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.

  • alxianthelast
    I have never understood the concept of rain as coming from UP. You hear rain hitting the ground.

    At least with Atmos and well recorded audio you should hear rain hitting everything.
  • dimar
    I went to see How to Train Your Dragon 2 with Dolby Atmos, and didn't hear any difference in audio from any other usual movies.
  • cozmium
    Speakers above is the most noticable thing, in fact probably the only feature worth getting excited about.

    The fact is that having a sound channel per speaker works perfectly when a film has been mixed properly - and that is exactly the process they go through when being released on bluray etc. If you have a decent timbre matched system you're probably not going to tell the difference. Perhaps it might benefit cheap and nasty surround setups, time will tell.
  • klockwerk
    Sound seemingly coming from above is not what will improve my cinematic experience. Stinks of the same thought processes as what gave us 3D.
  • XGrabMyY
    Dolby maybe the industry standard, but that is only because they don't care about sacrificing obvious quality for a smaller digital footprint. That is actually why it is the standard, there is always a limitation of space and audio is always on the back burner. Give me DTS, or give me death!
  • catswold
    I went through the Dolby fascination stage with home theater. Had full 7.1 complete system with Lexicon DC-2 processor, then later a Pioneer Elite THX Ultra receiver feeding an Earthquake Cinenova 5.1 amp (300 wpc crystal clear), etc. etc. etc. Best damn system of anyone I ever came across. It was great, walls shook, bullets pinged around the room, sounds transitioned smoothly from one side of the room to the other--about 20 grand worth of speakers and electronics . . . but after a while, it's just a novelty.

    I've since gotten rid of most of it, kept the main speakers and gone back to simple stereo. It's very rare that I miss all of that stuff.
  • majorlag
    This is nothing new, the speaker configuration has been around for a long time. and the sound is still mapped to a channel, its just that channel configuration spec already takes into effect 3d positioning immersion. From the microsoft PCM WAV format,
    CHANNEL NAME --- Decimal Value
    ¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯ ¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯
    BACK_LEFT 16


    SIDE_LEFT 512
    SIDE_RIGHT 1024
    Standard 10.1.0 channels or as most state it as 10.1
    TOP_CENTER 2048
    TOP_BACK_LEFT 32768
    TOP_BACK_RIGHT 131072
    RESERVED 262144
    0.0.7 channels
    The channels they are talking about have been in the PCM WAV spec for a long time, and include .7 channels with a reserved for anything that haven't thought of yet. Interesting thing is that the spec never thought about channel below you, only around and above you. LFE (Low Frequency Effect) or bass, is the only channel that has no position in 3d space, and can be placed anywhere.