Dolby’s Atmos tech is making the leap from cinema to living room, bringing its all-over surround sound to the small screen.
So what will it do to your in-house multiplex and how do you get it? Shut the curtains, put your phone on silent, grab some popcorn and we’ll fill you in.
1. It started in cinemas
Dolby Atmos is supercharged surround sound. It premiered back in 2012 with Brave, Pixar’s documentary about life in Scotland, and has since been used in films such as Gravity, Godzilla and Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes.
Atmos uses up to 64 separate speakers, including some installed in the ceiling, to create a dome of sound on top of the audience that’ll have you checking the seats around you for gun-toting chimps and ducking to avoid flying space debris.
2. It’s not just about special effects
If it all sounds a bit gimmicky, don’t worry. Atmos changes the way sound is mixed in the first place, meaning it’s based on individual objects making noise within the scene rather than just splitting everything across individual channels.
Film-makers can have up to 128 sound objects in a scene at once, from people to environmental conditions such as wind and rain. Each one can move as the camera moves, so the sounds will always be coming from the right place.
This allows directors to use sound much more creatively and usefully than ever before, introducing characters from off-screen by their voice alone, or drawing your attention to something important without having to point the camera right at it as if to say “LOOK AT THIS THING IT’S IMPORTANT TO THE NARRATIVE”.
3. You’ll need some new speakers
You probably don’t have 64 speakers dotted around your living room, so for Atmos to work at home you’re going to need some more.
Chances are you won’t want to saw holes in your ceiling and run wires up inside the walls, so Dolby has developed a system that uses upwards-firing speakers to bounce sound off the ceiling and back down towards your ears, creating the illusion of noise coming from above.
And you don’t need 64 of them. Dolby says two should do the job but four will give you the most cinema-like experience.
4. But you won’t (necessarily) need a new amp
Denon and Onkyo have new Atmos-enabled AV amps on the way, but you won’t necessarily need to buy one to use it. Onkyo has kindly decided to release a firmware update for some of its existing models, including the TX-NR636 (above), TX-NR737 and TX-NR838, that’ll add the necessary know-how to decode Atmos audio from a disc.
Using five speakers instead of 64 doesn’t mean you’ll miss 59 speakers’ worth of sound. The receiver detects how many speakers are available and uses metadata on the disc to work out how to distribute the movie’s soundtrack to best effect.
5. It works! It actually works!
We went to visit Dolby for a demo of Atmos in a home cinema setup. Using an Onkyo amp with a dozen KEF R-Series speakers we watched multiple clips, switching between ceiling-mounted speakers and upfirers to compare the effect. It was impossible to tell the difference, with the sound of wind-rustled leaves, chucked spears and a Red Bull F1 car blasting through a tunnel, bouncing off the ceiling and into our ears.
6. But the films aren’t quite ready yet
Plenty of films are released in cinemas with Dolby Atmos sound (over 100 so far) but it hasn’t made its way to discs yet. Dolby told us to expect them “in the coming months” and that the fact that one of the clips we saw was from Star Trek Into Darkness absolutely does not mean Spock and co will be among the first to get the Atmos treatment on Blu-ray. No way. Nothing to see here. Move along please.