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Disney+ has a Dolby Atmos problem. Here’s what you need to know

When Disney was ramping up the hype machine for its Disney+ streaming service, one of the biggest benefits it touted was the availability of both Dolby Vision and Dolby Atmos on a significant chunk of its banner content. Movies like the Star Wars franchise, which would be presented in 4K HDR for the first time, and shows like the Disney+ original The Mandalorian were also supposed to get the full Dolby treatment.

And this all rings true, too, if you’re subscribed to the Disney Bundle. That’s the mechanism that gets you Disney+, ESPN+ and Hulu for just $14 a month. And Disney’s been pushing it extremely hard, for good reason. It’s a great deal.

But Digital Trends has discovered significant discrepancies in how Disney+ content is handled by three major platforms: Apple TV, Roku, and Android TV. Here’s what we’ve found.

The Disney+ app on Apple TV 4K presents all Dolby Vision content in glorious HDR. That goes for all of the Star Wars flicks and The Mandalorian. But only the Star Wars movies are streaming in Dolby Atmos. When we tried to watch The Mandalorian, the best sound quality we could get was Dolby 5.1.

Using a new Nvidia Shield TV 2019 — which includes onboard Dolby Atmos decoding, unlike the previous Shield TV 2017 which could only pass through Atmos — Dolby Vision once again worked flawlessly, but we couldn’t get Dolby Atmos to work on any content on the Android TV device.

The Roku Streaming Stick+ was the most capable of the three devices. It easily played both the Star Wars movies and The Mandalorian in Dolby Atmos. Sadly, because the Streaming Stick+ does not support Dolby Vision, we could only watch this content in HDR10, which still looks amazing when compared to SDR (standard dynamic range).

This represents a very real dilemma for audio enthusiasts who signed up for Disney+ hoping for the very best in home theater surround sound. Dolby 5.1 sounds pretty great, but if you have a Dolby Atmos-capable sound system at home, you deserve to hear what the format can do to bring episodes IV-VI of the Star Wars saga to life in a whole new way.

We’re a bit stumped as to why this is happening at all. The Disney+ support page on the topic suggests that if your device can handle Dolby Atmos, it should get Dolby Atmos:

Disney+ offers a growing library of content in 5.1 Surround Sound and Dolby Atmos. Supported audio formats for a given title can be found in the DETAILS section under each title. Disney+ will automatically use the highest-quality audio your system can support.

We know that Netflix places severe limitations on which streaming devices get Dolby Atmos audio. Apple TV 4K has always been compatible, but the Nvidia Shield TV 2017 couldn’t get it and neither can any Roku devices. This makes our Roku experience on Disney+ all the more perplexing — Disney+ is clearly not placing Netflix’s restrictions on Dolby Atmos based on a device’s ability to natively decode Atmos.

Responding to our request for a comment on this situation, a source at Disney+ did not corroborate our experiences but did tell us that the service is working with its device partners to enable Dolby Atmos playback and will be bringing Dolby Atmos to additional devices soon.

Updated at 6:43 PM PT with a response from Disney+

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Simon Cohen
Contributing Editor, A/V
Simon Cohen covers a variety of consumer technologies, but has a special interest in audio and video products, like…
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