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Dolby Atmos Comes Home

September 1, 2014 | Comments

Vivid high-definition images on a big screen that hugs the wall. Surround sound so realistic that you find yourself looking over your shoulder.

The best of today's home theater systems are so darn good that we need a really good reason to venture out to the local cinema.

As awesome as today's audio/video technology is, it will get even better when the super high-tech Dolby Atmos sound format starts making its way into home AV gear in late 2014.

Hailed as a "powerful new listening experience," Atmos technology debuted in 2012 and is now offered in 120 or so movie theaters across the country. To date, more than 100 movies - including Frozen, Gravity, Noah and Godzilla - have been produced in Atmos.

Sound Based on Objects, Not Channels

The promise of Atmos is sound that's even more realistic and enveloping than the best of today's theaters. In a recent interview, Brett Crockett, Dolby's director of sound research, explained it this way:

Dolby Atmos moves beyond the paradigm of channel-based audio, which has gone as far as it can in the home. Captivating sound surrounds you from all directions, including overhead, filling the room with astonishing clarity, richness, detail and depth. The specific sounds of people, music and things move all around you in multidimensional space, so you feel like you are inside the action.

Until now, cinema sound designers have had to mix independent sounds together into channels for soundtrack creation. A discrete sound, such as a helicopter, has been assigned to an individual channel rather than precisely to where it would occur naturally in the scene. While a sound can move across channels, there's no height dimension, [which] limits your audio experience because it can't come close to matching the way you hear in real life.

Dolby Atmos is the first home theater system that is based not on channels, but on audio objects…any sound heard in a movie scene - a child yelling, a helicopter taking off, a car horn blaring. Filmmakers can decide exactly where those sounds should originate and precisely where they move as the scene develops. [Atmos-equipped AV receivers use metadata in the sound mix to direct sounds to specified locations.] Thinking about sound in this way eliminates many of the limitations of channel-based audio…Filmmakers just have to think about the story: Where is that yelling child going to run?

The most distinctive feature of an Atmos setup is the use of overhead speakers to heighten sonic realism. Dolby recommends using at least two overhead speakers (a 7.1.2 setup), but is quick to point out that four (7.1.4) - two in the front of the room and two in back - will provide a more convincing experience.

Dolby Atmos 7.1.2 configuration
Dolby Atmos 7.1.2 configuration

Simplifying the Setup

We know what you're thinking: You expect me to install speakers in my ceiling? Ideally yes, but there's an alternate solution. Dolby has developed a new class of "Atmos-enabled speakers" that use a top-mounted speaker module to bounce sound off the ceiling. It works surprisingly well with ceilings as high as 14 feet.

To experience Atmos at home, you need an Atmos-enabled receiver and speakers (or actual overhead speakers), but you won't need a new Blu-ray player. Atmos-encoded movies will be available on Blu-ray and via streaming video services as early as fall 2014, with more to come at the start of 2015. For more on Atmos, visit dolby.com.

To learn how to take home theater to the next level, consult a CEDIA professional. Click here for a list of CEDIA-member home technology professionals in your area.