BACK IN 2005, Dolby created a sound revolution with the launch of its most ambitious sound format – Dolby TrueHD. It was the first time homeowners could exper-ience studio-quality sound in the comfort of their living rooms. Blu-ray discs that utilized TrueHD could now have the same soundtrack that was used at movie theaters. According to Dolby, “Every detail of the original recording is preserved because Dolby TrueHD reproduces audio bit-for-bit identical to the studio master.”
Dolby TrueHD was a game changer in the home entertainment industry, and was considered the pinnacle of sound quality. But as with any technology, people couldn’t help but wonder, “What’s next?”
Fast forward to 2012, when Dolby Laboratories introduced Dolby Atmos, a new type of sound format that could recreate a multidimensional soundfield. Where TrueHD brought crisp and pure sound, Atmos brings the same sound quality while adding an entirely new level of three-dimensionality. The first demonstration to the public was at the Dolby Theatre for the release of the film, Brave. This new sound format was developed with the intent to make viewers feel fully immersed in the movie. Atmos has the ability to project individual objects into a soundfield and can support up to 128 audio objects in an audio mix, each of which can operate independently of each another. According to Dolby, “Audio objects originate and move anywhere in a multidimensional space, including anywhere overhead. You will experience a soundtrack as you would in a natural environment…With Dolby Atmos, any sound can be rendered as a single audio element, an object, independent from the rest of the soundtrack. A child yelling, a helicopter taking off, a blaring car horn—the filmmaker can decide exactly where the sound should originate and where it should move as the scene develops.” Dolby Atmos recreates an even more realistic soundstage than ever thought possible, and until recently has been available only in commercial movie theaters. But before you make the leap to Dolby Atmos, it’s important to learn what type of hardware is required and how it’s physically integrated into a home environment.
The core of Dolby Atmos is based on having between two and four two speakers mounted in your home theater. Overhead speakers give a sound engineer the ability to project sound into the room from above, and this added dimension can help make a movie soundtrack seem more lifelike. Imagine arrows flying through the sky in a medieval movie. Previously, the sound would have come at you from a relatively horizontal soundfield, but Atmos brings the vertical sound element to life. Now, the arrows will sound like they are coming at you from above. You might want to duck!
If you don’t want to go through the hassle of installing speakers into the ceiling, there’s another option. Dolby Atmos-enabled speakers, which have top-firing drivers, are designed to project sound off the ceiling to recreate the overhead sounds. While ultimately not as effective as using discrete overhead speakers, it’s an alternative that, for many people, is quicker and easier to implement.
No matter what type of speakers you install—overhead or top-firing—you will need to buy a receiver or preamplifier that has the ability to decode the Dolby Atmos format and send the appropriate signals to the correct speakers. A bit of good news is that you will not need a new Blu-ray player, because Atmos is backwards compatible with older sound formats. Atmos will even work through streaming services. Some of the leading streaming services use Dolby Digital Plus, and Dolby has done some fancy engineering that allows streaming services to send a signal that can be utilized with Atmos-enabled products.
Companies including Denon, Marantz, Onkyo, Integra, Pioneer, and Yamaha now offer Atmos-enabled products. In addition, several speaker manufacturers, including KEF, Atlantic Technology, Pioneer, Definitive Technology, Onkyo, and Triad have developed Atmos-enabled speakers. With products widely available, the biggest question is when will content be available? On September 30, 2014, Transformers: Age of Extinction was the first consumer-available content to be released on Blu-ray. The good news is that additional original content featuring Atmos is expected to be available before 2015 from Paramount Pictures and Warner Bros studios. Vudu is the first streaming service to adopt the new format, and will have Atmos-supported movies available for streaming as they are released. A lot more content is expected to follow in early 2015.
Dolby Atmos is the biggest leap forward in home cinema sound in nearly a decade. The cutting-edge technology allows sound engineers to truly bring a movie or TV show to life, enveloping viewers in a realistic dome of sound. It does require a significant upgrade in audio gear, but once you have heard Atmos, you won’t be disappointed. To hear for yourself, visit a local audio/video retailer. EH
If you aren’t ready to invest completely in Atmos yet, you can enjoy a taste of it through your headphones. Dolby Atmos-enabled mobile devices can render a multidimensional soundfield through your headphones. It’s the easiest (and least expensive) way to experience the world of Atmos sound.
Kevin Gallucci is a freelance A/V writer and a self-admitting electronics junkie. He has written for various publications including Electronic House, Hi-Fi Choice, ToneAudio, SoundStage, HiFi News, and Home Cinema Choice.