Dolby Atmos Explained: What It Is, How It Works and Where to Get It

Think of it as 4K for your ears. Dolby Atmos takes surround sound to the next level by delivering a true 3D audio experience. Available in soundbars, game consoles, TVs, as well as smaller devices like laptops, phones and headphones, Dolby Atmos is becoming a must-have feature for audiophiles.

Credit: DolbyCredit: DolbyBut how does Dolby Atmos work? Where can you buy it? And what kind of content supports this technology? This FAQ will answer all your questions.

What is Dolby Atmos?

In a nutshell, Dolby Atmos is a proprietary audio format that's designed to bring that same immersive, 360-degree sound that you get in a movie theater to your living room or mobile device. Utilizing Atmos, content creators like sound mixers, cinematographers and broadcasters can place specific sounds precisely in the soundscape, so you can hear the action as it was intended.

That means that Atmos technology can realistically reproduce the sound of something as big an explosion or as small as a bee flying from flower to flower, making it sound spatially accurate. You can even hear sounds that are coming from overhead. Dolby Atmos essentially fools the brain into thinking it's right in the middle of the scene.

How does it work?

Dolby Atmos is all about the detail. In order to achieve that realistic sound, the technology uses a 9.1-bed channel (which consists of stationary sounds like background sound and music), 128 tracks and up to 118 simultaneous sound objects to create an immersive sound stage.

Credit: DolbyCredit: DolbyA sound object can be anything from the sound of footsteps or a basketball bouncing and has a specific position in a scene. Atmos lets content creators place those sounds in an exact location and set any movement (think of someone running away from you down a hallway) in a 3Dl space.

Credit: DolbyCredit: DolbyOnce all that fancy mixing is completed, Atmos can bring theater-quality audio to your living room — provided you have Dolby Atmos-compatible equipment, such as a pair of headphones, a soundbar or a home-theater system with an audio/video receiver.

The Atmos-optimized tech analyzes all the audio data, and based on the number speakers you have and their placement, it determines optimal playback in real time. That means that when an airplane flies overhead in your favorite movie, it will sound like there's an actual plane moving above you. The more speakers you have, the better the audio positioning as well as detail and overall audio richness and depth.

How is Atmos different than surround sound?

The biggest difference between Dolby Atmos and traditional surround sound is the use of channels. Audio over conventional surround sound is confined to 5.1 (five speakers, one subwoofer) or 7.1 (seven speakers, one subwoofer) channels. In this kind of setup, you can hear a helicopter moving from right to left or vice versa, but the system can't reproduce the sound of something flying above you. The lack of positional freedom takes away from the overall immersion factor.

Credit: DolbyCredit: DolbyDolby Atmos ditches the channels and assigns the sound objects to a place. That means that if a sound occurs in the top right corner of the room, the audio will have spatial accuracy instead of being relegated to the right speaker. And because Atmos-compatible speakers have integrated upward-firing drivers, you have the added benefit of height. This is achieved by bouncing the sound off of your ceiling to replicate exorbitantly expensive, ceiling-mounted height speakers. It's not going to be as powerful as an actual height speaker, but it's better than nothing.

I recently experienced the power of some up-firing speakers via the Atmos-compatible Sennheiser 3D Ambeo speaker at CES 2018. For such a relatively unassuming piece of tech, the soundbar delivered an impressive 3D audio experience.

What devices support Dolby Atmos?

Dolby has partnered with dozens of manufacturers to integrate Atmos into a range of products, including televisions, smartphones, laptops and even video games. Since this is a growing category, some products, like laptops and smartphones, have a few entries, while others, like AVRs, include over 100 products to choose from.

While Plantronics offers several Dolby Atmos-enabled gaming headsets, you can get Dolby Atmos effects in just about any headphones — if you use the Dolby Access app on the Xbox One X or a Windows 10-compatible device. The following is a short list of Atmos-enabled devices (with links to our reviews and links to buy our favorites).

Televisions

Other TVs: LG OLED B6, Vizio M-Series, LG UH7700, Vizio P-Series, LG OLED C6, Vizio R-Series, LG UH8500, LG OLED E6, LG UH9500, LG OLED G6

Streaming Sticks and Boxes

Read our review of the Chromecast Ultra, and we also recommend the Apple TV 4K .

Soundbars

Read our review of the LG SJ9.

Other soundbars we recommend: Integra DLB-5, Sony HT-ST5000, Creative X-Fi Sonic Carrier, Onkyo SBT-A500, Philips Fidelio B8, Samsung HW-K950, Yamaha YSP-5600, Pioneer Elite Fs-EB70

Laptops

Read our Lenovo Yoga 920 review. Other recommended laptops: Razer Blade Stealth, Acer Predator P1715, Huawei MateBook X, Lenovo Legion Y720.

Smartphones

Read our Apple iPhone X review. Other recommended smartphones: Razer Phone, LG G6, ZTE Axon 7 P11,  Lenovo Phab 2.

Consoles

Read our full review of the Microsoft Xbox One X.

Tablets 

Read our Amazon Fire HD 10 review. Other tablets we recommend: Apple iPad Pro, Lenovo Tab 2 A10, Amazon Fire HDX 8.9, Lenovo Tab 2 A8.

AVR

Other AVRs we like: Marantz SR8012, Storm Audio ISP.3D.16Elite, Sony STR-DH-790, Integra DRX-3, Acurus Act-4, Classe Sigma SSP, Datasat RSP1582, Anthem MRX720.

Headphones

Read our RIG 600 headphones review. Other headphones we recommend: Plantronics RIG 800LX, RIG 400LX, RIG 600LX, RIG 400HX, RIG 800HD.

How much do Dolby Atmos devices cost?

Among soundbars, the Onkyo SBT-A500 is one of the more affordable options, at $299.99. And if you're in the market for a a receiver, the $499.99 Denon AVR-X1400H is your most affordable option. Other Atmos-compatible AVRs can cost upward of $2,000.

Due to the size, resolution and integrated technology of Atmos-optimized televisions, expect to pay at least $1,000. The Vizio M-Series M65-E0 is available for $1,019, while the 55-inch LG OLED E6 will set you back a whopping $4,500.

The Chromecast Ultra brings the Dolby goods for a wallet-friendly $59.99. Looking for a dedicated gaming headset? You can get the Plantronics RIG 400LX for $99.99, complete with a prepaid Dolby Atmos activation code.

Tablets like the Amazon Fire HD start at a reasonable $149.99, but a smartphone like the ZTE Axon 7 P11 is a bit pricier, starting at $399.99. Gamers can get their hands on the Xbox One X for $499.99, and those in need of an ultraportable laptop can get in on the Dolby goodness with the Huawei MateBook X starting at $869.99.

Is it easy to set up?

It really depends on what you're buying. If you're going all out and getting a home theater system with ceiling-mounted height speakers, you might want to call in a professional to get everything up and running. Installing a soundbar is as simple as plugging it into the USB or optical port along the back of your television.

If you invest in an Atmos-enabled TV, you simply turn it on. For mobile devices like the Razer Phone or iPad Pro, you can experience Atmos technology via the built-in speakers, but you'll get the best experience if you use headphones.

What's the minimum number of speakers needed for a Dolby Atmos home theater setup?

Thankfully, you don't have to get a lot of speakers to enjoy Dolby Atmos, a 5.1 setup will do just fine. If you're thinking about getting a couple of height speakers, your system would be described as a 5.1.2. But if you want to keep things simple, you can just invest in a compatible soundbar, which may or may not have a separate subwoofer.

How much content is optimized for Atmos?

The first Atmos-optimized movie was Disney's Brave, which debuted in 2012. Now, there are more than 500 movies that either have been released or are currently in production, such as Deadpool, The Secret Life of Pets and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. Just make sure that when you purchase physical copies of these films, you get the 4K Blu-ray edition or else you'll miss out on all the 360 goodness.  

Credit: Warner Bros.Credit: Warner Bros.Popular streaming sites such as Netflix and Vudu offer Atmos-optimized content, although the list of shows is relatively small for now. Netflix currently has five optimized shows (Okja, Blame!, Death Note, Bright and Wheelman), while Vudu has a much more robust offering of over 100 movies, including Creed, Central Intelligence, The Lego Movie, It, Blade Runner 2049 and Roman J. Israel.

There are also a number of AAA games that have Atmos optimization, such as Overwatch, Assassin's Creed Origins, Crackdown 3, Super Lucky's Tale, Final Fantasy XV, Rise of the Tomb Raider, Battlefield 1, Gears of War 4 and Mass Effect: Andromeda. Keep in mind that while PlayStation 4 supports Dolby Atmos within its Blu-ray app, there is currently no setting to enable the technology for gaming. So for now, you'll get Atmos only on Xbox One, One S, One X or Windows 10.

Do I need Dolby Atmos?

Right now, Dolby Atmos is more of a want than a need. Bleeding-edge audio/visual fans who already own 4K televisions will want to look into investing in Atmos-compatible home theater systems or soundbars. Everyone else can wait until the technology becomes more mainstream and the pricing becomes more affordable.

But if you like feeling like you're in the center of your favorite action movie or sitting front row, center stage at your favorite artist's sold-out-for-months concert, then it's worth the investment. The easiest way is to stop by a big-box retail store and see if it has a home theater demo setup. Or you can catch a movie at one of the over 80 Dolby Cinema theaters equipped with Dolby technologies in the United States (133 locations globally).  

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