you—a stereo TV. The old man just didn’t see the point.


“My Sega Genesis, though! I can route audio out of the headphone jack and into a splitter, and actually play video games with stereo sound!”


Long story short, I lost that fight. But it was the beginning of a complicated lifelong relationship between me, video games, and nascent AV sound formats. (Because, yes, in 1989, video + stereo audio at home was pretty cutting edge.)


When I acquired my first surround sound receiver (ProLogic, baby!), it was my PlayStation that drove the decision, not my Laserdisc player. On the other hand, after upgrading my sound system to support Dolby Digital and DTS DVDs, it felt like a long and torturous wait for video games to finally catch up with the times. ProLogic II’s stereo-to-surround-sound conversion capabilities had to suffice for a while.


Fast-forward to present day, and I find myself in a squabble just as fierce as the one I had with my dad back in 1989, and for very similar reasons. But the struggle is entirely internal. The audio innovation in question this time around? The new object-based sound formats, Dolby Atmos and DTS:X, which add overhead surround sound effects to the audio coming from in front of and behind your head.


I’ve reviewed any number of Atmos-equipped receivers and speaker systems for other publications. And I’ve always found the effect neat enough for movies and music. Enough so to get me to actually upgrade my reference home theater system permanently, though? Ehhhh, not so much.

Atmos video games

Video games, though? Now we’re talking! There’s nothing in the realm of cinematic audio that can quite compete with playing Overwatch, for example, and hearing Parah’s battle cry from above—actually being able to pinpoint her location as she drops rockets in the direction of your noggin. Just as effective is the Atmos mix for Star Wars Battlefront, in which the truly three-dimensional soundscape gives you an edge in locating the drop pods that rocket toward the planet from outer space with fresh supplies.


Sadly, for now, these experiences are all too rare. Until recently, video games with Atmos sound were pretty much limited to the aforementioned titles, along with Battlefield 1, and only on the PC. Seriously, though, how many of us have home theater sound systems attached to our PCs?


Thankfully, Xbox One recently joined in on the Atmos action with the release of Crackdown 3 and Gears of War 4. Sony, meanwhile, seems to be taking a wait-and-see (or I should say wait-and-hear?) approach to this most expansive of audio innovations with its PlayStation 4 console. As such, for now, so am I. But you can rest assured that as soon as the gaming industry as a whole finally embraces the first and only sound format to fully flaunt its immersive superiority over movie sound mixes, I’ll but cutting holes in my ceiling and snaking wires through the walls faster than you can scream, “Justice RAINS from above!”

—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.

My Video Game Sound Beats Your Movie Sound

video game sound

Most of my video gaming friends have media-room entertainment systems (many of them cobbled together from hand-me-down gear they’ve mooched off me over the years). But, as I alluded to in my previous post, most of them view gaming and home theater as two distinctly different forms of entertainment. In fact, more often than not their gaming consoles (if they have them) are relegated to some out-of-the-way room in the house, far from the big TVs and surround sound speaker systems. And most of them experience their gaming audio by way of truly awful-sounding stereo headsets.


Which makes the complete and utter opposite of sense, especially when you consider that most video games these days boast Hollywood-caliber surround soundtracks that easily keep pace with the best UHD Blu-rays. In fact, although movies still (and probably always will) outpace video games in the realm of visuals, I’d go so far as to say that in terms of the sonic experience, few movies can come close to matching the sheer visceral immersion of modern video game audio landscapes.

After all, movie soundtracks, dynamic as they may be, lock you into a passive listening experience and limit your point of view. They make you a spectator at best. But video game sound mixes follow you around as you explore strange new worlds and live through harrowing new experiences, while still delivering the richness, impact, and artistry of professional Hollywood sound mixes. That waterfall you hear trickling down to the side of your living room wall? Chances are good you can turn and run toward it. The click of a reloading gun behind your head? You can probably dodge it if you’re quick enough. Simply put, video games don’t merely pump the action in the general direction of your ears—they drop you right in the middle of the mix and drag it along with you.


So, if you want to get the most from your sophisticated surround sound system, put down the remote control for the evening and pick up a game controller.  And, hey—if it’s a PS4 controller in your hands, look me up. I go by Waryyhn on the PlayStation Network, and I could seriously use some new racing compadres.

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.