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The Complete Beginner’s Guide to Dolby Atmos

The Complete Beginner's Guide to Dolby Atmos

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What is Dolby Atmos audio, and how do you install it in your room? Learn how to improve your surround sound in the complete beginner's guide to Dolby Atmos.

Dolby Atmos is one of the most exciting developments in home theater audio in many years.

It takes movie audio to another level by adding overhead sound effects to the surround sound experience.

But, as with many new technologies, several questions need answering before you can start enjoying Dolby Atmos audio in your room.

How do you get it, and what are the problems? What speakers do you need, and where do you install them?

This complete beginner’s guide to Dolby Atmos will answer those questions – and many more along the way.

So, if you are unsure where to start with Dolby Atmos, this guide will point you in the right direction.

What is Dolby Atmos?

Dolby Atmos is an object-based audio format that creates a 3D sound field using height and surround sound speakers.

It is an upgrade to the standard surround sound experience, which uses traditional audio channels.

Not only will you hear audio from around you – you will also have the sound coming from above your head.

A traditional surround sound mix uses six channels – front left, front right, center, surround left, surround right – and an LFE track for the subwoofer.

But, rather than specifying discrete channels, a Dolby Atmos soundtrack uses up to 128 audio objects.

Each Atmos movie soundtrack will have a 10-channel 7.1.2 bed that will play on any standard 5.1 or 7.1 system.

Then, for systems that support Dolby Atmos, it can place a further 118 audio objects anywhere around the 3D sound field – overhead, to the side, front to back, back to front – whatever suits the action on the screen.

This allows specific sound effects to move independently around the room while the channel-based audio bed carries on underneath.

The great thing about using audio objects is that playback isn’t tied to a single speaker layout, and an Atmos soundtrack will adapt to the speakers available in the room.

Dolby Atmos Naming Convention

Some people get confused by the new naming convention for Dolby Atmos systems, but it’s pretty easy.

You know that a 5.1 speaker system has front left (1), front right(2), center(3), surround left(4), surround right(5) and a subwoofer(.1).

Well, a 5.1.2 Atmos system is the same, except it has two Dolby Atmos overhead speakers or modules.

So the extra number at the end refers to the number of Dolby Atmos speakers.

Here are some more examples of the numbering for Atmos speaker layouts:

  • 7.1.4: a 7.1-channel system with four Dolby Atmos speakers
  • 9.2.6: a 9.2-channel system with six Dolby Atmos speakers

There are many more variations. But once you understand the way it works, it is simple to understand the amount and type of speakers involved.

How to Get Dolby Atmos?

To experience Dolby Atmos, there are three main requirements:

  1. Content with a Dolby Atmos soundtrack
  2. A device that can play that content
  3. A sound system that can reproduce Atmos audio

If you have access to all three, you will get a tremendous 3D sound in your room.

1. Content

In a home theater, the best way to access Dolby Atmos content is via Blu-ray discs.

Many movies are now available with an Atmos soundtrack. You will see the Atmos version listed alongside the other common audio formats such as Dolby TrueHD, DTS-HD Master Audio and standard 5.1 audio.

However, an Atmos soundtrack isn’t as typical as the other formats mentioned, so don’t assume that every Blu-ray movie will have one.

Gaming is another content format where Atmos is becoming more common – either via a console or PC.

Another way of getting Atmos content is movie streaming services.

Dolby Atmos soundtrack on Netflix
Dolby Atmos soundtrack on Netflix

Netflix, Amazon Prime and Disney+ all offer plenty of shows with Dolby Atmos sound. However, not all shows will offer this audio type, so don’t assume it will be available on everything you want to watch.

You will also find some terrestrial and cable TV services offering Atmos audio, mainly with their premium UHD broadcasts.

2. Devices

It is essential to realize that just because you have the content that offers Dolby Atmos, it doesn’t mean that you will be able to hear this audio format.

Common home theater devices that support Atmos are:

  1. Blu-ray players
  2. Game consoles
  3. PCs
  4. Cable TV boxes
  5. TVs
  6. Mobile devices like phones and tablets

You will need to check your device to be sure, but most current devices with an HDMI connection will be able to play Atmos audio content.

Smaller mobile devices will likely rely on their built-in speakers or headphones.

But the bottom line is, if your device doesn’t support Atmos audio, you won’t get to hear it, regardless of the source.

To get the best Atmos experience with your TV, it is best to send your TV’s audio to a soundbar or AV receiver.

For this, you will need an HDMI ARC connection and support for Dolby Digital Plus audio.

HDMI ARC Connection on the Rear of a TV
HDMI ARC connection on the rear of a TV

Most newer TVs will be fine, but anything before 2018 may have problems.

Please note that some TVs may claim to have Dolby Atmos support using only the TV speakers.

While this may be technically true, you won’t get an outstanding Atmos performance compared to using a larger speaker system.

For Blu-ray players and some game consoles, your device will need to support HDMI 1.4 (or later), and you will have to set it to bitstream the audio to your speaker system.

Standard 1080p and 4K UHD Blu-ray players can both play Atmos audio.

3. Sound System

The final piece in the jigsaw is the sound system. This will need to decode the Atmos audio format and play it through connected Dolby Atmos speakers.

There are several ways of playing Atmos audio. From TV speakers, mobile devices and headphones to soundbars and entire surround sound speaker systems.

But, for home theater, the best way is to use an AV receiver or processor that can decode Dolby Atmos.

Most receivers made since 2018 will support Atmos – and higher-end devices before this date will likely be fine too.

If your AV receiver supports Atmos decoding, it will also have enough output channels to install at least two overhead speakers – which is the minimum requirement.

5.1.2 speaker layout in an AV receiver setup menu
5.1.2 speaker layout in an AV receiver setup menu

Your receiver’s output channels will limit the number of speakers Atmos speakers that you can install.

However, an AV receiver isn’t the only solution for playing Dolby Atmos in your room.

There are also plenty of soundbar systems that come with integrated Dolby Atmos speakers.

The upfiring Atmos modules are usually located in the soundbar itself. While some models also have rear upfiring modules that you can place at the back of the room.

While there will be fewer configuration options, a soundbar system will be easier to set up for some people.

Does Atmos Make a Difference?

Yes, if you spend time installing and configuring your speaker system correctly, then listening to a Dolby Atmos soundtrack can be a thrilling experience.

The whole soundstage will open up in your room, and the sound will be much more immersive.

You won’t hear sound effects coming from above all the time – that would be too distracting – but a good soundtrack will use the height speakers to add to the on-screen action at the right times.

The Relationship Between Atmos and Audio Codecs

In a home theater environment, Dolby Atmos is an audio format that sits on top of an existing audio codec.

Three audio codecs support Dolby Atmos metadata:

  1. Dolby TrueHD (up to 24bit/96kHz)
  2. Dolby Digital Plus (48kHz)
  3. Dolby MAT (lossless PCM)

On a Blu-ray disc, Dolby Atmos is layered on top of a Dolby TrueHD soundtrack.

A system that doesn’t support Atmos will play the standard high-resolution TrueHD audio, while on Atmos-enabled hardware, the extra Atmos metadata will add to the mix.

Dolby Atmos soundtrack on a Blu-ray disc
Dolby Atmos soundtrack on a Blu-ray disc

This is similar to DTS:X, which layers on a DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack.

On an AV receiver that doesn’t support Atmos or high-resolution audio formats, you will be limited to Dolby or DTS 5.1 surround.

Atmos metadata is layered on Dolby Digital Plus audio for terrestrial TV and streaming services, as this uses less bandwidth. They don’t support high-resolution audio like Dolby TrueHD.

Dolby MAT is less common, but you can find it on the Apple TV 4K, the Xbox One X, and One S.

Dolby MAT encodes the Atmos content as high-quality lossless PCM audio. The device decodes this audio and sends it to your AV receiver as multichannel audio along with the Atmos metadata.

How Many Speakers Do I Need For Dolby Atmos?

The minimum speaker requirement for Atmos is two height or overhead speakers – and the rest of your speaker system is up to you.

So, if you wish, you can have a stereo speaker system with two Atmos speakers in a 2.0.2 layout.

But, most people will want to use Atmos with a surround sound layout, so the most common format for a small system would be 5.1.2.

However, these are the minimum requirements, and for the best 3D effect, Dolby recommends installing at least four height speakers.

An Atmos speaker layout can be up to a maximum of 24.1.10.

What’s the Difference Between Atmos and DTS:X?

Like Dolby Atmos, DTS:X is an object-based audio format.

You will find these soundtracks on Blu-ray discs alongside – or instead of – an Atmos soundtrack. But, for streaming services, you will only get Atmos audio, not the DTS version.

The main difference between the two is that DTS:X has no requirement for height speakers. So, a DTS:X soundtrack will adapt to a standard 5.1 or 7.1 speaker layout.

However, DTS:X is limited to a maximum of 11.1 or 7.1.4 speakers due to licensing restrictions.

A more recent version called DTS:X Pro supports up to 30.2 speakers, and you can find this on some newer high-end receivers.

Which Speakers are Best For Atmos?

The main feature of Dolby Atmos is to create overhead sound in your room.

Dolby recommends two main ways of doing this:

  1. Install speakers high in your room and direct the sound down to your listening position.
  2. Install Dolby Atmos-enabled modules that point upwards and bounce the audio off the ceiling to your listening position. These are also known as elevation speakers.

For high-mounted speakers, the main recommendation is to use in-ceiling speakers. In most rooms, these will create the best overhead effect.

However, in-ceiling speakers are tricky to install and are out of the question in many home theaters.

So, if in-ceiling speakers are not possible, you can attach standard speakers to the ceiling surface – or place speakers high on the walls at the front, side or rear of your room.

You can buy dedicated down-firing speakers for wall-mounted speakers, making installation a little easier as they already angle downwards.

Or, you can use regular bookshelf or satellite speakers angled down towards the main listening position using adjustable speaker brackets.

If installing speakers high in your room is difficult, the alternative is using Dolby Atmos-enabled modules or elevation speakers.

By placing the modules on top of your existing front and rear floor speakers, they bounce the sound off the ceiling towards the listener.

You can also buy traditional bookshelf or floor-standing speakers with Atmos modules already integrated at the top.

Because there are so many options for placing Atmos speakers, once you have installed your speakers, you will need to tell the AV receiver where you have installed them.

Selecting front Dolby Atmos-enabled speakers in the AV receiver
Selecting front Dolby Atmos-enabled speakers in the AV receiver

The receiver will then adjust the playback of the soundtrack according to your room layout.

Alternatively, if you don’t want to buy an AV receiver, several Dolby Atmos soundbar systems have integrated upfiring speakers.

These can offer a more straightforward way to experience the delights of Atmos 3D audio.

Which Type of Atmos Speaker Should I Use?

The primary choice for Atmos speakers is between more directional speakers installed high in the room – and elevation speakers, which create a more diffuse sound by bouncing the sound off your ceiling.

Both of these methods are perfectly acceptable, and it’s just a matter of choosing which suits your room best.

The advantages of using Dolby Atmos-enabled elevation speakers are:

  1. Easier to install: you don’t need to drill holes in your ceiling or fix wall mounts to your walls
  2. More flexible: unlike with overhead speakers, you don’t need to worry too much about getting them in the precise locations. Just place them on your existing speakers.
  3. Diffuse sound: some people prefer the more diffuse sound that these speakers provide. Depending on your room, overhead speakers might be more directional and distracting.
  4. Easy to upgrade: because installation often involves just standing them on your existing speakers, you can easily replace them with another model.

The disadvantages of using Dolby Atmos-enabled elevation speakers are:

  1. Requirements: your room needs to fit the installation requirements, i.e., a flat ceiling that isn’t too high and has a reflective surface. The speakers should also not be higher than half the wall height.
  2. Audio spread: some of the Atmos effects in a movie may suit a more directional sound.

The advantages of using overhead speakers are:

  1. Balance: creates a good balance between a diffuse sound with an added directional element when required.
  2. Discreet: in-ceiling speakers are more discreet and professional-looking.
  3. Positioning: more recommended locations and you can angle the speakers to get the best sound in the main listening position.
  4. Choice: more choice in the type of speakers available.

The disadvantages of using Atmos overhead speakers are:

  1. Installation: more difficult to install.
  2. Room: depending on the room size and shape, they may be harder to get in the correct locations.
  3. Directional: unless placed correctly, they may create a sound that is too directional.
  4. Fixed: harder to take them with you if you move house.

Often your room will dictate the best choice for you. Depending on the shape of your space, it may be easier to use one type or the other.

Dolby Atmos Speaker Placement

The aim of positioning your speakers for Dolby Atmos is to create a bubble of sound.

To do this, it is recommended to create two separate levels of audio in your room.

The lower level is the listener plane, which means placing all the standard 5.1 speakers around ear level for the seated listeners.

By doing this, you create space above for the overhead audio. When combined, the two levels of audio create a bubble of sound that envelopes the room.

Dolby recommends several standard locations for Atmos speakers, which you should always install in left and right pairs.

The convention is that ceiling speakers are called top front, middle and rear – and the wall speakers are front, surround and rear height speakers.

Common Dolby Atmos speaker locations
Common Dolby Atmos speaker locations

You only need a minimum of one Atmos speaker pair to get started, and if you want more, you can install a combination of the above locations.

The ones you use will usually depend on the layout of your room.

For more details on this, check out my guide to positioning Dolby Atmos speakers.

What is Dolby Surround?

Most modern AV receivers will have the Dolby Surround sound mode. This upmixing tool allows you to use your Atmos height speakers for all types of audio.

Usually, if you play a 5.1 soundtrack, you will only hear audio through your 5.1 speakers, and your Atmos overhead speakers will be silent.

However, if you enable Dolby Surround, your receiver will upmix the 5.1 audio across all the speakers available in your system – including your height speakers.

In most cases, once you have installed Atmos speakers, you would enable Dolby Surround for all movie and TV content that isn’t available in the native Atmos format – even stereo audio.

However, the choice comes down to personal taste.

How Do I Get Dolby Atmos on my Smart TV?

To get Atmos on your smart TV, you will need three things:

  1. A streaming service plan that supports Atmos
  2. A TV that can play Dolby Atmos (via an HDMI ARC connection)
  3. A sound system capable of playing Atmos

Atmos support can vary between TVs, so it would be best to check with your particular model.

While some TVs support Atmos using their internal speakers only, I recommend connecting to an external speaker system for the best experience.

Therefore, the easiest way to hear Dolby Atmos through your smart TV is to buy a model with streaming apps that have Dolby Atmos support.

You would then need to connect the TV’s output audio via HDMI ARC to a sound system that supports Atmos.

Commonly, this will be an AV receiver or a soundbar.

Using HDMI ARC to connect a TV and AV receiver
Using HDMI ARC to connect a TV and AV receiver

Netflix Premium, Amazon Prime, Disney+, HBO Max and Apple TV+ support Atmos – although some older TVs may only work with older app versions without Atmos support.

However, if the apps on your smart TV don’t support Atmos, you could also buy and connect the latest external streaming devices that support Atmos, like the Apple TV 4K, Amazon FireTV stick and Roku Ultra.

You can then connect the audio from these devices directly to the amplifier.

Which Streaming Services and Devices Support Dolby Atmos?

Atmos support does vary between different devices, and you will often only get Dolby Atmos audio in the premium devices and packages that support UHD video.

Older TVs may not support Atmos, and they will only do so if they have an HDMI ARC connection and support Dolby Digital Plus audio.

You should also be aware that not all titles will have an Atmos soundtrack, even on supported platforms.

Streaming services that support Dolby Atmos:

  1. Netflix Premium
  2. Amazon Prime
  3. Disney+
  4. HBO Max (on selected devices like Apple TV 4K and FireTV)
  5. Apple TV+

Streaming devices that support Dolby Atmos:

  1. Apple TV 4K
  2. Amazon Fire TV Stick
  3. Amazon Fire TV Cube
  4. Amazon Fire TV Stick 4K
  5. Roku Ultra
  6. Roku Ultra 4K
  7. Roku Streaming Stick+
  8. Nvidia Shield TV PRO
  9. Nvidia Shield TV
  10. Chromecast With Google TV

If it is essential, you should check that a particular app supports Atmos on a specific device. Some apps will play Atmos on some devices and not others.

Here is a helpful guide that details which apps provide Atmos on which device.

What is Dolby Atmos Music?

Dolby Atmos music is an interesting new development for Atmos audio.

Music is traditionally recorded in stereo – or 2-channel audio. However, there is an emerging market for releasing music in immersive Atmos audio.

This means we can hear the music from all around us using an Atmos speaker system.

In fact, the technology also allows us to hear 3D Atmos music using stereo headphones only.

You can find Atmos music tracks on many of the popular music streaming services, such as:

  1. Amazon Music: via an Amazon Echo Studio
  2. Apple Music: via Dolby Atmos-enabled devices using built-in speakers or headphones with spatial audio – like the iPhone and iPad.
  3. Tidal: streamed audio via soundbars, phones, Android TVs and streaming devices like the Apple TV 4K and Fire TV.

If you want to learn more, here is an introductory video from Dolby:

YouTube video

Frequently Asked Questions

We’ve quite a bit of ground, but there is always something else to know. Here are the answers to some common questions.

When Was Dolby Atmos First Released?

Dolby Atmos was first used in a movie theater for the film Brave in 2012. It started appearing in home theater audio systems in 2016 and smartphones in 2017.

How Many Channels Do You Need For Dolby Atmos?

You must have at least two height channels for a Dolby Atmos system. Therefore, the minimum number of channels for Dolby Atmos is 2.0.2, which is a stereo speaker system with two overhead/height speakers. However, Dolby recommends four height speakers for the best 3D experience.

Do You Need Atmos Speakers For Dolby Atmos?

No, you don’t need to use dedicated Atmos-enabled speakers for Dolby Atmos. You can use standard in-ceiling, on-ceiling or on-wall speakers to recreate the overhead audio if you wish.

Are Atmos Speakers Worth It?

Installing Atmos speakers will create an exciting 3D audio experience in your room and make movie night much more thrilling. However, you must take the time to choose the right speakers for your space and make sure that you place them in the correct positions. Get this right, and it will definitely improve your enjoyment.

Which is Better 7.1 or Dolby Atmos?

Choosing between a 7.1 system and Dolby Atmos is tricky, and there isn’t a correct answer. It comes down to personal preference. If you have the space behind your seating area for the rear surround speakers, then a 7.1 system can sound great. However, all things being equal, I would go for 3D Atmos audio over 7.1 sound.

Does Netflix Have Dolby Atmos?

Yes, Netflix supports Dolby Atmos on the Premium plan. However, many devices that support Netflix may not support Atmos. So, you should check your device for Atmos support too. If not, then you won’t get Atmos on Netflix regardless of the plan you are on.

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The Complete Beginner's Guide to Dolby Atmos

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About Home Cinema Guide

Paul started the Home Cinema Guide to help less-experienced users get the most out of today's audio-visual technology. He has worked as a sound, lighting and audio-visual engineer for around 20 years. At home, he has spent more time than is probably healthy installing, configuring, testing, de-rigging, fixing, tweaking, re-installing again (and sometimes using) various pieces of hi-fi and home cinema equipment.

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