Dolby Atmos has made fantastic in-roads into cinemas in the last couple of years, with a flood of movies featuring the more immersive surround sound format having screened already and many more on the way. However, in the home it is a different story. It’s taken a while to launch a credible, cut-down version of the audio technology and it’ll take a bit longer still for people to cotton onto its undoubted benefits.
Part of the problem is exposure. Not a huge amount of people know it is an option these days, even fewer have heard what it can offer. But the biggest hurdle is the lack of content. At present there is only one Blu-ray in the UK that features a native Dolby Atmos mix; Transformers: Age of Extinction. And, considering your taste in films that might not even be up your street.
More are undoubtedly coming – Hercules and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles are two that, in the States at least, have Dolby Atmos soundtracks – but the lack of content always hampers the take-up of a new technology.
In the past that would have usually meant we’d tell you to hold off being an early adopter, but not with Dolby Atmos. We’re pretty sure that it will be the future of home cinema. And you are therefore best advised to ensure your AV amp or receiver can carry it.
Ask and you shall receive
The Onkyo TX-NR838 we’ve been living with and testing Dolby Atmos on for a while is one such reason. Several companies have adopted the technology for their latest ranges of AV receivers, including Denon, Yamaha and Marantz, but few have embraced it with quite as much vigour as Onkyo. A few Pioneer receivers are Dolby Atmos certified too, but they are now under the Onkyo umbrella anyway.
One of the ways in that the 838 differs is that, for the best part of the last few months, you also got a pair of dedicated Dolby Atmos ceiling-firing speakers in the bundle. That offer has now closed, but Onkyo still sells them separately and they are an ideal way of turning your living room or dedicated home cinema into a Dolby Atmos space without the need to install ceiling speakers.
Dolby Atmos, you see, is a technology that utilises extra height channels in an audio mix yet, unlike other technologies such as Dolby Pro Logic IIz, the audio doesn’t feel like it’s coming from the front stage. Instead it encloses you in sound – dramatically expanding the audio experience and better immersing you into the movie, programme, live sports or videogame you’re playing.
The sound mix makes use of the area directly above your head for spatial effects, and also gives additional weight to the centre channel we feel, adding clarity to speech, for example. In short, it is an audio revelation that doesn’t require much more than placing two small speakers on top of or next to existing front right and left. You can also add additional speakers to the rear too, just not on the 838 and that's mainly for much larger rooms.
A grand option
It does require a compatible amp, of course, and in the Onkyo TX-NR838 it has a champion. Onkyo’s most recent ranges have Dolby Atmos-capable receivers at all prices, from the TX-NR636 up to the TX-NR3030 but the 828 sits nicely at around a grand and offers a whole stack of extra goodies as well.
Like the 636 and 737, it is a 7.2-channel AV receiver, however it is a bit more of a monster with 180 watts per channel, a pure direct analogue path and a smattering of additional inputs, including 7.2 channel analogue inputs. In addition, four of its HDMI inputs are 4K enabled, with one compatible with HDCP 2.2. That latter point means that it is one of very few devices compatible with the latest copy protection standards for 4K content and is therefore futureproofed against any forthcoming Ultra HD formats.
The TX-NR838 has also had a couple of vital firmware updates lately that have added some killer extra features. Firstly, Spotify Connect has come to the receiver. That means you can send Spotify tracks from a smartphone or tablet to the receiver to play, using your portable device as the remote. There is a Spotify app on the 828 already, but we’ve always found the implementation of the service a little clunky on all AV kit, TVs included, where there’s no keyboard included. Spotify Connect on a phone has a keyboard naturally, so is an easier experience in use.
The receiver also has apps for TuneIn internet radio, Deezer, Aupeo and, for users in the States, Pandora. There are also portals to play back media stored on a computer or network storage drive. It is DLNA certified so should playback audio from all manner of sources connected to your home network.
We’re particularly fond of the fact the receiver has Wi-Fi built-in as well as an Ethernet connection for internet and home streaming use. We’d advice cabling it directly though for firmware updates as you won’t want to muck things up simply because your home router’s wireless connection went on the blink for a moment.
It also has Bluetooth built-in in case you fancy sending audio from a portable device without using Spotify, so even if you are a customer of a different audio service, you can still enjoy your music wirelessly.
The second major firmware update it’s had in the last couple of months added perhaps the most important new feature, at least where Dolby Atmos is involved. The Onkyo TX-NR838 now upmixes traditional 5.1 or even 2.0 soundtracks to 5.1.2 to make use of those extra speakers – if that’s what you want. It’s selectable in the menu system but once tried we doubt, like us, you’d ever switch it off - perhaps for true stereo music, but we prefer it for TV, movies and gaming.
Remember that feeling you had when you first heard a stereo transmission upmixed using Dolby Pro Logic II? How the rear channels came to life with some very clever separation algorithms? That’s how we feel with the Dolby Atmos mix of a traditional surround presentation. It adds width to the audio without feeling odd. You don’t get butterflies fluttering above your head, but everything gains gravitas, even at low volumes.
Playing the game
Gaming, which is a significant part of our entertainment consumption, is greatly improved with a wider soundscape. What’s also great about Dolby Atmos upmixing is that it doesn’t affect the existing channels – you still get good spacing as the developers intended – but it does supply a more immersive experience. And with a lack of content with a native Dolby Atmos soundtrack available, the Onkyo TX-NR838 offers a way to make use of the additional speakers while you wait.
See it much like 4K. At the moment, most of the video you watch on your Ultra HD TV will be comprised of upscaled 1080p images. They will invariably look better than on a Full HD screen, but not genuine 4K. That’s what Onkyo offers with its Dolby Atmos upmix capabilities. And you also get 4K video upscaling in the receiver for good measure too.
It’s a decent stop gap until the real thing arrives in a greater spread of content. We can’t wait ourselves as, bar watching Transformers 4 for the umpteenth time, our biggest source of Dolby Atmos fun comes from a demo disc with multiple examples. That’s almost worn out the amount of times we‘ve spun it in our PlayStation 4 (which can output Blu-ray audio as direct bitstream – the Xbox One at the moment cannot). And everybody we’ve sat down to hear the set-up goes away agreeing that it is the future of home entertainment. We think should you get the opportunity to try it out, you will too.
The Onkyo TX-NR838 is available for a little under £1,000 in either black or silver with the SKH-410 Dolby Atmos speakers available for around £130 for the pair.