What is Dolby Atmos and how does it revolutionize surround sound?

This new technology promises more immersion than ever.

Man in a living room watching TV with sound waves radiating from the speaker system showing the effects of Dolby Atmos

Before we dive in, let’s explore the different types of speaker outputs. Dolby Atmos® is revolutionizing sound as we know it, but it requires the proper channels and equipment to work. Between mono, stereo, and surround sound, where do we see the new technology’s impact?

Mono

In the realm of audio, there’s a straightforward term you might come across “mono.” Essentially, it’s the representation of sound in a singular channel. This means all audio signals are amalgamated into one output. Think of older radios and computers and certain club or public address systems — these are all mono devices, as they operate with a single speaker.

Stereo

In today’s TVs, computer systems, mobile devices, headphones, earbuds, and home audio systems, the most common output format features two channels: left and right. This configuration offers a wider audio range compared to mono, opening up avenues for creative sound expression by strategically positioning elements on either side or by panning sounds from one speaker to the next, generating a dynamic sense of motion. Stereo sound also creates an illusion that the audio emanates from a point between the speakers, when in reality, it’s coming from the left and right channels simultaneously.

Surround

This approach involves integrating additional speakers, delivering a heightened sense of direction, space, and depth. The standard configuration for surround sound is the well-known 5.1 setup. Here, a central speaker joins the primary left and right speakers, accompanied by rear left and rear right surround speakers, tallying up to five primary speakers. The “.1” designation designates a bass speaker or subwoofer, responsible for handling those powerful low frequencies. For an even more immersive soundscape, the 7.1 configuration goes a step further by including two additional side speakers.

Dolby Atmos builds on surround sound to create three-dimensional audio

Dolby Atmos takes the immersive experience a step further by introducing height channels to the audio mix. Alongside the conventional left, right, centre, and rear speakers, Dolby Atmos incorporates additional speakers. These may be positioned in the ceiling, directing sound downwards, or they could take the form of soundbars and similar devices located below, projecting sound upwards to reflect off the ceiling.

This innovative setup results in a three-dimensional sonic environment. In Dolby Atmos configurations, you’ll find designations like 5.1.2, 7.1.2, or 7.1.4, with the final number indicating the presence of two or four height channels.

What truly sets Dolby Atmos apart is how audio content is mixed. It allows for up to 118 audio objects that can be precisely placed anywhere in three-dimensional space. These objects can move seamlessly from front to back, from floor to ceiling, and anywhere in between. This offers an unparalleled range of possibilities for dynamic movement and depth, delivering sound in the most faithful way our ears experience it in the real world.

What do I need to experience Dolby Atmos?

To experience Dolby Atmos at home, you’ll need a few essential pieces of equipment. This starts at the source of the signal, usually the TV, which should have an HDMI™ eARC (enhanced Audio Return Channel) output to your soundbar or receiver, which should also have an HDMI eARC connection and Dolby Atmos capability. If you use a source with a standard HDMI ARC connection, you’ll still hear sound, but it will be limited by data bandwidth to the stereo or surround sound version of the signal only, not the Dolby Atmos mix.

Using a soundbar is by far the easiest way to experience Dolby Atmos and is much simpler than installing a receiver and speaker system around the room or in the ceiling. The newest generation of soundbars, which includes models such as the Bose Smart Ultra Soundbar and the Bose Smart Soundbar 600, have full Dolby Atmos capability. The Smart Ultra Soundbar has nine internal speakers and the Smart Soundbar 600 has five internal speakers, each including two upward-firing speakers to reproduce the Dolby Atmos height channels.

To enhance the immersion, consider adding a pair of Bose Surround Speakers 700 or a Bose Bass Module 700 subwoofer, especially for low-end effects. Bose Smart Soundbars streamline the process with a single HDMI eARC port for easy connection to a Dolby Atmos-enabled source.

Accessing Dolby Atmos content

Dolby Atmos content is now widely available on streaming services, but you’ll need to check your current subscription plan, as many major services offer Dolby Atmos content on their premium plans.

Some music artists are beginning to release Dolby Atmos mixes on Apple Music, although sometimes under a different term, like Spatial Audio. Also, be sure to check your 4K Blu-ray discs — many feature Dolby Atmos capability.

Reviving classic albums

Classic albums are also getting the Dolby Atmos treatment as record labels update their catalogs. The result? Albums you’ve cherished for years will now take on a new dimension in Dolby Atmos. Listeners often report experiencing heightened clarity in the separation of musical components, a greater sense of depth, and hearing new sounds and instrumentation that were previously buried in the old mixes. In other words, Dolby Atmos surround sound breathes new life into old favourites and makes rediscovering them a lot of fun.

A performer singing

Even more ways to experience Dolby Atmos

Dolby uses a technique called binaural sound, which enables you to experience the immersion of Dolby Atmos while listening to music or watching a movie with headphones on.

Using the Bose Music app, you can seamlessly switch from your soundbar to Dolby Atmos-equipped headphones, like the Bose QuietComfort Headphones, for late night viewing or whenever you want to block out the noise.

Although it’s not exactly the same experience you’ll get with your soundbar or an installed system, you’ll still hear the difference between normal stereo and Dolby Atmos mixes, particularly with regard to clarity and a sense of depth, width, and height.

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