Home cinema isn't just about the picture, sound is just as important too. For years we've have 5.1 and 7.1 surround sound systems, but now that's all set to change with the mainstream arrival of 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, and subsequently 4K Ultra HD when that arrived to succeed it. 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 takes the longstanding 5.1 surround sound but adds extra height channels to provide a more enveloping sound effect in your room. Rather than have sounds of raindrops, or a helicopter moving around the same height as your ears with 5.1 for example, with Atmos you'll be able to hear rain falling from above or a helicopter moving from over your head and over into the distance. At least, that's the theory.
It introduces new speaker configurations, such as 5.1.4, where there are five speakers around the room, one subwoofer and four height channel speakers. You could also have 5.1.2, 7.1.2 or 7.1.4. If you want some extra low-end grunt, you can also add an extra subwoofer into the mix.
Because Dolby Atmos is an object-based sound format, when creating a soundtrack to a film, sound mixers are able to specify the exact place they want the sounds to be, as opposed to 'left-channel' or 'right rear-channel' of 5.1 surround soundtracks.
In select cinemas around the world that have a full Dolby Atmos speaker setup, speakers are placed along the walls, in the ceiling and even behind the screen to push sound out towards the audience.
What do I need to get Dolby Atmos?
For the best possible Atmos experience, in-ceiling speakers are the way to go. But not everyone is able to facilitate them, so as a workaround, you can get upward firing Atmos speaker modules to bounce the sound up to the ceiling and back down to the listening positions.
Onkyo, for example, has the SKH-410 speakers and KEF has the R50s, 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.
And don't worry if you don't have Onkyo or KEF speakers for your main setup at the moment, as the modules will play nice with anything you already have.
In order to drive your speakers, whether they're upward firing modules or built-in to the ceiling, you'll need a compatible AV receiver. When Atmos first launched around 2014, only a select few models could support the sound format, and it was usually the high-end and most expensive ones at that.
Fortunately, as the format has increased in popularity, the majority of major AV brands have now added Atmos support the main bulk of their ranges, and all at different price points to suit different budgets.
Onkyo, Sony, Pioneer, Marantz, Denon, Yamaha all have Dolby Atmos AV receivers, so if you wish to remain loyal to a particular brand when upgrading your home system, you can.
What Dolby Atmos soundbars are available?
But we've been talking as if we're assuming you have space for a full Atmos surround sound setup. What if you want the added height effect but space is at a premium? With a Dolby Atmos soundbar, that's how.
Yamaha was first out the gates with the YSP-5600, but since then, Samsung, Onkyo, Philips and Sony have all produced models. While they won't be able to completely emulate a proper Atmos speaker configuration, they're certainly not far behind and are a real step up from conventional soundbars.
LG announced at CES 2017 that Dolby Atmos support would be coming to all of its OLED TVs this year. If you watch some content on any of the new OLED screens that has an Atmos soundtrack attached to it, the TV will be able to send the information to a compatible AV receiver or soundbar. The company's ultra-thin Signature OLED W meanwhile comes with its own Dolby Atmos soundbar as standard. It's based on the SJ9 model, also unveiled at CES, but also acts as a media box for connecting various sources.
Sony used CES 2017 to introduce the HT-ST5000 Dolby Atmos soundbar that also comes with Google Home voice-controlled support. The 'bar packs in 12 drivers including two that are upward firing to handle the height channels.
- Samsung HW-K950 Dolby Atmos soundbar review: Genuinely immersive audio
- Onkyo's LS7200 Atmos soundbar plays nice with movies and music
- Philips Fidelio soundbar crams Dolby Atmos overhead audio into one unit
Can I use my current Blu-ray player for Dolby Atmos?
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.
You will of course also have to make sure the Blu-ray disc you're watching has a Dolby Atmos soundtrack on it. You can check the rear of the case to see if it does.
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. However big names such as Netflix and Amazon Instant Video don't yet offer the sound format through their services.
What content can I watch in Dolby Atmos?
As with any new format, when it first launched, there wasn't a lot of Dolby Atmos content around. One of the first movies to be released with an Atmos soundtrack was Transformers: Age of Extinction. Luckily films with Atmos have progressed since then, in both quality and quantity. There's a good chance most Blu-rays on the shelves will have an Atmos soundtrack.
If you don't have one of those players but do have an Xbox One S, then you'll be pleased to know that Microsoft has recently updated the One S to support Dolby Atmos when watching Blu-ray films.
BT TV has also added Atmos to its 4K Ultra HD sports channel. Live sports will be shown with the added height from 2017, but to get it you'll need to have the BT YouView+ 4K Ultra HD set-top box.