Say the words "home cinema" to many members of the general public and they will likely first think of all-in-one-box solutions from brands such as Panasonic, Samsung and LG. And there's absolutely nothing wrong with that.
However, true home cinephiles tend to prefer separates - different kit for different purposes. This allows them to upgrade, chop and change as new technologies are introduced or existing gear is upgraded.
The speakers rarely need overhauling, except when opting for greater performance, but the rest of the kit - projector, TV, disc player, AV receiver or amplifier - could end up one step behind the latest technological breakthroughs in picture resolution or audio format. Ultra High Definition is one obvious example, with diehard home cinema fans already considering adding a new 4K TV or projector, but there's another new kid on the block that is changing the rules too: Dolby Atmos.
Dolby Atmos has the potential to make as significant a change to the audio aspect of home cinema that Blu-ray did to the visuals when it was introduced. It could even become something synonymously associated with general home cinema, not just in the mid- to high-end.
But what is Dolby Atmos? And why is it getting audiophiles and cinephiles excited?
What is Dolby Atmos?
Dolby Atmos is currently more commonly used in certain cinemas. It is a sound format that delivers a supported soundtrack to the conventional surround speakers dotted around the cinema or room at home, including the subwoofer(s), and also to speakers in the ceiling to give extra height to the soundscape.
The idea is that it engulfs the viewer in a bubble of sound, making the experience more immersive and multidimensional.
So I need speakers above my head?
Not necessarily. In a cinema, speakers will definitely be mounted above head height in the ceiling. However, Dolby Atmos can also use speakers firing upwards at the ceiling to bounce the sound back down to the listening positions.
Onkyo, for example, has the SKH-410 speakers that you place on top of your existing left and right floorstanders, or nearby on an AV stand. These are dedicated to Dolby Atmos and are angled slightly to bounce the sound off the ceiling and back down to a sitting position comfortably back from the screen or TV.
Up to 30 September, Onkyo is even throwing in the speakers for free with purchases of its TX-NR636, TX-NR737 or TX-NR838 AV receivers, all of which getting firmware upgrades to make them Dolby Atmos certified. Beyond that time, they will cost £100 a pair.
Other than speakers what else do I need?
As suggested, you will need a Dolby Atmos-certified amplifier or AV receiver. The Onkyo three mentioned will each have firmware upgades to ensure they are fully up to date with the new audio format. Plus, it will be releasing two other network connected AV receivers, the TX-NR1030 and TX-NR3030 that are compatible.
It also has two all-in-one systems, the HT-S7705 and SKS-HT678, that come with Dolby Atmos certification, with the front speakers having dedicated ceiling-firing drivers inside.
Other brands to support the new format include Denon, with its recently released AVR-X4100W and AVR-X5200W receivers being certified, and Marantz, with the SR7009 and forthcoming AV7702.
Pioneer also announced that it would be bringing Dolby Atmos to its receivers, but as that side of the business has now been bought by Onkyo, we wait to see what, if anything, that will amount to.
Can I use a normal Blu-ray player?
Yes, as long as a Blu-ray player has been set to output a direct bitstream signal, your Dolby Atmos-enabled receiver should be able to decode the signal and send the height channels to the Dolby Atmos speakers.
We've also found that the PlayStation 4 is capable of outputting a Dolby Atmos soundtrack, as long as the audio setting from within the Blu-ray application, is set to "Bitstream (Direct)". Unfortunately, at the time of writing the Xbox One was not able to output a Dolby Atmos signal. We've also had issues getting the soundtrack to output through a PS3.
Media streaming is another area that promises to supply Dolby Atmos soundtracks. For example, US video streaming service Vudu is committed to offer its subscribers compatible movies when they become available.
Can I have more Dolby Atmos speakers?
Of course. If you are willing to put more speakers in the ceiling, it is possible to have Dolby Atmos rear channels as well as in the centre of the soundfield.
What can I play with my new kit?
Ah, now here's the million dollar question. We are very confident that Dolby Atmos will become very popular, especially having tested in the home ourselves. However, not much content is available that has been mixed to present a native Dolby Atmos soundtrack.
While there is a reasonably lengthy list of movies that have utilised Dolby Atmos in the cinema, including Star Trek: Into Darkness, Godzilla, Gravity and Guardians of the Galaxy, the first Blu-ray featuring a compatible sound mix will be Transformers: Age of Extinction, which isn't out in the UK until 17 November.
No UK media streaming service has announced Dolby Atmos adoption yet either.
So there's nothing I can hear in Dolby Atmos?
Not so. Although there is little that will use the system natively, Onkyo's firmware upgrade to be pushed imminently will feature upmixing for the compatible receivers. That means a conventional soundtrack for a film or game will gain extra height channels based on clever algorithms.
It's a bit like the way Dolby Pro Logic II works out surround, centre and subwoofer channels for a normal Dolby stereo mix.
And finally, what's the future for the tech?
The potential for Dolby Atmos is huge, not least in gaming. If developers adopt to add extra height channels as an option for in-game audio, you'll not only be able to hear enemies coming from the front, sides or behind you, but also above. Imagine Destiny, for example, and being able to hear a sniper shot from a ledge above your field of vision. It will add an all-new dimension to play.
Sport too could benefit greatly. If a live football or rugby match used the Dolby Atmos channels, you would experience being much more engulfed in the atmosphere. It's enough to raise the hairs on the back of our necks in anticipation.