When investing in premium entertainment systems, there are several high-end features being offered by manufacturers. While 4K and HDR are among those delivering significant visual enhancements, sound is still a crucial component of any movie or video game. Dolby Atmos is an increasingly popular addition, which promises to offer one of the best overall audio experiences available today. Here's everythng you need to know before getting started.

What is Dolby Atmos?

Dolby Atmos is a surround sound technology developed by Dolby Laboratories, which aims to produce one of the most immersive audio experiences available on the market today. The technology continues to gain traction as a high-end solution, available in both the home and on premium mobile devices, as well as commercial cinemas. Ultimately, Dolby Atmos aims to deliver true 3D audio, providing accurate positioning, depth, and detail through supported content.

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How does Dolby Atmos work?

Soundbars and upward-facing speakers can be used to emulate the overhead speakers utilized by Dolby Atmos.

While its implementation can vary, Dolby Atmos has some key traits to distinguish it from other experiences. The most notable of these is the object-based technology driving Atmos, which allows files to output sound within a virtual three-dimensional space. By mapping sound to a 3D area, objects can be positioned and moved precisely within soundscapes. Supporting up to 128 individual channels, creators have the freedom to track a vast number of sources.

Unlike traditional 5.1 and 7.1 systems, where sounds are restricted to fixed channels and positioning, Dolby Atmos dynamically configures individual speaker outputs on the fly. With this approach, audio is rendered in real time and interpreted for the speaker setup.

This object-based technology also introduces vertical height to audio, by allowing overhead speakers to be utilized. Whether a helicopter flying overhead, a car racing by or simply creating an enveloping environment, Dolby Atmos 3D mapping can offer distinct positioning and clarity.

How can I experience Dolby Atmos?

One of the other beneficial traits of Dolby Atmos is its adaptability, with different form factors which provide varying levels of audio quality. Factoring in sounds and their positional data, setups can scale the Dolby Atmos output, regardless of the limitations of any particular configuration.

Whether experienced through a weak mobile speaker or a top of the line theater, the Atmos technology attempts harvest the best results from the hardware in use. This allows content to easily translate between professional systems, home setups and other supported speaker systems.

These are the most common ways consumers can experience Dolby Atmos today.

Dolby Atmos commercial usage

Dolby Atmos being used live to map out and control a 64-speaker club sound-system in London.

To witness Dolby Atmos first-hand today, one of the best (and cheapest) experiences you'll find is at a cinema. Select movie theaters across the world have already been equipped with additional surround and overhead speakers and offer full support for the technology. However, between a high initial set-up cost and lack of supported content, the current return on investment leaves many companies cautious in rolling out the required hardware. Other examples of commercial usage include Ministry of Sound's London-based club, which uses Dolby Atmos to power a 64-speaker, 22-channel setup.

Dolby currently offers a tool their website to search for cinemas utilizing the company's technologies. If living in a relatively large city, this can be used to track down cinemas that support Dolby Atmos near you.

Dolby Official Movie Theatre Locator

Dolby Atmos in the home

Microsoft has begun to invest in Dolby Atmos, with support added to both Windows 10 and Xbox One.

While you won't be getting the same quality as a full cinema Dolby Atmos setup without spending an astronomical amount of cash, it's still possible to achieve similar results in the home. A range of consumer hardware is already widely available in various forms, even if you'll likely be paying a premium price tag. Here's a brief overview of the hardware required to get home theater setup equipped with Dolby Atmos technology.

  • The one essential investment for a Dolby Atmos experience in the home is an audio/video (AV) receiver which supports the technology. Atmos-enabled AV receivers aren't hard to come by nowadays and don't come at a notably higher price point either.

  • Surround speakers are also a major component of a Dolby Atmos setup, however, depending on your current entertainment center, the cost can vary. Atmos builds on the existing technology of 5.1, 7.1 and 9.1 systems, meaning your existing speakers can be utilized as a part of your setup with a compatible AV receiver. Up to 34 speakers can be supported with Atmos home systems (even if that sounds a little overkill.)

  • To get the most out of Atmos, you'll also want overhead speakers integrated into your home setup. Provided you're happy climbing up to the ceiling and securing speakers on your ceiling, this can be an effective solution. If mounting multiple speakers on your ceiling seems a little complex, specially designed Dolby Atmos hardware is also available. Taking advantage of upward-facing speakers, these rebound sounds from the ceiling to emulate the effect of dedicated overhead loudspeakers.

  • If using a Blu-ray player to power your entertainment center, there's no need to upgrade. Most existing Blu-ray players can support a Dolby Atmos output and don't require an "Atmos-enabled" tag. Microsoft's Xbox One console also supports Dolby Atmos, through both supported games and videos.

For those looking for a much simpler setup process, dedicated Dolby Atmos soundbars are a much more minimal, but equally effective hardware route. Integrating upward-firing speakers into a traditional sound bar, a single self-contained unit can emulate the vertical height and depth of Dolby Atmos technology.

Dolby Atmos on mobile devices

Dolby Atmos does provide some benefits on mobile, but few devices take advantage of its offerings.

The adaptable nature of Dolby Atmos also extends to mobile devices, through both headphones and external onboard speakers. Although its implementation is currently rare, Dolby has outlined this as one of the core focuses for the technology. Taking advantage of both Atmos and virtual surround sound, mobile devices with support should primarily sport improvements for music, video and gaming content. Virtual reality for mobile devices is also becoming increasingly popular, and Dolby Atmos has a clear role in immersive experiences of this type.

Across mainstream smartphone manufacturers, Dolby Atmos is yet to be widely adopted. So far, only a few notable companies tout support, through devices such as the Lenovo A7000, Lenovo Vibe K5 series, LeEco Le 2 and Nokia 6.

What Dolby Atmos content is available?

Although Dolby Atmos is still in its early days, a wide range of content is available which takes advantage of the technology.

Currently, Atmos support is most frequently seen in movies, with a steady flow of titles offering enhancements both at the cinema and in the home. The first Atmos-enabled title was Pixar's Brave in 2012, and hundreds of theatrical releases have touted their improvements since. While Blu-ray is currently the best way to obtain supported titles, various streaming services such as Netflix also support Dolby Atmos on select platforms. Dolby maintains its own list on its official site, with all existing and upcoming Atmos releases.

Theatrical Releases in Dolby Vision and Dolby Atmos

In the games industry, Atmos adoption is still relatively uncommon. Games like Overwatch and Star Wars Battlefront provide native PC experiences but are currently among the few outstanding titles. Atmos is also available via the Xbox One, offering enhancements for both movies and games with the "Dolby Access" application, but the implementation on Xbox One is virtualized for now. At E3 2017, we got a taste of what Gears of War 4 sounds like with a full Atmos set up, and frankly, it was incredible. The future is certainly bright for the tech. For now, it's a bit of a waiting game.

Are you already use an Atmos-compatible setup? Or do you have plans to adopt the technology? Make sure to let us know what you think of Dolby Atmos in the comments section.

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