Take cover! Dolby Atmos will rain down sound from above in home theaters

After wowing audiences in high-end commercial theaters for two years now, Dolby’s Atmos surround-sound technology is making its way into home theaters. Pioneer, Onkyo, Integra, Denon, Marantz and Yamaha have all announced new A/V receivers that support the format, and firmware updates for certain existing receivers will make them Atmos-ready later this year. In addition, Pioneer has announced a new line of Andrew Jones-designed, Atmos-enabled Elite speakers, and Definitive Technology has created a line of add-on Atmos Modules for some of it existing speakers. Dolby Labs has also indicated that Atmos-enabled Blu-ray discs are on their way this fall, with much more coming in 2015.

There’s a lot of info to absorb here, so we’ve broken it all down below and will update this article as new information is released.

What is Dolby Atmos and how is it different?

Dolby Atmos significantly expands the number of independent surround channels and speakers used in theaters, opening up new possibilities for movie-makers to provide a more realistic, immersive sound experience. Until now, theaters have been able to reproduce a maximum of eight individual tracks of surround sound, spread out among varying numbers of speakers. For example: With the 7.1-channel surround sound still played in most theaters, you get three channels up front (left, right and center) two side surround channels (left and right), two rear channels (left and right) and one subwoofer channel. When designing a film’s soundtrack, directors can use these different channels to steer sound effects around the room. However, no matter how many speakers get placed in a certain area — say, the left side of the room for the left surround channel — all of those speakers were restricted to one channel of sound, so they all played the same sound at the same time.

By contrast, Dolby Atmos is capable of  processing up to 128 channels of sound, which can be routed to up to 64 individual speakers. This way, sound engineers can place certain sound “objects” in pinpointed locations throughout the theater. And with Atmos, the ceiling is lined with any number of full-range speakers that work in concert with all of the other speakers in the room so these objects can be placed just about anywhere within a virtual hemisphere. In a way, you can chase the sound with your ears, tracking it and correlating it to the on-screen action. For example, if it rains in the movie, the rain comes from directly above you. If a helicopter flies overhead and to the right, the sound will start in the back of the room, move overhead and disappear off to the right side.

Of course, for the home theater, Atmos is scaled down considerably.

How will Atmos work in home theaters?

We’ve got some good news for you: You will not have to replace all of your home theater components to enjoy Dolby Atmos at home. Existing Blu-ray players will be able to deliver Dolby Atmos sound information from new Atmos-infused Blu-ray discs, and most of your existing speakers can remain as the foundation of your surround system. You may, however, need to replace your A/V receiver (unless you own a recently-released model that’s eligible for a firmware update), and you will need add some speakers to the room or, in some cases, re-purpose existing speakers.

Dolby Atmos A/V receivers

So far, Pioneer, Onkyo, Integra, Denon, Marantz and Yamaha have already announced which new models will feature Dolby Atmos and, in some cases, which existing receivers will be up for an Atmos-enabling firmware update. So far, Pioneer has indicated its 2014 Elite SC receiver line and “certain models” will be up for an upgrade – more details are expected in the coming days. Onkyo has an entire page dedicated to Atmos news and compatible receivers here. Marantz announced that its SR7009 (due in September) and AV7702 (October) models will be the first Marantz products to feature Dolby Atmos. Denon, which is under the same corporate umbrella as Marantz, announced the Atmos-friendly AVR-X4100W (September) and the AVR-X5200W (October). Neither brand mentioned the possibility of firmware upgrades for existing receivers.

Atmos-enabled receivers will have the processing capabilities to handle Atmos-encoded Blu-ray discs and streaming content, and amplifier assignment to accommodate Atmos-specific speakers. Additionally, Atmos speaker channels will get discrete sound information – sounds won’t simply be “derived” from other channels as is the case with Dolby’s Pro-Logic IIz surround processing. Here’s a list of movies that were produced with Dolby Atmos. At least some – if not all – of these titles will ultimately come available on Atmos-enabled Blu-ray discs.

Atmos speaker configurations

In commercial theaters, Atmos expands the capabilities of the side and rear surround speakers, but in the home theater environment, the front left, right, center, side surrounds and rear surrounds will be treated the same. For now, new sounds will be coming from the ceiling.

There are a number of proposed ways to get Atmos information into a home-theater room. Many supported (and we’d argue, preferred) configurations see speakers added to the ceiling. But for those scenarios where ceiling speaker placement is not possible, there are a number of options. One way is to get a pair of “Atmos-enabled” front left and right speakers or surround speakers, like those recently announced by Pioneer. Another way is to set a pair of speakers called “Atmos Modules” on top of the front left and right speakers and/or  surround speakers. In either case, these speakers will aim discreet sounds up at the ceiling to be reflected down toward the listener, thus simulating a ceiling-placed speaker.

In either case, the idea is to add real overhead sound sources, expanding the enveloping effect folks look for in a surround environment.

With these new configurations comes a new numbering scheme. No longer do we just have 5.1, 7.1, and 9.1. Now there’s 5.1.2, 7.1.4, etc. Here’s a run-down of the new formats as it appears at Onkyo’s website:

Dolby Atmos with a 7 Channel Receiver Configuration Options
5.1.2 Configuration  5.1 layout with one pair in-ceiling height speakers
5.1.2 Configuration 5.1 layout including Dolby Atmos-enabled front speakers or add-on speaker modules
Dolby Atmos with a 9 Channel Receiver Configuration Options
5.1.4 Configuration  5.1 layout with two pair in-ceiling height speakers
5.1.4 Configuration  5.1 layout including Dolby Atmos-enabled front and surround speakers or add-on speaker modules
7.1.2 Configuration  7.1 layout with one pair in-ceiling height speakers
7.1.2 Configuration  7.1 layout including Dolby Atmos-enabled front speakers or add-on speaker modules
Dolby Atmos with an 11 Channel Receiver Configuration Options
7.1.4 Configuration  7.1 layout with two pair in-ceiling height speakers
7.1.4 Configuration  7.1 layout including Dolby Atmos-enabled front and surround speakers or add-on speaker modules
9.1.2 Configuration  9.1 layout with one pair in-ceiling height speakers
9.1.2 Configuration  9.1 layout including Dolby Atmos-enabled front speakers

Is Dolby Atmos worth the upgrade?

It’s tough to say for certain how effective some of the reflected-sound approaches detailed above will be. With that said, it’s hard to imagine any home theater buff not appreciating the added dimension that well-placed ceiling speakers could add to movie surround tracks in the home. Our experience with Atmos in commercial theaters has always been positive, and we hope for the same with this new home-based version. Anything that adds to the “you are there” effect is a win in our book.