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Until recently, the 5.1 Surround System was the pinnacle of home theater audio. But Dolby, the company responsible for releasing the first consumer surround sound format in 1982 (and the guys behind the big booming sound you hear in movies), has released something better: Dolby Atmos. This technology was originally designed for movie theaters roughly 10 years ago, but it’s finally filtered down into hardware designed for home theater enthusiasts. Here’s what you need to know.
Surround Sound vs. Dolby Atmos
Traditional 5.1 surround sound works like this: Your receiver sends a specific set of sounds to each speaker. The center channel handles dialogue, while the front and back speakers handle music and ambient music. For example, when an airplane moves across the screen, the audio signal quickly shifts from the right to left speaker to simulate motion.
A Dolby Atmos audio system sees each individual element on screen as a distinct object. Instead of sending a signal to one speaker, and switching between them suddenly, your receiver can “follow” the plane around, which makes it sound more 3D. Dolby Atmos systems do require additional speakers to help pull off this effect, but instead of facing you, they face upward. Sound hits your ceiling, bounces back down toward you, and off your floor. This creates the sensation of hearing sounds above and below you, rather than just around you.
How Can You Hear Dolby Atmos Sound?
Building a Dolby Atmos audio system doesn’t guarantee that everything you watch will sound “3D.” Movies, TV shows, and video games need to contain a separate Dolby Atmos mix, which your receiver can decode. Recent reissues of classic albums like The Beatles’ Abbey Road, concert films like Roger Waters’ The Wall, and video games like Resident Evil 2 on the Xbox One all support Dolby Atmos.
This technology isn’t limited to physical media; as this technology becomes more readily available, more studios and game makers will start supporting it. The good news is it’s possible for some older content to be re-released with Atmos in mind.
How Do You Get Dolby Atmos for Your Home Theater System?
If you’d like to build a Dolby Atmos audio system from scratch, we’re recommending three different systems that cover three sizes and two styles. There’s a traditional-looking 7.1.4 system (the 4 denotes upward-firing speakers) and two sound bars. Yes, Dolby Atmos was designed to work with a sound bar with front and upward-firing speakers, plus a pair of rear speakers.
A traditional-looking audio system will give you the best experience because the speakers can be placed all around you, and tweaked to sound just right. But, there’s no denying the convenience and compact design of a sound bar, which makes Dolby Atmos more apartment friendly.
1. Sony Z9F 3.1ch Sound Bar with Dolby Atmos
The Z9F is a self-contained 3.1 channel sound bar that uses a custom technology developed by Sony called a “Vertical Sound Engine.” When enabled, the sound bar sends sound toward you, upward, and downward to recreate a 7.1.2 audio system. This may sound impossible, but companies like Sonos have adopted similar technology in its new soundbar the Arc.
Because it’s simulating the experience of listening to a 7.1.2 audio system, you won’t get quite as immersive of an experience. That said, you can pair this sound bar with a pair of Sony’s wireless surround speakers, to improve the setup later on. This upgrade path is one of the main reasons we’re recommending the Sony Z9F.
Beyond support for Dolby Atmos, this sound bar holds its own in other ways. You can wirelessly stream music to it via Bluetooth or WiFi, or pair it to an Amazon Echo, and control it entirely using your voice via Alexa, Amazon’s smart assistant. The Z9F doesn’t need to be plugged into a stereo receiver to work. Instead, you only need to connect it to your TV’s HDMI ARC (audio return channel) port. All audio from your TV will automatically be routed from your TV to the sound bar.
If you don’t have much room, and like the idea of trying a simulated Dolby Atmos experience before adding more speakers to your setup, this is a great entry-level option.
2. Samsung Harman Kardon 7.1.4 Dolby Atmos Sound Bar
Samsung partnered with Harman Kardon to create a more sophisticated Dolby Atmos surround sound package that’s a good bridge between a compact and full system.
Samsung’s offering is comprised of four components: a sound bar, two wireless rear speakers, and a dedicated subwoofer. Rather than relying exclusively on software, the company built upward-firing drivers (the piece of a speaker that produces sound) into both the sound bar and wireless rear speakers.
The result is speakers that pull double duty to create a more enveloping surround sound experience. This system may only have four components, but it has a total of 17 speakers firing sound in every direction. Samsung and Harmon Kardon collaborated to create a technology called “Adaptive Sound” that optimizes the EQ (equalization) based on what you’re watching and the system’s volume.
You can wirelessly stream audio to this Dolby Atmos system via Bluetooth, or connect an Amazon Echo to control it by using your voice. Because this audio system is based around a sound bar, you don’t need to connect it to a stereo receiver. Instead, plug it into your TV’s HDMI ARC port, and all of its audio will get routed through the sound bar and accompanying speakers.
If you want an all-in-one Dolby Atmos speaker system, but don’t have enough room to set up full-sized speakers, this is the right choice.
3. DIY Dolby Atmos Speaker System
Home theater enthusiasts with a large space dedicated to watching movies or TV shows and listening to music should consider building a traditional surround sound setup with support for Dolby Atmos.
Klipsch has six-speaker bundle specifically designed for Dolby Atmos made up of two floorstanding speakers, two rear speakers, a center channel speaker, and a subwoofer. The floorstanding and rear speakers have both forward and upward facing drivers to maximize the 3D effect of Dolby Atmos mixes. There are a total of 21 drivers between the speakers, so you’ll be able to hear every nuance of your movie soundtrack or music.
Because this is a traditional speaker system, it comes with a couple of drawbacks. First, none of these speakers are wireless, so you’ll have to connect all of them to a stereo receiver using speaker wire. Second, you’ll need to get a stereo receiver that supports Dolby Atmos.
We’re recommending Denon’s VR-X1600H 4K UHD AV Receiver because it’s designed to handle Dolby Atmos, and has a generous amount of ports. You can hook eight pairs of speakers and two subwoofers to this receiver, which gives you room to expand on Klipsch’s bundle over time. It has four HDMI in ports, one HDMI Out (ARC) port, three sets of RCA (red and white) ports, an AM/FM radio tuner, an optical input, and coaxial input. You should have no trouble connecting every major component in your home theater system (game console, media streamer, turntable, and 4K Blu Ray player) at the same time.
If you have the space, and want the true Dolby Atmos experience, this system will definitely get you there. The option to add even more speakers over time means you won’t have to replace it for a long, long time.