What is Dolby Atmos? The immersive audio tech explained
Dolby Atmos is, basically, 3D audio. But how does it work?
As with most of Dolby’s home cinema tech, Dolby Atmos started off on the big screen and is now making its way into in our homes. Wondering what is Dolby Atmos? Let us explain…
Dolby Atmos is a next-gen surround sound format designed to put you right at the heart of the action. As well as sound coming at you from left, right and centre, It also delivers overhead sounds so if there’s a chopper flying overhead in the film you’re watching, the sound will actually be coming from above you.
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Dolby Atmos is based on moving audio objects which mean sounds can be placed and moved anywhere in three-dimensional space. The idea is to make audio much more realistic and immersive.
What is Dolby Atmos and how does it work?
The cool thing about Dolby Atmos is that it doesn’t just deliver sounds to a pre-determined channel, like a traditional surround sound setup does. Each sound (also known as a sound ‘object’) is placed in a certain point within the soundstage. Filmmakers have up to 128 sound objects to get creative with, meaning that they can move the sound as the camera moves, or add in sounds overhead or off-camera.
Those 128 sound objects can be fed through to up to 64 speakers in a cinema. But unless you live in a cinema, you’re unlikely to have that many speakers available at home. You’re more likely to have 9 speakers in a full Dolby Atmos home setup – front, centre, left and right speakers, plus a subwoofer and two height speakers. The height speakers can either be built into your ceiling or you can have upward-firing speakers that bounce sound off the ceiling for a similar affect. It’s these that enable you to get that awesome overhead sound.
What’s more, Atmos automatically adjusts to whatever device or setup you’re listening on. It’ll deliver the most immersive sound possible on what’s available, even if you’re totally brassic and can’t currently stretch to a brand-new speaker system.
Is Atmos spatial audio?
Yes and no. Confusingly, spatial audio is often used as a catch-all term for immersive audio formats like Dolby Vision and arch-rival DTS:X and any other tech that aims to boost the surround sound experience.
Spatial Audio (note the capital letters) is also the name that Apple picked for its own spatial audio tech, which is simultaneously very smart and very confusing. Apple’s Spatial Audio incorporates and supports Dolby Atmos, but also adds its own wizardry into the mix.
Spatial Audio tracks the position of your head in real-time and places the audio in the best spot for the most realistic and immersive experience. It also tracks the position of your iPhone or iPad so that the sound is perfectly placed relative to the screen. Very clever stuff.
How can I get Dolby Atmos?
To play a Dolby Atmos-toting film or TV show, you’ll need an Atmos-compatible device to play it through, plus Atmos-friendly speakers. There are plenty of all-in-one Atmos speaker systems available to choose from, as well as lots of separate Dolby Atmos-enabled AV receivers. You might even be able to get Atmos on your existing amp with a firmware update, so it’s worth checking.
We’re seeing more and more Atmos soundbars that pack upward-firing speakers into a compact device and there are even a few TVs with built-in height speakers, with Panasonic being the first to get aboard the built-in Atmos train.
There’s also a growing list of devices to play Atmos through, from 4K Blu-ray players to steamers like the Sky Q box, Apple TV and Amazon Fire TV Stick. The PS5 and PS4 both support Atmos movie playback, as do the latest Xbox models and the latter will also support Dolby Atmos on games. And if you’re on Xbox or Windows PC, Dolby Atmos for Headphones will create your own personal immersive sound bubble.
You can also head to one of the growing list of Dolby Cinemas, which have been around in the US for a little while but have more recently come to Europe. boast both Dolby Atmos sound and Dolby Vision HDR on the big screen. And in future, we’re likely to see the technology arriving in high-end cars, with the Lucid Air being the very first to pack Atmos into its 21-speaker in-car system.
Can I get it on normal speakers?
Sort of. While you won’t get the full experience, Dolby has developed a clever processing tech to create a virtual Atmos experience for those of us that can’t quite stretch to a whole new speaker set-up. Available on a range of products from AV receivers to soundbars, Dolby Atmos Height Virtualization creates the sensation of overhead sound on non-Atmos speakers, making the tech much more affordable for the masses.
Can I get Dolby Atmos on mobile?
Technically yes, though what you’re really getting is a ‘virtual’ version of Atmos. You’ll find it on top-tier handsets from the likes of Samsung and Huawei while all Apple phones from iPhone 11 onwards support Atmos. The format is also supported on various tablets, including the latest Amazon Fire devices.
What Atmos content can I get?
Dolby Atmos has been around since 2012, so the format has had time to get its virtual feet under the table, content-wise. Along with Ultra HD 4K Blu-rays, you’ll find lots of Atmos titles on Netflix (with a Premium subscription) as well as on Disney+. Most Apple Originals are also produced in Dolby Atmos, while the selection on Amazon Prime is slightly more limited. Sky Q offers some Sky Cinema movies in Dolby Atmos, plus selected sporting events. BT Sport Ultimate also offers Atmos along with 4K HDR.
There’s also an increasing number of Xbox games available with Atmos along with a slightly more limited selection of PC games.
What about Dolby Atmos Music?
Dolby’s immersive audio tech is now making its way into the music world with a steadily growing number of old and new tracks now mixed in Atmos and more artists getting involved. Dolby signed a deal with Universal Music Group back in 2019 and its Atmos tech is now embedded into several of the brand’s famous studios including Hollywood’s Capitol Records and London’s Abbey Road Studios, so we should see more Dolby Atmos Music tracks emerging in future. Atmos Music is available on Tidal, Amazon Music HD, and Apple Music.