Dolby Atmos Home Version: Demo + Q&A

Dolby’s groundbreaking Atmos surround sound format is coming to Blu-ray and home theater later this year. Will the home version really be as good as what we hear in cinemas, or will it be watered down for mass market CE consumption? To answer that question, Dolby invited myself and some other home theater journalists to its New York headquarters to listen for ourselves.

First off, I can confirm that home Atmos works and it sounds pretty great. The Dolby reps showed us four Atmos trailers and one movie clip. At least two of the trailers (called ‘Amaze’ and ‘Unfold’) you may have seen if you’ve been to an Atmos theater. For reference, here are the web-friendly versions reduced to underwhelming YouTube quality audio:

The third was called ‘Leaf’, featuring animation by Pixar with sound design by the great Gary Rydstrom. The last trailer was a Red Bull Media ad involving a Formula 1 race car. The movie clip was the opening scene from ‘Star Trek into Darkness‘. We were instructed to be very clear that Paramount provided the ‘Star Trek’ clip for testing and demo purposes only, and this should not be taken as confirmation that ‘Star Trek into Darkness’ will be released on Blu-ray with an Atmos soundtrack. Dolby and its studio partners are not ready to announce specific Blu-ray titles yet.

We watched all of these presentations twice, once in the office’s main screening room that played the Atmos cinema mixes, and then again later in a smaller home theater demo room where we heard the home versions played back through (upcoming) consumer speakers. I’ll be honest; I actually found the cinema screening room a little underwhelming. The sound quality at Dolby’s San Francisco office is much better than the New York office. Although directionality from multiple overhead speakers was good, the audio sounded very bright and flat. This was not a great showcase for Atmos. I’ve heard Atmos sound better than this.

In fact, if anything, the home theater demo had superior sound quality. Some of that may have been due to room characteristics. The home theater room was much smaller than the cinema room, with speakers closer to the listening position, and the Atmos track was rendered for near-field viewing. The room didn’t have nearly as many speakers, and the bass wasn’t quite as powerful, but overall fidelity was superior.

The home theater room was set up in a 7.1.4 configuration. That’s seven speakers on stands at ear level, one subwoofer, and four overhead speakers on the ceiling. The sense of immersiveness and directionality from all the clips we viewed was terrific, with plenty of discrete sounds moving around above our heads.

Next we heard a couple of audio-only demos: a helicopter circling the room and a rainstorm. We listened to these in three variations. First was a standard 7.1 down-render with no Atmos. Next was Atmos utilizing all the speakers in the room (including overheads). Finally was Atmos with the overhead speakers turned off, but Atmos modules on four of the ground speakers firing upwards to bounce sounds off the ceiling. That last one is for people who want Atmos at home but can’t mount speakers above their heads.

Obviously, both versions of Atmos were superior to the basic 7.1, which restricted the helicopter and rain sounds to ground level with a big gaping hole in the soundstage above the listening position. The Atmos mixes were much more convincing and realistic. However, I think this was a little unfair. Most people who install 5.1 or 7.1 surround sound already place their side and rear surround speakers either on the ceiling or high on the walls, not on stands at ear level. I would have liked a comparison to a 9.1 or 11.1 configuration utilizing front height speakers, high surrounds (no ground level), and ProLogic IIz without Atmos (or to DTS Neo:X, but I certainly didn’t expect Dolby to demonstrate a competitor’s product).

Regardless, the Atmos demos were very impressive. I felt that the version using discrete ceiling speakers sounded best, but the upward-firing ground speakers were no slouch either and were a pretty convincing substitute. Depending on your own room characteristics (super-tall cathedral ceilings may pose a significant challenge), most viewers in average-sized rooms should find that option quite satisfying.

The home theater version of Atmos is ready to go, it works as advertised, and HT fans who upgrade to it will no doubt be very pleased with the results.

Before, between and after the demos, we were given the chance to ask questions to several Dolby reps. The main speakers were Craig Eggers (Director of Content Creation and Playback, Home Theater Ecosystem), Brett Crockett (Senior Director, Sound Technology Research), and Joshua Gershman (Public Relations Manager). The following are not direct quotes, and I don’t remember who said what, but this is some of the information I gleaned from the interactions.

What Exactly Will I Need to Upgrade to Atmos?

  1. An A/V receiver or pre-pro with an Atmos decoder/processor. In most cases, this will entail buying a new receiver, though a few brands have announced that older models can be upgraded by firmware updates. Check with your manufacturer.
  2. More speakers. The recommended minimum layout is 7.1.4, but Atmos is capable of scaling up to more speakers if you install them (or down to less as well). The Blu-ray version of Atmos can support up to 24.1.10 discrete speakers, which should be more than enough to accommodate even the largest home theater rooms.
  3. Amplification for the additional speakers. This may be built into the receiver, or you may need to buy an external amp to power the extra channels.
  4. A hell of a lot more speaker wire to go to all those new speakers.

Won’t I Need a New Blu-ray Player Too?

Most likely not. Any Blu-ray player capable of transmitting a Dolby TrueHD soundtrack in Bitstream format will be compatible with Atmos. Unfortunately, this will rule out first-generation players and the original “fat” PS3, but the PS3 Slim and any standalone model made since mid-2007 or so should be good to go.

Note that you must set the player for Bitstream transmission via HDMI and turn off Secondary Audio.

Do I Need to Buy Special Atmos Speakers or Can I Keep My Current Speakers?

If you plan to use the version of Atmos that fires sounds upwards from ground level to bounce off the ceiling, you will need specific Atmos-enabled speakers. You cannot simply take some old bookshelf speakers and aim them towards the ceiling, for example. The Atmos modules in the speakers need to shape the sound frequency so that it bounces correctly.

Some manufactures will offer add-on modules that can be placed on top of (or next to, on stands) your current floor-standing speakers.

Whether you buy Atmos-enabled mains or add-on modules, the upward-firing portion is technically considered its own speaker and will require a separate run of speaker wire from your receiver/amp.

If you plan to use only direct-firing speakers, with discrete speakers installed in the ceiling, you do not need special Atmos speakers. Your existing mains and surround speakers will work fine. You’ll just need more of them.

Dolby recommends that all of your speakers be timbre matched, so mixing and matching different brands is probably not a good idea. Ideally, you should use identical full-range speakers at all locations, but installing full-range speakers on the ceiling seems impractical to me. I expect that most people will use small surround speakers and bass management for all the height channels.

When Will Home Atmos Be Available?

Later this year. Hardware manufacturers including Denon, Integra, Marantz, Onkyo, Pioneer, Steinway Lyngdorf, Yamaha, Trinnov Audio and Definitive Technologies have already announced Atmos products.

Atmos titles on Blu-ray are coming, but specific titles and release dates are not ready to be announced yet. Additionally, some streaming platforms (again, not yet announced) will support Atmos via the lossy Dolby Digital Plus codec.

How Do I Calibrate for Atmos?

The Atmos decoder will piggyback off of the receiver’s built-in automatic calibration tools (such as Audyssey, YPAO or MCACC). The calibration may take longer with more speakers, but fortunately you should only need to calibrate once for all formats, Atmos or otherwise.

Can I Watch an Atmos Blu-ray If I Don’t Have Atmos Equipment?

Yes. Atmos will be encoded on Blu-ray in Dolby TrueHD format as a 7.1 base with additional metadata for the Atmos extensions. If you don’t have an Atmos processor, your receiver will still be able to decode in standard 5.1 or 7.1 formats.

Don’t worry, you won’t lose any sound effects when you do this. All the sounds will be folded down to the 5.1 or 7.1 base and redirected to your current speakers.

Is the 5.1 or 7.1 Track on an Atmos Blu-ray the Same as a Normal Blu-ray?

The primary soundtrack on an Atmos Blu-ray is the Atmos soundtrack. The 7.1 base is a fold-down from Atmos, and may contain differences from a dedicated 7.1 mix. According to Dolby, some Hollywood sound designers were initially concerned about this, but ultimately found that the results were as good or better than dedicated 5.1 or 7.1 mixes. Of course, this is Dolby’s spin on it, so you may have to take that with a grain of salt.

As with a normal TrueHD disc, an Atmos Blu-ray will also contain a companion (lossy) Dolby Digital 5.1 track for backwards compatibility purposes. Discs may also include additional sound options (such as foreign language dubs) at the discretion of the studio. Theoretically, a disc could feature both an Atmos track and a separate TrueHD 5.1 or 7.1 dedicated mix if the studio desires and the disc has enough space available.

Can a Normal Blu-ray Be Upmixed to Atmos?

Yes. The Atmos processor can take a standard 5.1 or 7.1 soundtrack and upmix it to the additional speakers you have installed. This will probably not sound as good as a true Atmos mix, of course.

The Atmos processor uses brand new algorithms to do this, which are not the same as the various varities of ProLogic II you may be using now to upmix stereo to 5.1 (or 5.1 to higher speaker counts). Dolby claims that the Atmos upmixing is superior to ProLogic II upmixing. Again, you may want to take that with a grain of salt until someone has the chance to do a lot of direct comparisons.

[Note: Additional questions about Atmos are addressed in this follow-up post.]

34 comments

  1. BSTNFAN

    What if my existing side speakers are bipole/dipole? Do they need to be replaced or can calibration account for it?

    • Josh Zyber
      Author

      Direct radiating speakers are recommended for all locations. One of the main advantages of Atmos is pinpoint localization in the soundfield. Bipole or dipole speakers will disperse the sound, and you may wind up with conflicts from speaker overlap.

      The surrounds I use actually have a switch that allows me to choose between direct or dipole. If yours don’t, then unfortunately yes, you would probably need to replace your surround speakers.

      • DKS

        Thanks Josh. Very Informative post.
        I have just started to build my HT setup, so thinking of going straight to 5.1.2 atmos. I have dedicated 12w x 17l x 9h room. I already have Polk RtiA9s for front with Emotiva XPA-2 and Onkyo 838. WAS considering Csi A6/A4 for center, and FxiA6 for rear surrounds.
        Now, as Fxi’s are bipole/dipole, which other speakers should use for
        Rear Surrounds – I don’t want too deep/obtrusive speakers – ??
        Ceiling – Which would be better choice for atmos 70-Rt/90-Rt or 80F/X-RT ??

        Also can Dolby Atmos work with just in-ceiling speakers?

        • Josh Zyber
          Author

          Dolby recommends that you use all direct-firing speakers, not bipole or dipole, which will disperse the sound and make it diffuse.

          “Also can Dolby Atmos work with just in-ceiling speakers?”

          I assume this means that all of your surround speakers would be in-ceiling, and your only speakers at ear-level will be in the front of the room? In that case, you’d want to set your receiver to say that those surrounds speakers are part of the 5.1 or 7.1 base, not height channels. If you install additional in-ceiling speakers in the front of the room, those would be your only height channels. So it’d be 5.1.2. The Atmos decoder will direct all height cues to the front ceiling speakers, and all surround activity to the rear ceiling speakers. But the rear ceiling speakers will not receive any height cues.

  2. Timcharger

    Josh, did they give you sense how much larger (more disc space) a
    Dolby TrueHD-Atmos track will be compared to a TrueHD-non-Atmos
    track?

    They are calling it, an Atmos Blu-ray? Will it be marketed like a
    separate thing like 3D Blu-rays? In other words, instead of just 2
    releases: 1) a blu-ray with lossless sound codecs and 2) the DVD
    version; the 3D version is a separate SKU (stock keeping unit)
    version.

    So the Atmos version, will be a separate SKU item? Or will it just
    replace the normal TrueHD track? Hence, my 1st question, is the
    file size that much bigger?

    • Josh Zyber
      Author

      I did not get a chance to ask about disc space. I suppose that would depend on the specifics of the movie and soundtrack.

      The Atmos track will simply replace a normal TrueHD track. Since it’s backwards compatible, it will not need a separate SKU, though I imagine that studios are planning to reissue a bunch of titles with a special marketing push for Atmos. How exactly they will be marketed is up to the studios.

  3. Mike H

    One thing I have noticed after doing heavy research regarding the implementation of Atmos in the home is that all of the diagrams and demos illustrate and use the ideal situation for a home theater which makes total sense. In my case I have a small dedicated home theater with my MLP against the back wall. Is this going to limit me only to a 5.1.2 setup even though I would like to use 4 ceiling speakers? Curious how the sound moves across the Atmos channels and if the top rear speakers need to be behind the MLP as I keep seeing in demos and diagrams to really enjoy the full Atmos effect? So many questions. I am sure answers will come as the hardware gets into the consumers hands and people start experimenting with different locations for the Atmos speakers. Interesting times for sure.

  4. I thought I read before that you felt the ceiling in your basement was too low for this set up, did this presentation change your mind? Do you think adding these speakers will significantly increase immersion in your theater?

  5. Bill

    G’day Josh. Two questions. One serious and one a bit facetious.

    1. Any idea if the folks at DTS have something equivalent in the works? I’d hate to buy an Dolby ATMOS receiver only to have DTS also introduce their own flavour almost immediately. Better to wait.

    2. Is Dolby going to give all the husbands who want to add even more speakers to their theatre rooms a foolproof script to that they can use to convince their spouses? The WAF has been one of the biggest snags when it comes to home theatre surround sound systems. Those ceiling speakers are not going to be an easy sell.

    • Josh Zyber
      Author

      DTS is working on something. They purchased SRS Labs a couple years ago, and in doing so acquired the company’s object-based “MDA” format. How a theoretical DTS object-based home product would differ from Atmos and how long it might take to come to market (if ever) are unknowns right now. Dolby getting a big jump on them may seriously impede their plans.

  6. Bill

    Also to Josh. (can’t edit previous posts)

    Good write up. You ably cleared up a number of questions I had about ATMOS. Thanks.

  7. cardpetree

    I’m more concerned with when this format is going to be released to all theaters? I’ve been needing to upgrade all my home theater gear for a while now so I don’t see being able to upgrade to Atmos for a long time. Still waiting on that winning Powerball ticket though.

  8. Josh Zyber
    Author

    I’ve made a correction to the “Is the 5.1 or 7.1 Track on an Atmos Blu-ray the Same as a Normal Blu-ray?” section of the article to clarify that an Atmos Blu-ray could contain additional soundtrack options.

  9. Will this be backwards compatible with Pro Logic IIz? IIz has the “height channel” if I remember correctly, which are speakers placed above your front speakers. Obviously not as immersion as Atmos, but it may still be more Atmos-like than traditional 7.1 if Atmos tracks were backwards compatible with that format.

    • William Henley

      I would assume not. Pro Logic IIz matrixes sound from a 7.1 or 5.1 mix. I would assume that it would still take the 7.1 track and matrix it just like it has always done

    • Josh Zyber
      Author

      ProLogic IIz is a decoding format in the receiver that extracts height cues from a traditional 5.1 or 7.1 soundtrack via matrixing. There are no discrete height channels encoded on the disc.

      The Atmos decoder will be able to perform a similar type of “upmixing” of old soundtracks, but it uses newer algorithms that Dolby claims are superior to ProLogic IIz.

  10. William Henley

    I’m in a small apartment, but I could see me doing 7.1.4. Adding an additional 4 speakers shouldn’t be an issue, and I got so many holes in the walls already, putting a few holes in the ceiling shouldn’t matter.

    I’m just waiting for the amps to get down to a reasonable price. When I can get a 7.1.4 for $500, I’ll jump on it.

    Meanwhile, I plan to go ahead and start buying discs with Atmos tracks to be ready for the upgrade when it happens.

    • Josh Zyber
      Author

      I personally asked that question directly to the head of Dolby R&D. He explicitly told me that regular speakers aimed upwards should not be used in place of the Atmos “Elevation” speakers or add-on modules, because the proper speakers incorporate some passive filtering to shape the sound better for reflecting off the ceiling. Now, perhaps you may suspect that he had ulterior motives for saying that (Dolby gets a licensing fee off those official Atmos speakers, after all), but he didn’t try to sell me on replacing any other speakers, and admitted that any direct-firing speakers will work fine for the height channels if you install them on the ceiling rather than bounce sounds from below. The only scenario where he recommended buying Atmos-specific speakers was for upward-firing.

      I’m not an engineer and I haven’t torn apart an Elevation speaker to see what’s in it. I can only report what I was told, and that was the answer I was given. I will admit that’s an interesting article at Audioholics, though.

  11. Gary

    I bought a new dolby atmos 7.1 system by Onkyo I have 7 speakers + the upward firing Dolby atmos speakers again by Onkyo. The height speakers are hooked to the dolby atmos ones. taking away the back speakers?? where do I connect the back speakers now as I have changed it to Atmos height surrowund.

    It was suggested i connect the back speakers to my side surround speakers. Is this correct?? When will movies be coming out on Blue ray that actually take advantage of the dolby atmos??

    thank you for the help

    • Josh Zyber
      Author

      There are currently four movies available on Blu-ray with Dolby Atmos soundtracks: Transformers Age of Extinction, Step Up All In, The Expendables 3, and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. A reissue of Gravity will be released soon with an Atmos soundtrack. Upcoming Blu-ray releases of John Wick and Exodus Gods and Kings will also have Atmos.

      [Edit: Exodus is not confirmed.]

      As for the best way to connect the speakers to your receiver, you’ll have to consult with the receiver manual for that. I can tell you how to do it on a Denon receiver, but I don’t know about Onkyo.

    • Steven

      Gary,

      Unfortunately you only have a 7 channel amp. You are trying to setup 7.1.2 which actually requires a 9 channel amp. (7 channels for surround + 2 channels for Atmos).

      If you want to use Atmos, you will have to settle for 5.1.2 with your 7 channel amp.

      Steven

  12. I bought an Onkyo 636 and set it up over the weekend. I bought 4 dolby-surround enabled speaker modules, and it was in trying to hook up the second pair that I discovered (with a palm to the forehead) that it only support 2 height channels at the cost of the two rear surround channels. I was seriously bummed.

    BUT, I played material on it and found that the 5.1.2 setup is really pretty cool! In particular, I was listening to a classical radio broadcast (which I normally only listen to in stereo) in the new Dolby Surround mode and found the effect quite pleasing. Much more so than any of the other ProLogic modes I ever tested on other receivers.

    I bought the Transfomers BluRay, just because it was the only ATMOS encoded title I could get my hands on. It could be that I was distracted by the Atmos effect, but I did not hate the movie as much as I planned to.

    I sorta-kinda miss the two back surround channels, but I have never found them particularly well-employed. I do think I’ll upgrade to a 5.1.4 layout with a different, upgraded receiver. The units that allow for 7.1.4 are quite a bit more, unless you’re prepared to ran a two-channel amp to the more common 9.1 receivers.

  13. Josh
    While we’re on this page… As the ice thaws at your place, ( or is it still getting worse?). I was wondering if you’ve had a chance to give any of your new atmos equipment a good test run. Of the small selection of Atmos titles, have you seen any of them yet? Every time I look up Atmos user reviews, I either get the usual bluray sites, which a lot of them haven’t upgraded yet, or atmos spec charts, but no real detailed description on the tracks themselves. Anyone here know where I can find some detailed reviews on the bluray Atmos tracks themselves? Besides a guy that I occasionally run into at Moviestop, this is the only place I know of to hear about Atmos.

    • Josh Zyber
      Author

      I have thoughts on this subject, but I’m not ready to formulate them into a blog post yet. I need to find time to watch more of the available Atmos Blu-rays. The only one I’ve watched in full was Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, which has little to no height channel activity and I found very distracting. I hear that Expendables 3 and John Wick are better. I have both discs in house but haven’t cracked the shrinkwrap on them yet.

Leave a Reply to Marc Fishman Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *