Cinema-Grade Dolby Atmos to Reach Consumer Hardware Soon

Dolby Atmos is a relatively new surround sound technology which up until now was an experience only obtainable in cinemas. That is all changing though, as Dolby has collaborated with a number of vendors to bring the Dolby Atmos experience into consumer hardware, and thus the household living room or in-home cinema. Among these vendors we find Onkyo and Pioneer, as well as Denon.

Dolby Atmos works quite differently from older techniques, where in the past each sound channel was bound to a speaker channel. Instead, Dolby Atmos works with coordinates in 3D space. The Dolby Atmos codec allows for an unlimited number of channels to be predefined, each with its own unique location in 3D space. Of course, there are hardware limitations, and as such, audio streams won't have more than 128 channels. Despite having fewer channels, we imagine that with the help of gradients between channels the limitation will be imperceptible.

Let's talk about the benefit of having sound channels tied to a location in space rather than tied to a speaker channel. It will allow the sound track to work optimally on any speaker installation. The video below, made by Dolby and Onkyo, probably does a better job of explaining, but we've explained it anyway in case YouTube doesn't work for you. In short, your receiver will use the audio information provided along with your speaker setup to bring you the optimal experience. It does this through knowing exactly where each speaker is and how it behaves. As a result of this, you can have any speaker installation imaginable, and you'll always get the best experience possible given the confines of your hardware. Compare this with sound channels tied to speaker channels. You can quickly see the benefits, as some people don't necessarily have exactly 5.1 or 7.1 setups, but instead have greater than or fewer than speaker channels.

However, we missed one of the key points in Dolby Atmos: speakers from above. In order to make the sounds of helicopters, rain, dropping skyscrapers, or anything you can imagine to be on top of you, you need speakers from above. Consumers will both be able to install speakers into their ceiling, as well as use Dolby Atmos enabled speakers if their ceilings have sound-reflecting properties. Dolby Atmos enabled speakers are speakers angled upwards in order to project the sound at the ceiling, which in turn will bounce off the ceiling towards the listener. While it won't be as effective as simply mounting speakers on your ceiling, it's certainly a good step forward. Dolby Atmos enabled speakers will be available in all shapes and sizes. The industry has also considered the needs of those who already own very nice speakers that don't need replacement is building add-on units.

All in all, we're very excited to see that the Dolby Atmos technology will be making it to the living room. Despite that, like we're seeing with 4K, we do expect that it will be a slow process. The hardware support will be coming, but we'll still need the content.

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Niels Broekhuijsen

Niels Broekhuijsen is a Contributing Writer for Tom's Hardware US. He reviews cases, water cooling and pc builds.