High-Def Digest's Dolby Atmos Home Theater Guide

Posted Fri Sep 12, 2014 at 09:45 AM PDT by
dolby atmos logo

Dolby is preparing to launch its newest audio innovation later this month, finally bringing the Atmos experience to a living room near you. But what exactly are the benefits of this exciting new tech and how does one go about upgrading their gear to support it? Well, those are all great questions, and great questions deserve answers!

So, without further ado, we present High-Def Digest's Complete Dolby Atmos Home Theater Guide, laying out the basics of the technology along with impressions and a full rundown of all of the available gear.  

The Basics

Dolby Atmos is a surround sound technology that utilizes object based mixing over traditional channel based mixing. Previously, movie tracks were designed with audio designated directionally to specific speakers through a predetermined number of discrete channels. For instance, in a 5.1 setup, sounds are only placed in the left, center, right, surround, and LFE channels. With Dolby Atmos, however, there are no channels. Instead, the individual audio objects are mixed in a virtual environment, allowing sound designers to place up to 128 separate sounds anywhere in the space at any given time, not just within a select number of fixed channels and locations. Special metadata is then paired with each sound, giving information about its location and movement throughout the environment. The Dolby Atmos renderer built into an Atmos A/V receiver will then take that metadata and place the sounds exactly where they are supposed to go within a user's specific speaker setup.

This means that Atmos soundtracks are not mixed to fit the rigid limitations of a 5.1 or 7.1 system. The sounds themselves exist as distinct objects in the room that can be scaled and adapted to be played back directionally under a wide variety of speaker configurations. Likewise, this also means that audio can now come from locations previously unavailable in traditional surround sound setups -- most notably from above.  With that in mind, for many, the most immediate and substantial benefit of Dolby Atmos in the home will be through the addition of overhead audio. Depending on the limitations of individual receivers and amps, the Atmos spec officially supports up to a 24.1.10 speaker configuration, which results in twenty four ear-level surround sound speakers, one subwoofer, and ten overhead height speakers. While a system of that size is likely out of most consumers' reach, Dolby recommends 5.1.2, 5.1.4, 7.1.2, 7.1.4, and 9.1.2 configurations (the last number signifies the amount of height speakers used), though the company prefers that customers opt for the setups with four height speakers (two in front, two in the back) for the most immersive experience.

In order to add overhead sound, users have several options. First, customers can simply mount traditional speakers in their ceiling. While this is the most effective method, it won't be suitable for everyone's home and setup. Thankfully, Dolby has worked hard with manufacturers to perfect special Dolby Atmos speakers which feature an additional driver mounted on top in order to reflect sound off of the ceiling. This simulates the effect of audio coming from above. Finally, for those who simply wish to upgrade their existing speakers, some companies will be releasing separate top-firing Atmos modules that can be mounted on top of current speakers. For a detailed rundown of Atmos speaker configurations and installations, check out Dolby's Official Atmos Speaker Setup Guide

Though customers will need to purchase a new Atmos-enabled receiver (or upgrade select existing models) to take advantage of the technology, Atmos soundtracks will be delivered through an extension of the existing Dolby TrueHD and Dolby Digital Plus formats, making them backwards compatible with current hardware. Likewise, current Blu-ray players will be able to play Atmos movies, but the soundtracks need to be played back through the bitstream option. Finally, Atmos receivers will also have the ability to upmix standard surround sound tracks into Atmos mixes.

Impressions

While all this talk of object based mixing and overhead audio probably sounds intriguing on paper, how does all of this technical jargon actually sound in action? Well, in short, pretty damn good. Last month, Dolby invited High-Def Digest to attend a special Atmos demo in their New York office. The company offered several demonstrations of Atmos content giving us comparisons between a traditional 7.1 system, an Atmos 7.1.4 system with actual ceiling speakers, and an Atmos 7.1.4 system with Atmos-enabled speakers. Josh Zyber previously covered the event in detail on The Bonus View, and I came away similarly impressed by what I heard.

We were treated to several specially designed Atmos trailers and the opening scene to 'Star Trek Into Darkness,' and though the difference between the traditional surround sound setup and the Atmos configuration wasn't exactly night and day, the extra sense of immersion was readily apparent allowing overhead sounds like rain and helicopters to actually come from above the listening position. Likewise, while one could tell the difference between the ceiling mounted speakers and the Atmos-enabled ear-level speakers, the reflected sound was still very convincing, offering an effective overhead experience. When the demo switched back and forth between the standard 7.1 setup to the Atmos setup, it was like the track suddenly gained an extra level of immersion that I had never realized was missing to begin with. And now that I know what was missing, I'm not so sure I want to go back. Basically, it left me wanting more.

Atmos Equipment

Various manufacturers including Pioneer, Onkyo, Denon, Yamaha, and Integra are starting to roll out their initial wave of Atmos products this month, offering a healthy assortment of different receivers and speakers. Below is a rundown of all of the currently listed Atmos devices along with details on the type of setups they support.

Onkyo Receivers

TX-NR636 - ($550) 7.2 Channel A/V Receiver with Atmos support for a 5.1.2 speaker configuration through a firmware upgrade available on September 29.

TX-NR737 - ($695) 7.2 Channel A/V Receiver with Atmos support for a 5.1.2 speaker configuration through a firmware upgrade available on September 29.

TX-NR838 - ($1,000) 7.2 Channel A/V Receiver with Atmos support for a 5.1.2 speaker configuration through a firmware upgrade available on September 29.

TX-NR1030 -  ($1,699)  9.2 Channel A/V Receiver with integrated Atmos support for 5.1.2, 5.1.4, and 7.1.2 setups. Available in October.

TX-NR3030 ($2,399) 11.2 Channel A/V Receiver with integrated Atmos support for 5.1.2, 5.1.4, 7.1.2, 7.1.4, and 9.1.2 setups. Available in October.

PR-SC5530 Network A/V Controller - ($2,499) 11.2 Channel A/V Controller with integrated Atmos support for 5.1.2, 5.1.4, 7.1.2, 7.1.4, and 9.1.2 setups. Available in October.

Pioneer Receivers

Pioneer Elite SC-85 - ($1,599)  9.2 Channel A/V Receiver with upgradeable Atmos support by the end of September for 5.1.2, 5.1.4, and 7.1.2 Atmos setups. Available now.

Pioneer Elite SC-87 - ($1,999)  9.2 Channel A/V Receiver with upgradeable Atmos support by the end of September for 5.1.2, 5.1.4, and 7.1.2 Atmos setups. Available now.

Pioneer Elite SC-89 - ($2,999)  9.2 Channel A/V Receiver with upgradeable Atmos support by the end of September for 5.1.2, 5.1.4, and 7.1.2 Atmos setups. Available now.

Denon Receivers

Denon X4100W - ($1,399)  7.2 Channel A/V Receiver with integrated Atmos support for a 5.1.2 speaker configuration. A separate two-channel amplifier can also be added to provide support for 5.1.4 or 7.1.2 Atmos configurations. Now shipping.

Denon X5200W - ($1,999)  9.2 Channel A/V Receiver with integrated Atmos support for 5.1.2, 5.1.4, and 7.1.2 Atmos setups. A separate two-channel amplifier can be added to provide 7.1.4 and 9.1.2 Atmos options as well. Now shipping.

Yamaha Receivers

Yamaha RX-A2040BL - ( $1,600) 9.2 Channel A/V Receiver with Atmos support for 5.1.2, 5.1.4, and 7.1.2 Atmos setups through a future firmware upgrade. Now shipping.

Yamaha RX-A3040BL - ($2,000)  9.2 Channel A/V Receiver with 11.2-channel expandability and potential Atmos support for 5.1.2, 5.1.4, 7.1.2, 7.1.4 and 9.1.2 Atmos setups through a future firmware upgrade. Now shipping.

Integra Receivers

DTR-30.6 - ($1,000) 7.2 Channel A/V Receiver with Atmos support for a 5.1.2 speaker configuration through a firmware upgrade available in September. Now shipping.

DTR-40.6 - ($1,300) 7.2 Channel A/V Receiver with Atmos support for a 5.1.2 speaker configuration through a firmware upgrade available in September. Now shipping.

DTR-50.6 -( $1,700) 7.2 Channel A/V Receiver with Atmos support for a 5.1.2 speaker configuration through a firmware upgrade. Available in September.

DTR-60.6 - ($2,300) 9.2 Channel A/V Receiver with integrated Atmos support for 5.1.2, 5.1.4, and 7.1.2 Atmos setups. Available in October

DTR-70.6 - ($2,800) 11.2 Channel A/V Receiver with integrated Atmos support for 5.1.2, 5.1.4, 7.1.2, 7.1.4, and 9.1.2 setups. Available in October.

DHC-80.6  - ($3,200) 11.2 Channel Pre-Amp Surround Processor with integrated Atmos support. Available in October.

Marantz Receivers

Marantz SR7009 - ($2,000) 9.2 Channel A/V Receiver with integrated Atmos support for 5.1.2, 5.1.4, and 7.1.2 Atmos setups. A separate two-channel amplifier can be added to provide 7.1.4 and 9.1.2 Atmos options as well. Available in September.

Pioneer Atmos Speakers

Elite SP-EBS73-LR Bookshelf Speakers - ($749 for a pair) Features an additional 4-inch driver mounted on top to simulate overhead sound effects. Available October 25.

Elite SP-EFS73 Floorstanding Speakers - ($699 each) Features an additional 4-inch driver mounted on top to simulate overhead sound effects. Available October 25.

Atmos Speaker Modules

Atlantic Technology 44-DA Atmos Module - ($499 for a pair) Specially designed Atmos module can be used both as a stand alone elevation speaker or as an expansion to existing speakers, adding overhead sound to a user's Dolby Atmos home theater. Available in the 4th quarter of 2014.

KEF R50 Atmos Module - ($1,200) Can be placed on top of the company's existing freestanding or wall-mounted satellite speakers, adding overhead sound to a user's Dolby Atmos home theater.

Definitive Technology's A60 Atmos Module - ($499) Sits atop the Definitive Technology BP-8060ST, adding overhead sound to a user's Dolby Atmos home theater.

Onkyo SKH-410 Atmos Module - ($249 for a pair) Sits on top of your floorstanding front speakers or on an entertainment unit, adding overhead sound to a user's Dolby Atmos home theater.

Onkyo Atmos Home Theater Systems

Onkyo HT-S7700 - ($899) 5.1.2-Channel Dolby Atmos Ready Network A/V Receiver/Speaker Package with Atmos-enabled speakers. Coming Soon.

Onkyo HT-S9700THX - ($1,199) 5.1.2-Channel Dolby Atmos Ready Network A/V Receiver/Speaker Package with included front height speakers. Coming Soon.

Content

Now that we've covered all of that fancy new gear, the next step will be getting some good movies to test it all out on. Dolby has confirmed that Atmos soundtracks will be available for Blu-ray discs and streaming services. Paramount and Warner Bros. have both pledged their support and will start releasing their initial titles in the fall and early next year. The first Blu-ray with an Atmos soundtrack will be 'Transformers: Age of Extinction' which will be released on September 30. No other films have been announced yet. Likewise, VUDU will be the first streaming service to provide Atmos audio, though specific titles and a launch date have not been revealed.

 

While upgrading a home theater system can be a daunting (and expensive) challenge, Dolby and its manufacturing partners are offering a wide array of options for customers, making it as easy as possible for audiophiles to experience Dolby Atmos in their homes. It remains to be seen just how much of an improvement Atmos will make and just how many upcoming titles will support the tech, but the future of home audio certainly looks very promising. We're hoping to get our hands on some Atmos gear and content in the near future, so stayed tuned to High-Def Digest for more updates and impressions. For now, though, what do you think of Dolby's latest audio technology? Will you be investing in Atmos, and if so, what kind of setup are you hoping to build for your latest home theater upgrade? 

See what people are saying about this story in our forums area, or check out other recent discussions.

Tags: Dolby Atmos, Atmos, Speakers, Receivers, Home Audio, Pioneer, Denon, Marantz, Integra, Yamaha, Onkyo, Dolby, KEF, Definitive Technology, Atlantic Technology (all tags)