Dolby's Atmos technology will bring another layer of surround sound to your home

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When we go to the movies these days, we’re expecting to be enveloped in 360 degrees of exciting sound. But we also expect to blow $10 on popcorn, so maybe it’s time we got that same audio experience at home. Dolby wants to make it happen.

In 2012, Dolby added a new level of immersive audio at the multiplex with its Atmos technology. Atmos allows filmmakers to place sounds in very specific places around and even above you. Now the San Francisco-based company is ready to put Atmos in your home theater, provided you’re willing to pay the price.

Over the next few months, Denon, Marantz, Onkyo, Pioneer, and other companies will start selling Atmos-enabled home theater receivers, as well as the special speakers needed for over-your-head audio. Soon after that, Atmos capabilities will start appearing in smartphones and tablets, offering a complete aural environment over your headphones.

Atmos explained

Conventional 5.1 and 7.1 audio systems define location through tracks. If the sound mixer put a dog’s bark in right-front track, you’ll hear it through the right-front speaker. A cat’s meow on the left-surround track of a 5.1 mix will play through the left surround speaker. In a multiplex, it will play in all of the left-surround speakers.

Atmos takes a very different, object-oriented approach. Each sound has metadata defining its direction. At least in theory, the creative people mixing the sound don’t have to worry about speaker placement. That job belongs to the Atmos processor in the theater. That processor knows where the speakers are and decides where to send each sound. It uses standard stereo panning techniques to create the illusion of a sound coming from a spot between two speakers.

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Atmos technology made the sound in Gravity extra immersive—if you saw it in an Atmos-equipped theater, of course.

Filmmakers love it: Gravity director Alfonso Cuarón calls Atmos a “dream come true” in this YouTube video. Starting with Pixar’s Brave in 2012, more than 150 films have now been released with Atmos mixes. But few theaters have upgraded to Atmos. According to Dolby’s own Movie Theater Locator, only nine San Francisco Bay Area multiplexes currently have Atmos audio.

The cost of more-immersive audio

Will home installations come quicker? We won’t really know the cost of Dolby Atmos until products go on sale. But a Dolby spokesperson estimated that low-end Atmos systems will cost as little as $1,000.

The minimum home Atmos system will require what Dolby is calling a 5.1.2 configuration. That’s five directional speakers, one subwoofer, and two ceiling speakers. If you already have 5.1 sound, all you need to add are two ceiling speakers and a receiver with an Atmos processor.

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A 5.1.2 Atmos system includes two speakers mounted to the ceiling.

Of course, you may want more. Dolby’s recommended home setup is 7.1.4. That’s a standard 7.1 layout with four ceiling speakers. The home version of Atmos can support a 24.1.10 configuration, which seems more than a little excessive.

True ceiling speakers won’t come cheap. Hanging speakers on your ceiling, making sure they’re secure, and running the wires through your walls takes time and skill. So Dolby has designed a cheaper alternative: virtual ceiling speakers called Atmos enabled speakers. These fire upward and bounce their sound off the ceiling.

Believing your ears

I heard both real ceiling-mounted speakers and virtual ones at a Dolby press demonstration. The real, overhead speakers provided the best overhead sound, but the Atmos-enabled virtual ceiling speakers still impressed me. The sound really did seem to come from above.

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In this 5.1.4 Atmos setup, four "virtual" ceiling speakers fire sound upward to bounce it off the ceiling.

But I can’t promise that the effect will be as impressive in your home. These speakers were expensive prototypes built by Dolby, and they were played in a mock home theater room at Dolby’s lab. I have to assume that this room had fantastic acoustics, and a ceiling designed for bouncing sound waves. Of course, that’s the problem with vendor-controlled demonstrations. You get an ideal experience, not a real-world one.

In every way possible, that ideal version of Atmos for the home sounded incredible, with full, enveloping, surround sound. It was easily the best home theater audio I’d ever heard. I suspect that still would have been true if they had turned off Atmos and played a conventional 5.1 or 7.1 mix—but that wouldn’t have pinpointed the sounds so accurately, or had some of them playing over my head.

The home theater you can take with you

In addition to the home market, Dolby plans to bring Atmos to tablets and smartphones, with immersive audio re-created through your headphones.

akg k702 reference headphones

I previewed mobile Atmos in a pair of studio reference headphones, but it's designed to work with any stereo headphones.

A great many subconscious cues—such as the lag time between when a sound hits one ear and then the other—tell our brains where that sound came from. The mobile Atmos re-creates these cues. Any stereo headphones will do.

I heard the effect at the press demonstration, which was equipped with what I believe were AKG K702 reference studio headphones. I was very impressed with the sounds in front of me, beside me, and behind me. But the overhead sounds were far less impressive, sounding as if they were coming from only slightly above everything else.

Atmos will likely come to tablets and smartphones both in apps and built into the hardware (Dolby didn’t discuss partners). The hardware-based processor will probably produce better sound, but an app will let you experience Atmos before your next phone upgrade.

But what about content?

Atmos hardware in the home or on the road will be worthless without Atmos-mixed content. Dolby promises that Atmos Blu-ray discs will appear in the near future. Any player that properly conforms to the Blu-ray specs should be able to play an Atmos soundtrack, provided you set your player properly.

The soundtrack will be backward compatible. Play it on a conventional system, and both the player and the receiver will see it as a normal 5.1 mix. A Dolby spokesperson promised that the company is working with Netflix and other major streaming services on bringing Atmos to the Internet.

If the content becomes common, wealthy home theater enthusiasts will likely jump on the Atmos bandwagon. The rest of us will probably wait and see about quality and price issues. At best, there will be a steady drip towards Atmos ubiquity—at least until something better comes along.

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