No Such Thing As Too Many Speakers – Customizing a Dolby Atmos System

Aside from some obscenely expensive high-end boutique gear, the current generation of Dolby Atmos A/V receivers (as well as the coming wave of DTS:X capable models) top out at a maximum limit of 7.1.4 channels of surround sound audio. While that should be plenty enough for the majority of home theater users, some may find a need to add even more speakers to a room. In order to do that, you need to get creative. The following is one solution I’ve implemented.

My transition to Dolby Atmos did not go as smoothly as I would have liked, through no fault of the format itself. Many of my decisions for speaker layout were dictated by mistakes I had made in the past. When I originally built my home theater room, I only wired for a 7.1 configuration. My left and right Surround channels as well as my two Surround Backs were all mounted up high on the side walls or on the ceiling, as was common practice before object-based audio was available for home use. This presented a problem, in that I had nowhere higher to go in order to add height channels for Atmos.

Old Surround and Surround Back speakers

As a result, what I had to do was add new speakers on stands at ear level, which became my new Surrounds. I then rewired the original mounted speaker locations to become height channels. Yet my old Surround Backs were still mounted to the ceiling, far above the ear-level plane where they should have been.

Initial Atmos install for Surrounds and Heights

Although this was a pretty effective way of adding Atmos to the room, it wasn’t ideal. For one thing, the former Surround speaker positions (now designated as Top Middle) were spread too far to the sides of my listening seat, which left a big hole in the soundstage directly above me. One of my favorite Atmos Blu-rays (‘John Wick‘) has a scene at the climax that involves a lot of rain falling from above. In my room, it sounded like the rain was falling in a big ring around me but not actually over my head, and a helicopter that flew across the room seemed to jump from one side to the other with a gap in between. I needed a solution to plug holes in the soundstage like that.

Introducing ZATMOSTM

Essentially, I have filled my room with as many speakers as I could cram into it. At present count, I’m using 15 active speakers (plus a subwoofer) in a 7.1.7 configuration. (Yes, I realize that 7 + 7 = 14. Bear with me.) I have half-jokingly decided to call this the “Zatmos” system.

This consists of 7.1 speakers on the ground, 2 Front Heights, 2 Top Middles, 2 Top Rears, and 2 speakers installed directly over my seats that are ganged together into a Voice-of-God array.

If my HTML on this page is working correctly, you should be able to roll over these photos with your mouse, or click to enlarge, to see all the speakers labeled.

Front of Room

Rear Right

Rear Left

In order to drive this many channels, I need to simultaneously run two home theater A/V receivers. The primary unit is a Denon AVR-X5200W Atmos model. The second is an older Marantz receiver (SR4400) that I picked up off Craigslist for a song.

Equipment Rack

The second unit does not need to be Atmos capable. In fact, the one I bought is from 2003. It doesn’t need to be anything fancy or powerful. It doesn’t even need to have HDMI inputs. All that’s required is that the second receiver must be at least a 5.1 model and must have Dolby Pro Logic II decoding.

My primary Denon Atmos receiver can decode 7.1.4 channels of sound. This receiver will drive 9 of those channels itself: the 7.1 on the ground and the 2 Front Heights. (Technically, I have an Emotiva amp powering my main tower speakers, but that’s not relevant to this discussion.) That leaves the 2 remaining height channels, which I’ve programmed as Top Middle.

On the back panel of my Atmos receiver, I’ve connected the analog pre-outs for the second pair of height speakers to a set of stereo inputs on the second receiver.

Denon X5200W back panel

Marantz SR4400 back panel

Here’s how messy the back of my equipment rack looks with everything connected:

Rear Panel Wiring

The second receiver is then configured for 5.0 channels of sound, with all speakers set to Large and no bass crossover. Any room correction or other processing should be turned off, except for channel volumes, which can be measured manually using a sound level meter.

When the second (Marantz) receiver is fed an input signal from the pre-outs on the first (Denon) receiver, it treats that as stereo left and right content that gets directed to the Top Middle speakers on the sides of my room. By turning on Dolby Pro Logic II Cinema decoding, I can then create a matrixed center channel between them (my Voice-of-God array over my seats) and two additional matrixed surround channels (my Top Rear speakers in the back of the room).

Height Speakers

Effectively, I’ve connected two separate surround sound grids in my room: 7.1.2 for all the ear-level speakers and the Front Heights, plus an additional 5.0 system above and behind me.

Does It Work?

As far as my reasoning went, the theory behind this seemed logical enough. However, I still worried about how movie soundtracks would actually sound in practice. Would any audio really matrix to the VOG position, or would these two new speakers I mounted be useless? Conversely, would too much audio collapse to the VOG position and leave the Top Middles empty? Would the sound objects in an Atmos soundtrack that get sent to the Top Middle channels contain enough directional cues for Pro Logic II to pull anything useful to the Top Rears?

To test some of these scenarios out, I cued up my favorite scene from ‘John Wick’, at approximately 1:25:00. I then disconnected all of my speakers except the eight heights, so that I could isolate and listen carefully to exactly what’s happening at the top of my room.

This scene in the movie is ideal for testing, because it has helicopters circling overhead as well as a lot of other directional activity that bleeds into the heights. For example, at one point a car races from room front to room back, and that sound is present in both the heights and ground level. I stood halfway between the Top Middle speakers and Top Rear speakers as I replayed the scene. What I heard was the sound of the car decidedly panning from Top Front to Top Middle to Top Rear. The Pro Logic II matrixing worked exactly as I’d hoped!

The helicopter in the scene moves across the room from front-left to middle-left to middle-right. That sound panned through the VOG speakers when PLII matrixed a center between the Top Middles: TML->VOG->TMR. Reverberations from the chopper reflected in the Top Rears as well. A few minutes later into the scene, rain starts falling. I could hear that from the Voice-of-God speakers as well as the Top Middle speakers to the sides and the Top Rears behind. Pro Logic II spread out the rain sound without noticeably harming the original Top Middle signal.

So far so good! True, discrete sound effects going to the Top Rears or Voice-of-God will probably be rare. Mostly, what will get pulled to those speakers are ambient tones and noises. Even when directional effects do go to the Top Rear speakers, it will be hard to discern that movement from my seated listening position, simply because human hearing is very poor with sounds behind us.

Nevertheless, the system works. With all 15 of the speakers in my room connected up again, Dolby Atmos creates a more enveloping bubble of sound around my listening position than ever before.

Lingering Concerns

With all that said, I’m not 100% certain that this configuration will work for all content. Although I feel pretty confident that native Dolby Atmos (or, eventually, DTS:X) soundtracks will adapt well to this additional processing, I’m not as sure about 5.1 or 7.1 soundtracks that go through the Dolby Surround Upmixer in the Denon receiver. I’m wary about processing the signal twice with two different decoders, especially for any music that gets expanded upwards to the height channels. Will that sound weird? Will specific instruments or notes seem to come from odd places in the room?

I need to listen to a lot more content before I can make that determination. So far, most of the activity that DSU pulls upward to the height channels is diffuse enough that I haven’t noticed anything untoward happening. However, I will listen attentively for these issues in the future.

Fortunately, even if I decide that I hate this additional Pro Logic II processing and don’t want to use it anymore, I can turn that off and still make use of the extra speakers. I’ll simply need to rewire the back of my equipment rack to pair the speakers together into arrays on the left and right sides of the room that clone the Top Middle signals sent there without any matrix decoding. That should not be too difficult to do if I find it necessary.

Other Options

My Zatmos configuration is not necessarily the only way to add more speakers to a Dolby Atmos system. In fact, some of the choices I’ve made were necessitated by my previous sub-optimal speaker positions. Someone who has installed height speakers closer to Dolby’s recommended guidelines may not have the same need for extra matrixed channels as I do, or at least not channels matrixed the same way mine are.

For example, over at AVSForum, a member has discussed his plans to utilize three A/V receivers – one Atmos model and two Pro Logic II models. The PLII units will be configured on the left and right sides of his room respectively, each connected to a discrete Top Front speaker and a discrete Top Rear speaker, from which it will matrix a Top Middle between them. Another member plans to create a matrixed center between his two Top Front speakers.

Other alternatives are also possible. Whether you consider any of them practical or necessary will of course be a matter of personal opinion, but I feel satisfied so far that the effort I’ve put in is already making a noticeable improvement in the sound quality of my home theater room.

[Update: Since writing this article, I have rewired and reworked my Atmos configuration to better results. You can learn more about that in my follow-up articles, starting at Beyond Dolby Atmos 7.1.4, Part 1.]

41 comments

  1. Intervention!! Intervention!! In all seriousness, I like the VOG speakers. It has a very real movie theater aesthetic now. Have you tried the scene in Transformers: Age of Extinction, about 1 minute and 18 seconds in with the cascading waterfall? The way I imagine it, there would be some really cool overhead activity. On my 7.1, it’s just at the front soundstage. What’s next on your Zatmos setup?

    • Josh Zyber
      Author

      I’m still evaluating whether the matrixed center Voice-of-God channel works as well as I want it to. I have another possible solution in mind, but it would require me to replace that cheap receiver from 2003 with a more expensive recent model, and one of my mains goals with this project was to keep it affordable.

  2. William Henley

    I’m bookmarking this. sounds like a cheap way to add additional channels (buy a receiver that has a couple of channels that are unpowered and run them through another receiver). My biggest complaint has been that there have not been any systems on the market with a speaker configuration I have been happy with, and ones that I even find acceptable (7.1.4) are crazy expensive.

    Something I would love to see that no one is addressing is floor-level speakers (say, put speakers on the ground next to your seating position). The thought is rain falling on the ground, footsteps, etc (Think of the opening scene of Final Fantasy 7 if it got remixed).

  3. Timcharger

    Josh, no audio sync issues with 2 receivers, different decoding formats?
    Will you be hearing the voice of god with a decisecond of delay,
    despite how omnipotent, he/she is?

    • Josh Zyber
      Author

      Even if that did happen, it would be basically impossible to tell. The sounds that go to those speakers represent objects not visible on screen, so there’s nothing to sync with.

    • William Henley

      Since its analogue, there should be no delay between what comes out of the Atmos and the time it hits the processor on the other receiver. If the ProLogic II processing is causing a delay, I would imagine its less than 10ms (probably less than 5ms), otherwise people would have noticed it for years that audio and video were out of sync.

      Your sync issues you have are usually caused by delayed processing on LCD screens, not by delayed audio processing. As its done in hardware (and not firmware or software) i doubt anyone would notice

  4. Peter

    Wow, Josh, that is some dedication in your dedicated theater. I’ve only heard Atmos in theaters (and even then only 2 times), but everyone says the home implementation is killer. I would never have thought of/had the guts to run the outs of one receiver into a second receiver and let PL II process that height channel. I hope as you test it more, it continues to sound great.

  5. Hey, awesome job first and foremost; I have a question in regards to adding atmos speakers. I have a pioneer VSX-1130-K which supports 2 atmos speakers. I would like to add an additional pair of atmos speakers to complete 5.2.4, would I be able to run that additional pair from a second receiver like you did in your post? Just trying to get the best atmos experience I can, thanks brotha!

    • Josh Zyber
      Author

      Unfortunately, that wouldn’t work. There are three issues at play:

      1) How many audio channels can the receiver decode?
      2) How many audio channels can the receiver amplify?
      3) Does the receiver have pre-outs to connect an external amplifier (or second A/V receiver)?

      The VSX-1130-K is a “7.2” channel receiver. It is only capable of decoding 7 channels of audio (plus 2 subwoofers). That means you can either have all 7 on the ground with no heights, or you can do 5 on the ground and 2 heights. It has no options for decoding 4 height channels. Even if you want to add a second A/V receiver to extract additional speakers, it’s best to start with a receiver that can decode 4 height channels.

      More importantly, the VSX-1130-K does not appear to have any pre-outs, so you couldn’t run any of your height channels through a second receiver if you wanted to.

      Sorry for the bad news.

      • Thanks for the fast and detailed response; I figured as much but wanted to ask ya just in case. My head is currently spinning from reading about a two hundred different forum posts lol.

  6. Michael Toby

    What’s the best way of using a Denon 5200 and4100 in order to get utilize extra dolby atoms height speakers? Is it worth it in a small room?

  7. andy kraabel

    Not sure if you’re still visiting this post Josh. I’m having a hard time understanding the limitations of my receiver. I actually replaced an emotiva preamp with the Yamaha rx-a850 and just connected it to my 9 channel onkyo amp with the 7 discreet preouts I have. After hearing a couple atmos setups I decided to add the front presence speakers and connected them directly to the Yamaha since I don’t have preouts for them. With everything other than PLII and Neo I lose my rears. The basic power amp assignment The diagram that shows 7.1.2 matches my layout except obviously I’m just using the onkyo for the front presence. However, I never see all lights on the front on at once.

    • Josh Zyber
      Author

      The Yamaha rx-a850 is described as a “7.2” receiver, which is misleading. It can only decode 7 channels at any one time, with 2 subwoofers. (The “.2” is really “.1” since both subs play the same LFE signal.) That means you can configure it as 7.1 with all speakers on the ground, or as 5.1.2 with 5 on the ground and 2 heights. Unfortunately, it cannot decode 7.1.2, no many how many amps you add.

  8. Jeff Schmidt

    I have been looking for a while and this is the best info on connecting a second receiver I have seen Josh so thanks. Not sure if you still check this thread, but I would to run my set-up by you to get your opinion on whether what I want to do will work. I don’t want to run into the same issues as Andy above and I am far from an expert. My current receiver is a Pioneer Elite SC-95. It is a 9 channel receiver and says it will support 11 channels with a connected external amp. I have a 5.1.4 Definitive Tech set-up now, but like most who get the Atmos/DTSX itch I want to add more. I have a Yamaha RXV650 from 2004ish in my garage and would like to use this. I’m assuming by everything I have read in your article I should be able to use this receiver to add additional channels. My question is do you see any show stoppers before I really dive into this project? The Yamaha is a 7 Channel unit are there limitations on how many channels I can add up to the 7?

  9. Jeff Schmidt

    Thanks for the quick response and All good stuff. After reading parts 2&3 I’m not going to lie I’m a bit intimidated and it may be way over my head. Would it make sense for me to do a 5.1.6 setup and just use one receiver? If not I do have a 3rd receiver that is in use so it’s not ideal to remove it, but it can be done. It is also a Yamaha, but it’s a newer lower end model than my other. Does it have to be the exact same model? I really would like to avoid the conversation with my wife about buying another receiver one way or the other. Do you think not using your calibration tool is unique to your brand receiver or should I assume mine will be obsolete as well? Thanks again for the help!

    • Josh Zyber
      Author

      Honestly, 7.1.4 is enough for most users. Adding more than 4 height channels is really only for the fanatics or people like myself whose room shapes and limitations make 4 overhead speakers insufficient.

      If you go the full 3-receiver system, the secondary receivers should ideally be matched as closely as possible. That makes calibrating them much easier.

      The issues I ran into with Audyssey will be a problem for any room correction software on any brand receiver. I’ve kinda-sorta implemented a workaround that allows Audyssey to function even with this convoluted 3-receiver system, but it’s a real pain to set up. I’ll write an article about that at some point.

  10. Jeff Schmidt

    I completely agree that 7.4 is probably be the way to go. My issue is my set-up is in my finished basement and there is a lot of real estate behind my listening area and no practical place to put rears at ear level. I tried putting speakers on stands directly behind me and it sounded great, but between a bar and air hockey table that are behind my couch it wasn’t practical and without ripping up carpet in the middle of the room the speaker wire just laid on the floor to be tripped on. Reason I asked about the 5.6 set-up is I hadn’t heard of anyone who’d tried it and had an opinion on it. I currently have top rears and Dolby enabled speakers connected to my towers for the fronts. I figured if I was going to add anything my system I would get more out of putting speakers directly above my head for 5.6 then rears that would have to be mounted on the side walls just a few feet behind my side surrounds for 7.4. I guess at the end of the day it’s my preference, but I was curious what your thoughts may be?

    Thanks again for being patient with me I really do appreciate it! I do think I may tackle to three receiver project after the holidays(in case the third receiver I have just wont work and I need another one) and after your next article.

    • Josh Zyber
      Author

      I can tell you from experience that adding speakers directly above your head is problematic because our ears have trouble localizing sounds in that direction. It’s better to have height speakers in the Top Front and Top Rear positions, at 45-degree angles in front of and behind your seat. That will create the effect of a phantom image between them.

      If you do add Top Middle speakers, you should place them a little in front of your listening position rather than straight overhead.

      In my case, I have a long room with a low ceiling, and issues beyond my control forced me to put the height speakers essentially in the Front Height and Rear Height positions far away from one another. This means that they don’t phantom image effectively on their own, so I needed an extra set of speakers in the Top Middle to anchor sounds there.

      If you don’t have that problem, and you can get Top Front and Top Rears in better positions, you probably won’t gain much by adding Top Middles, other than creating a lot of needless complexity.

      I wrote these articles just to show what’s possible. What I do won’t necessarily be practical for everyone.

  11. tony mccoy

    Josh I have 2 sc85 Pioneer receivers. When I hooked up there was distortion (delay) and didn’t sound good. Could you enlighten me and help guide me thru this…proper settings on the second receiver thanks

  12. Jim Boyd

    Josh, am so glad to have come across your writeup here! Reading and seeing what you have put together has inspired me to hope.

    I love the sound my receiver and speakers deliver, I just want noticeable overhead presence. You know, airplanes and helos and gunfire offing bad guys 🙂

    What I am wondering in my present 6.1 setup (my Yamaha RX-A2030 is a 9.2 receiver) is whether I might increase it to 9.1, given these (limiting) factors:

    1. For front heights, given the hypotenuse from my front wall to my MLP is 18-19 feet, the angle that the FH speaker would be aimed is only about 30 degrees. A “problem”, or not?
    2. I would like to have either rear surrounds or rear heights, depending if there is a difference in the actual height sensation delivered by either one (don’t know, for instance, if the sound & signal would be the same for them both, or not);
    3. In either rear surrounds or heights, the left rear would, essentially, be about 4 feet above the left surround, but the right rear would be about 5 feet horizontally distant from the right surround. A big problem, or reasonably handled through individual speaker settings?
    4. And a big final question. As these would be front heights and rear heights/surrounds, how important is “timbre matching” among the speakers? My fronts are Polk Audio RTi12, the center is a CSiA6, and my surrounds are RTi6. Big, powerful, and capable. My sub is a beast. So, not knowing/understanding the particular signal sent to the heights/rear surrounds, might I be able to “economize” on those speaker? I presume they do not get a lot of activity, but I could be wrong. Four “matching” speakers would run me about $450 – $560, whereas I probably could get “respectable” speakers for much less if they did not really have to be compatible with that Polk series.

    Surely will appreciate your response–and that of anyone else who has experience with these issues. Thank you!

    • Josh Zyber
      Author

      Unfortunately, a lot of your questions are moot, because the Yamaha RX-A2030 is not an Atmos capable receiver. Its 9.2 channels include two of what Yamaha calls “Presence” channels, which are Yamaha’s own proprietary upmixing format. The Presence speakers are intended to go in the front of the room above your main left and right speakers, in order to “lift” some sound vertically. It’s similar to the old Dolby ProLogic IIz. It will give you some height effect, but probably not what you’re trying to do in your description. This receiver will not drive rear height speakers at all.

  13. Jim Boyd

    Josh, thank you for your rapid and succinct (though disappointing) answer. I’d rather not waste time and resources on what is not likely to accomplish my purposes.

  14. Shawn Que

    Josh no doubt you have many key learnings, which I’m hoping you can be of some assistance with my pursuit of Atmos bliss.

    Just obtained a Yamaha 3060 and looking to go from 7.2 to 7.2.4.

    My room is about 24′ deep. Front mains sit 3′ in front of the wall (TV is on a HT credenza), and MLP is at about 12′ from the mains. Side surrounds just behind the MLP, and rear surrounds on the back wall. Sides/ rears need to be lowered, currently at the 5′ level. Ceiling is almost 7.5′ high. Tried Atmos-enabled speakers (PSB Imagine XA’s) on top of the mains but could not project deep enough into the MLP … provided a front height image but not sound directly overhead (even after lifting the backs +1.5″) so back they went.

    Now looking at 4 presence speakers. Questions:
    * Would you place them high on the front/ back walls, per what Yamaha suggests, or the side walls given room length? All angled down similar to your setup. Rear wall to MLP is about 23 degrees down, front is even less. Side walls I can get to min 30 degrees down (front & back of MLP).
    * Mains/ center, side surround are Totem (Model 1’s across the front, Dreamcatchers side). Rear surrounds are Def Tech Mythos Gems that blend in well (all metal tweeters). Very strong base provided by 15″ Paradigm subs. Looking at satellite-size for the presence, as WAF counts. Totem does not have. Everything I read talks about importance of timbre matching, but looking like I need to settle for ‘just being close’. Considering Paradigm MilleniaOne or B&W M1.

    Much appreciated your thoughts, and thanks.

    • Josh Zyber
      Author

      I take it that mounting speakers in or on the ceiling isn’t an option? The ideal is to put speakers in the Top Front position 45-degrees in front of you and in the Top Rear position 45-degrees behind.

      If what you really desire is sounds directly overhead, I don’t think either option you’ve described will really get you there. Putting speakers in the Front Height and Rear Height positions will give you some elevated sounds, but they they’re too far away to fill the space above you. Putting the speakers on the side walls at 45-degrees in front and behind may be better, but (from my experience doing that) you still risk having a hole in the soundstage directly overhead.

  15. Shawn Que

    Thanks Josh, much appreciate your quick feedback. Ceiling is out, it’s finished. Anything mounted with a wire rail won’t pass WAF. Looks like I’ll have to settle for next best, will give the sides a try.

  16. Giants06

    So I’ve tried ScAtmos and can’t get it to work properly with my Atmos receiver. You may remember I was on the AVS forum a week or so ago and told you I had an issue with the way my Pioneer has to be set up and I couldn’t find a solution unfortunately. This brought me back to your original setup in the hopes of a better than nothing scenario.

    First question because I can’t do the ScAtmos setup is it worth it to do a 7.6 or .8 Zatmos setup or should I just settle for my 7.4?

    Other question is if it is better than nothing do you remember exactly how you had the speakers slaved into the second receiver? As always I appreciate any help!

    • Josh Zyber
      Author

      The Zatmos thing was a real jury-rigged method and I honestly don’t recommend anyone else try it. Once I moved to Scatmos, I realized just how inadequate Zatmos really was.

      If Scatmos isn’t working out for you, I’d suggest simplifying by doing 7.1.4 with an extra pair of height speakers slaved to either the fronts or rears (wired in-series, if possible). They’ll be an exact duplicate of other speakers you’re already using, but (depending on your room layout) should help to fill the space better.

  17. Giants06

    Your the man Josh thanks for saving me the trouble! funny thing is that was the route I was thinking of going yesterday after ScAtmos was a dead end for me. I figured it was better than having a hole. I was going to run parallel though. Is it better to run them in series? That’s just positive to negative right? Or is there more to it?

    Hopefully there will be some affordable 9.6 or better options in the next year or two! Seems like that should be an inevitability.

  18. bhanu

    Hello, I need some help from you all. I have a Denon X6200 amplifier which supports atmos, dtsx and Auro3d. I want to play Dolby Atmos & Auro together with the same amplifier. I am ready to include additional speakers. I want to switch over to Auro 3D when I play anything which has Auro 3D sound and wants to play Dolby atmos when I have anything to play in Dolby Atmos.

    Need your help, please. I am trying to get 4 additional ceiling speakers with one additional as VOG. Someone told me that i cannot play Auro3D and Dolby atmos together as speaker configurations are different. Is there anything setup which allows me to Switchover Dolby atmos and Auro3D as and when required.

    • Josh Zyber
      Author

      I have no experience with Auro-3D. From my understanding, designating your speakers as Front Height and Rear Height (rather than Top Front and Top Rear) is the only common layout for all three immersive sound formats: Atmos, DTS:X, and Auro. Make sure your receiver has the most recent firmware.

  19. Josh, I really appreciate all you’ve done and posted. Here is what I have, and would certainly appreciate your expertise:
    Onkyo TXRZ 810 (5.1.2) for my Atmos receiver. I have placed 2 Speakercraft speakers over head front, and need to incorporate at least another pair to fill the “hole”. My arena is 18′ from my screen.
    I have a Sherwood Newcastle R-945 rcvr and a Sherwood Newcastle P-965, with an external 6 channel amp.
    My question to you is, if I want to add 1 or 2 more pairs of overhead speakers, is there a way to use either of these pieces, or would you recommend just running them in series.
    Thanks in advance. Love your blog. Eric Arens

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