With its object-based sound system, Dolby Atmos is now the high-water mark for at-home surround sound. Though it took some time to catch on, the format is now supported by Ultra HD Blu-ray discs and streaming services like Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, and Disney+. So, if you’ve got Dolby Atmos speakers, a Dolby Atmos-compatible AV receiver or soundbar, and access to Dolby Atmos content, you should be hearing Dolby Atmos sound, right?
Well, as it turns out, no — at least, not necessarily. To understand if your Atmos system is delivering true Atmos sound — and not just really, really good 5.1.2 or 7.1.2 surround — you need to understand how Dolby Atmos works with all of your media sources and components. It’s a bit technical, but we’re going to make it as simple as possible.
What exactly is Dolby Atmos?
Dolby Atmos isn’t actually a soundtrack at all. It’s metadata that is used by compatible audio gear to control which speakers are reproducing certain sounds. A good example is when a helicopter flies overhead in a movie. Without Atmos information, the sound of the helicopter is embedded in one, or many, of the surround sound channels. But so are all of the other sounds you’re hearing.
With Dolby Atmos, the helicopter is treated as its own discrete object, and a Dolby Atmos receiver can use that information to separate the helicopter sound from the background sounds and move it independently from one speaker to another. The result is a very convincing 3D placement of sounds for a much more immersive movie experience.
And what about Dolby Atmos Music?
Though it’s still just getting a toehold on streaming music services, Dolby Atmos Music does for music what Dolby Atmos does for movies. It’s impressive when you hear it, but to get it you’ll need a specific combination of apps and Dolby Atmos-capable devices. Chances are good that if you’re equipped for Dolby Atmos movies, you’re ready for Dolby Atmos Music, but to be sure, check out our full Dolby Atmos Music explainer.
So if Dolby Atmos is just metadata, what am I listening to?
As we said, Dolby Atmos isn’t sound, it’s information about sound. That information piggybacks on top of existing surround sound signals. At the moment, Dolby Atmos can only do this with two types of surround sound signals:
- Dolby TrueHD
- Dolby Digital Plus
Dolby TrueHD is a lossless, very high-bandwidth format that is currently only available on Blu-ray and UHD Blu-ray discs. It’s transmitted over an HDMI cable, from a Blu-ray player to an AV receiver, TV, or a soundbar that can pass through the video. Atmos via TrueHD is also supported by some media player apps, like Plex, that run on the Nvidia Shield TV family of streaming devices.
The combination of Dolby Atmos and Dolby TrueHD is the best possible surround sound you can get at home.
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Dolby Digital Plus is a lossy, lower-bandwidth format that has been optimized for use with streaming services and features like B-D Live. It’s currently supported by a wide range of devices, including laptops, tablets, smartphones, and streaming boxes like Apple TV and Roku. Dolby Atmos over Dolby Digital Plus will be the way most people experience Atmos.
Not only is it the format used by Netflix and Amazon, but it’s also the only version of Atmos that is compatible with HDMI ARC (more on this later).
Files, apps, and hardware
The tricky thing about Dolby Atmos is that, for it to work, every ingredient in your home theater setup has to support Atmos. In other words:
- The movie you’re playing — whether it’s physical, downloaded — or streamed, has to be encoded with Dolby Atmos (via Dolby TrueHD or Dolby Digital Plus).
- The hardware you’re playing it on has to be able to decode Dolby Atmos or pass it along to a Dolby Atmos-capable sound system without altering it. This is known as “pass-through.”
- The app you’re using — e.g., Plex, Netflix, iTunes, Amazon Prime Video, etc. — must be capable of delivering Dolby Atmos data to your playback device.
- And of course, your TV, A/V receiver or soundbar must be Dolby Atmos compatible, if that’s the device you’re using to hear audio.
Another potential gotcha: Just because your app of choice supports Dolby Atmos on device X, that doesn’t mean it necessarily supports it on device Y. For instance, Plex running on an Nvidia Shield TV can pass through Atmos over Dolby TrueHD, and over Dolby Digital Plus, but Plex on an Apple TV 4K will only handle Atmos over Dolby Digital Plus, and Plex on a 4th-gen Apple TV can’t pass through Dolby Atmos at all.
Until recently, the Apple TV app for LG’s WebOS smart TVs could only provide 5.1 Dolby Digital, however, a June 2020 update added Atmos support.
If you’re playing an Atmos-encoded Ultra HD Blu-ray on an Ultra HD Blu-ray player that’s connected to an Atmos-capable TV, soundbar, or AV receiver via HDMI, we can pretty much guarantee you’re getting the full Dolby Atmos experience. We can’t say the same about some other device combinations.
Here are a few examples where you will not get Dolby Atmos sound:
- Playing an Atmos-encoded Netflix movie on an Apple TV HD (4th gen, non-4K) connected to an Atmos-capable A/V receiver. In this scenario, the Apple TV is the weakest link: It doesn’t support Dolby Atmos. You’ll be limited to 5.1 Dolby Digital Plus surround sound.
- Playing any Dolby Atmos-encoded content on a Roku Streaming Stick+ that’s attached to a Dolby Atmos capable TV, with an Atmos soundbar connected via optical cable. The obstacle here is the optical connection to the soundbar. You’ve got Atmos content on a device that can support Atmos, on a TV that can pass through Atmos, but because you’re using an optical cable instead of HDMI ARC, the TV has to down-convert the audio to Dolby Digital 5.1 (otherwise known as EAC), because optical connections cannot cope with the higher bandwidth requirements of Dolby Digital Plus.
- Using the built-in Plex client on an LG OLED TV to play a movie encoded with Dolby TrueHD and Dolby Atmos, with an Atmos soundbar connected via HDMI ARC. This is a really frustrating one — all of the sources and components are Atmos-capable, but because the Plex client on the LG TV isn’t yet optimized to handle TrueHD/Atmos, it down-converts the audio to Dolby 5.1 — even though both the TV itself and the connected soundbar could have easily handled the TrueHD/Atmos track.
Perplexed by Netflix
We recently discovered an extremely vexing situation for Netflix users hoping to enjoy Dolby Atmos sound. The Netflix app currently requires that playback devices be capable of decoding Dolby Atmos natively, instead of simply being able to passthrough Dolby Atmos to an Atmos-capable soundbar or A/V receiver.
While several TVs meet this criterion, like 2018 or newer Sony Android TV models, 2017 or newer LG OLED TVs, 2019 or newer Toshiba TVs, and 2018 or newer Vizio TVs, we only know of three streaming devices that can do it: Apple TV 4K, Nvidia Shield TV (2019) and Nvidia Shield TV Pro (2019).
Using the Netflix app on an Nvidia Shield TV (pre-2019) or select Roku and Amazon Fire TV devices — even though they can pass through Dolby Atmos — will still limit you to 5.1 surround sound.
There’s no real logic to Netflix’s insistence on Dolby Atmos decoding, as none of these devices can output audio without the help of a device with speakers, whether that’s a TV, soundbar, or A/V receiver.
Plus, Netflix makes the task of identifying which devices natively decode Dolby Atmos very difficult, because it does not maintain a master list of these devices. The only way to know if the Netflix app for a particular device supports Atmos is to search for it within Netflix’s help pages.
Unless you are satisfied with your TV’s internal speakers, HDMI is a requirement for Dolby Atmos. Whether your Dolby Atmos content is coming from a Blu-ray disc, a streaming box, or even from a built-in app on your TV, the only way to get that signal to your AV receiver or soundbar is via HDMI. Both Dolby TrueHD and Dolby Digital Plus contain more data than a digital optical connection (TOSlink) can handle.
If you want to transmit Dolby Atmos from your TV to your A/V receiver or soundbar, your TV must be equipped with HDMI ARC.
If you’re using an optical cable to connect your TV to your soundbar or your AV receiver, these signals will be converted into a simpler surround format, like Dolby Digital 5.1, before they get transmitted. The bottom line, is that while the sound you hear will still be really good, it won’t be Atmos.
Do I need Dolby Atmos speakers?
Initially, Dolby Atmos at home required the use of “height” channel speakers (the “.2” or “.4” in the middle of the speaker configuration description), but that is no longer the case. In addition to the TV speaker-based Atmos available on some TVs, you can get Dolby Atmos soundbars, which include height channels.
However, there’s also something called “virtualized” Dolby Atmos, which can create a simulation of a 5.1.2 Dolby Atmos mix from as few as two front-facing left and right channels. How good is this virtualized effect? It varies based on the number of channels that are being virtualized and the quality of the speakers themselves.
It can, however, be awesome. Sennheiser’s superb Ambeo Soundbar possesses dedicated up-firing drivers for the height channels but uses its array of forward-facing drivers to simulate the surround channels. It’s pricey, but it delivers a very convincing virtualized Atmos experience.
Though still not quite as good as a system with dedicated Atmos speakers, for many folks the simplicity of a single soundbar plus a subwoofer will be worth it.
How do I know if I’m getting Dolby Atmos?
Because Dolby Atmos systems will upmix any surround sound signals they get to use all of your speakers, it can sometimes be tricky to know if you’re getting true Dolby Atmos or upmixed 5.1 or 7.1 surround sound. From an audible point of view, if you’re getting Atmos, you should be able to detect sounds as they appear to move from one area of the room to another. Rainfall, bullet ricochets, and whizzing cars are all good candidates for this.
They won’t just move from front to back or side to side; they should also occasionally sound as though they’re coming from overhead, or somewhere above the screen.
Still not certain? The one surefire way to know is to check the information panel on the front of your A/V receiver or your soundbar (if it has one, or perhaps an on-screen display). It should display the kind of audio signal it’s currently working with, and if it doesn’t specifically say “Atmos,” or “Dolby Atmos,” then the odds are, you’re not getting Atmos.
One more thing …
If you’ve followed our guide to getting Dolby Atmos but you’re still not seeing an Atmos indicator on your system, or you’re not hearing much of a difference, there’s one more thing you need to check. TVs and streaming devices have different settings for their digital audio outputs. Most of the time, they’re set to “auto” by default, which should work just fine.
But every now and then, they can end up in PCM mode — that stands for Pulse Code Modulation. If you’re not getting Dolby Atmos, check to see if your device is set to PCM. If it is, change it to Auto, or Bitstream because Dolby Atmos is not compatible with PCM.
Achieving proper Dolby Atmos requires a bit of diligence on your part and a wee bit of technical know-how, but it’s totally worth it. If you’re still not sure if your setup gets an Atmos passing grade, check out our Dolby Atmos cheat sheet diagram above. Good luck, and happy listening!
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