Does Dolby Atmos Really Make a Difference?

Dolby Atmos finally gets surround sound right.

Mostly…

Audiophiles and home theater geeks alike agree that speakers can only get you so far. To enjoy truly immersive, realistic sound, you need to use the best audio system available. Many people, including the cinema industry, agree that Dolby Atmos is the best sound system.

However, with the price and setup, how does it compare to other audio systems? Is Dolby Atmos worth it? Let’s find out!


Today, anything that makes sound seems to have an option for Dolby Atmos. Dolby alone makes speakers, soundbars, headphones, and more specifically for Dolby Atmos.


What Is Dolby Atmos?

Back in 2012, at the premiere of the new Pixar movie, Brave, Dolby Atmos was introduced. As of 2020, over six thousand theaters have embraced Dolby Atmos as the standard movie theater sound system.

Dolby Atmos first became available for home use in 2016, and has even been found in smartphones since 2017.

Before we can dive into making claims on the value of Dolby Atmos, we must first explore the intricacies of how such technology works and how it differs from other sound systems. Let’s take a look first at how traditional surround sound works, and then we’ll dive into the innovations of Dolby Atmos.


How Traditional Surround Sound Systems Work

In a traditional surround sound setup, multiple speakers are set up around the edges of a room and aimed at the center where the audience sits. In both theaters and home setups, surround sound systems use a minimum of five speakers; the front center, front right, front left, side right, and side left.

More advanced systems usually also have back right, back left, and subwoofer speakers. While having more speakers would give you a “bigger” sound, the reason this speaker configuration is so important is the channels.

Audio channels are what let surround systems truly shine. During the mixing process, audio engineers choose which sound bites come through to which speaker. If you’ve ever listened to something with headphones and noticed the audio move from the right channel to the left, it’s kind of like that.

An example using this type of mixing might be for voices.

If a character is talking while walking onto the screen from the right and continues talking as they move to the center, the audio will follow them from the right side to the right front to the center front speaker. All the while, you may be hearing music from the front right and front left speakers while simultaneously hearing a dog barking from the back left.

By audio mixing, picking channels, and listening through a surround sound system, the viewers’ experience becomes more immersive. Dolby Atmos takes these technologies to the next level.


What Does Dolby Atmos System Do?

There are two major additions that Dolby Atmos adds to the audio experience: height channels and sound object placement.

In traditional surround sound, all sound lives in a single plain. Whether you put the front center speaker under the TV and the left and right front speaker up in the corners by the ceiling, all the sound is mixed for one level.

In a Dolby Atmos system, the addition of low set and ceiling speakers makes for an immersive 3D sound experience. Rather than merely hearing a general direction to sound, there will be a discernible location.

“But why does channel height make a difference for Dolby if it doesn’t change the experience of surround sound,” you ask? It is all thanks to the introduction of sound object placement.

Sound object placement is the Dolby Atmos system’s ability to channel sound to an exact point in a room, rather than relying on individual speaker channels.

What this means is if someone is playing piano or a helicopter flies over, the audio will match the exact placement of the object in question. The piano will not just be to the left – it will be three feet to your left and a little bit behind you. The helicopter doesn’t merely pass from left to right – it flies over you a hundred feet up.

The Dolby Atmos system allows sound engineers to pick exact locations for each sound, placing them accurately for both on and off-screen events.

Image: Dolby.com

How Dolby Atmos Mimics Binaural Audio

If this is all sounding familiar, you may be thinking of something called binaural audio. Binaural audio is a unique form of sound recording that mimics human hearing. It is designed to create the most realistic sound experience using a mannequin head and microphones placed in the ears.

When sound is recorded in such a manner, the playback sounds nearly identical to what a human would hear. If a door opens, it will sound like a door in the same position and distance opening. So how is this different from Dolby Atmos?

Well, first of all, Dolby does not require a special recording system. All sound mixing is done post-recording, and the speakers themselves do the work of placing the sound in an environment.

For binaural audio, the primary problem is that it requires headphones. As it is mimicking your actual ears, binaural audio relies on a two-channel system. The intricacies of binaural sounds are lost when played by directional speakers.

Secondly, binaural audio is a recording of sounds in physical locations. If you hear a sound behind you, that means it was recorded by playing that sound behind the mannequin.

Dolby Atmos does not require such a tedious process. It is still the work of the sound engineer to place each audio file within a specific locale.


What You Would Need for an at Home Dolby Atmos System

While theaters have the luxury of construction and installation teams to wire speakers into the ceiling, most homeowners don’t. Even if you can cut holes in your ceiling, thread wires, and rewire to install speakers, the cost alone makes this an impractical option.

AV Receiver

The first piece of equipment you need to set up a Dolby Atmos compatible soundstage is an AV receiver. An AV receiver has two main functions. One, it jacks up the sound enough to be at the correct volume when coming through the speakers, and two, it allows you to select the proper audio-video channel.

Only Dolby Atmos compatible AV receivers will allow you to select Atmos as the audio channel, and only these receivers will know what to do with Atmos audio files. The good news is many newer AV receivers already come with built-in capabilities for this, so you may not need a new one.

Speakers

There’s good news, and there’s bad news when it comes to speakers. The bad news is that not all speakers are Dolby Atmos compatible. If you already have a surround system setup, you may have to replace it.

The good news is that if you have Dolby-capable speakers, you may only need to purchase additional up-firing speakers. Several brands offer these. They can simply be placed on top of your existing speakers or surfaces nearby.

If you don’t have an adaptable sound system in place, several complete packages include speakers with up-firing capabilities. Of course, you can also go the route of punching holes in your ceiling if you’d like.

Image: Dolby.com

Soundbars

If space is limited, or you don’t want or can’t afford a full surround sound setup, a soundbar is a good alternative.

Soundbars offer a similar soundstage with a more limited directionality. Proper Dolby Atmos soundbars can fire sound up, to the sides, and forward. If a full Dolby sound system is considered a 360° 3D experience, soundbars offer about a 180° 3D experience.

Other Dolby Atmos Devices

In addition to home theater sound systems, you can find Dolby Atmos on almost any device. Nowadays, many programs, films, and games have Dolby Atmos capabilities and so do the devices you watch them on.

While the name is there, the Atmos systems on these devices will never match up to a home system or theater. Devices like smartphones have one speaker, so the aim isn’t really to make an immersive sound experience, so much as it is to improve the sound quality and add depth.

Regardless, the system is in place, so let’s figure out if it makes a worthwhile difference or if it is all about branding.


Is Dolby Atmos Worth it?

It’s finally time to examine whether or not Dolby Atmos is worth it and which device it is most suited to. Let’s go over everything device and system to determine if you even need to bother or if it is a must.

Movie Theaters

There’s no contest when it comes to Dolby Atmos in the cinema. It is the best sound experience you will get. The overwhelming number of speakers combined with top-of-the-line audio and mixing makes it an experience like no other. The sheer size of theaters gives sound the room to move and change in ways it never would anywhere else.

As Dolby Atmos was initially designed for theaters and is quickly becoming the standard in cinemas, the choice between standard and Dolby could soon go away entirely. Dolby Atmos is simply the better sound option.

Is Dolby Atmos worth it? Yes


Home Theaters

While Dolby Atmos home theater setups are not cheap, you have to be prepared to cash out a bit if you are looking to get a home theater of any kind. Whether you design to integrate speakers into the ceiling, add additions to your existing sound system or get a simple soundbar, Dolby Atmos is worth it.

It is the single best home sound system you will find. If you are looking for an immersive, realistic, 3D sound experience, a Dolby Atmos home theater system is the closest you will get to the cinema experience.

Is Dolby Atmos worth it? Yes


TVs

There are some smart TVs nowadays that have their own integrated Dolby Atmos systems. While these systems provide better sound quality than a standard TV speaker system, you still only get three speakers maximum.

Furthermore, you do not need a Dolby TV to hook up Dolby Atmos speakers; any old TV will work. Dolby TVs don’t even cut out the middle man. If you choose to add speakers, you will more than likely still need an AV receiver to power them all.

It is more cost-efficient and gives you a better sound result to keep whatever TV you already have and simply add on a Dolby Atmos home theater system.

Is Dolby Atmos worth it? No


Laptops

Laptops are a complex issue when it comes to assessing the worthiness of a Dolby Atmos system. On the one hand, the way Atmos-enabled laptops are designed places them about on par with a soundbar or TV.

There are multiple speakers, and the high and low end are more expanded than something like a phone. However, they are still relatively small devices and provide only one sound source.

While the audio experience will be better, the sound quality and immersion are impressive. You will not have surround sound or directional 3D sound like a full system would give you.

It is an improvement over standard audio for sure, but unless you love gaming and watching movies on your laptop, it’s probably not worth the cost. Additionally, many games are known to switch the audio back to a standard format, negating all effects of the Atmos system.

Is Dolby Atmos worth it? Mostly


Tablets

You can probably already guess the answer to this one, but let’s say you have a fancy tablet with two speakers. Is it worth it then?

Unfortunately, the answer is still no. Tablet speakers are extremely limited and only have one direction. If you are starting with a decent audio file or something Atmos compatible, Dolby Atmos might help boost the sound a bit, but it’s unlikely you’d even notice.

Is Dolby Atmos worth it? No


Phones

Atmos-enabled phones pose the same problem as tablets. With only one tiny speaker, the audio will never sound good. Additionally, if you are not playing Dolby Atmos audios, it will probably only sound as good as any other compressed file would.

A considerable part of what makes Atmos sound good is the format that the audio is encoded with. If you are not using the correct file to begin with, it will not sound any different. It’s like trying to watch a 480p video on a 4k monitor. It will still only be 480p.

If you listen to Atmos-derived audio and hook the phone up to an additional five speakers, then it will sound alright.

Is Dolby Atmos worth it? No


Gaming Consoles

Gaming consoles are a bit of an odd contender as they require a TV and speakers separate from the console to function.

While many consoles such as Xbox recommend using Dolby Atmos to enhance the games, many games are not equipped to handle Atmos sound.

If you like gaming, obviously having a Dolby Atmos home theater system will improve the experience, but just keep in mind that not all games – and not even all consoles – are compatible.

Is Dolby Atmos worth it? Mostly


Headphones

Regardless of the sound system, you are only ever working with two channels when it comes to headphones. There is a left speaker and a right speaker. While Atmos may improve the overall sound quality, it is not designed for two or fewer speakers in a confined space.

You can achieve the same level of audio enhancement from a high-quality set of headphones. If you have good headphones already, Atmos sound won’t make much of a difference, but it may help to improve poorer quality headphones like earbuds if that’s all you have.

Is Dolby Atmos worth it? Not really


Content

Hundreds of films come with Dolby Atmos integrated sound. DVDs, Blu-Rays, and streaming services alike offer shows and movies suitable for Atmos. You’ll know it by the symbol or Dolby Atmos logo. Services like Netflix specify what audio types the movies have.

Dolby Atmos audio is very slowly taking over in the same way that Blu-Rays are. It is still easy to find DVDs, but almost everything has a Blu-Ray option. Similarly, standard and traditional audio systems may still be the norm. However, Atmos seems to be aiming to make itself the standard.

The only form of media that has yet to attempt a shift to Atmos is gaming. While some high-budget, big studio games may be Atmos integrated, many smaller game developers don’t bother. You’d be more likely to find binaural audio in most games, and even that is still a rarity.

Is Dolby Atmos worth it? Yes

Tim Wells

Tim Wells got his first computer at the age of ten and hasn't stopped tinkering ever since. After discovering Android TV boxes in 2013, he created a popular Android PC Review website and guided it to over 8 million pageviews before stepping away in 2018. After a brief hiatus from the industry he's back at the helm of AndroidTVNews.com to bring Android TV and TV boxes to the forefront of the streaming world. When he's not writing, he spends as much time as he can with his beautiful wife and his bulldog.

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