Home cinema isn't just about the picture, sound is just as important. For years we've had 5.1 and 7.1 surround sound systems, but now that's all changed thanks to the mainstream arrival of Dolby Atmos.
Dolby Atmos has made a big impact since its arrival in cinemas and homes, doing for sound what Blu-ray and 4K Ultra HD did for the visuals. It could eventually become something synonymously associated with general home cinema, not just in the mid- to high-end.
But what is Dolby Atmos? And why does it get 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. Dolby Atmos isn't defined by the number of channels, per se, but by the enhanced ability to deliver this more immersive sound experience.
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 the more common approach at home is to get upward firing Atmos speaker modules to fire the sound up to the ceiling and reflect back down to the listening position.
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 your sitting position.
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. If you already have 5.1 surround sound speakers, then a compatible AV receiver and those upfiring speakers are all you'd need to convert your sound system.
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, offering a more immersive experience.
- Samsung HW-K950 Dolby Atmos soundbar review: Genuinely immersive audio
- LG SJ9 soundbar review: Dolby Atmos in a compact package
- Sony HT-ST5000 soundbar review: An impressive Atmos package
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, but Rakuten does - if you have an LG television.
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. Many Blu-rays on the shelves will have an Atmos soundtrack - so check your collection.
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.
Sky has added Dolby Atmos to its content offerings. Atmos has been added to the Sky Sports Premier League channel, meaning all 124 games shown will have the added height channels, resulting in a more immersive experience when you're watching at home.
Netflix also offers Atmos content, but only through Xbox One, Windows 10 or LG OLED TVs (2017 onwards).
More recently, Apple has confirmed that it's adding Dolby Atmos to Apple TV 4K. The good thing about the Apple TV offering is that it's one of the few providers that will give you Dolby Vision and Dolby Atmos on a wide range of titles. If you own any of those titles already, Apple will also upgrade you for free.