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What is Dolby Atmos, and how does it revolutionise surround sound?

“Dolby Atmos” is a term that may be catching your eye as even more streaming services and audio-video equipment trumpet the new technology, which promises more immersion in the soundscape than ever.

But what is Dolby Atmos, and how does it improve on existing sound formats like surround sound? As with most new technology, it’s an improvement and represents a significant advancement, but accessing and experiencing Dolby Atmos requires the right equipment and connections. Here’s how to achieve this.

To understand Dolby Atmos, it’s helpful to first consider how audio is currently delivered through most entertainment systems.

Mono

Audio can be output in a number of ways, starting with “mono” signals. Mono simply means one channel, with the entire sound signal folded into a single output. Examples of devices that use mono signals include radios, older computers and some club and PA systems. Essentially, anything with a single speaker is mono.

Volume control knob of a radio
A couple in a living room watching TV that has a soundbar

Stereo

The most common output format used in TVs, computer systems, mobile devices, headphones, earbuds and home audio systems today has two channels: left and right. This produces a wider audio range than mono and allows more creative sound expression by positioning elements on one side or the other or panning sounds from one speaker to the next, creating the illusion of movement. Stereo sound also creates a phantom centre, where it seems like the sound is coming from between the speakers, but it’s actually coming from the left and right channels simultaneously.

Surround

Adding extra speakers that surround the listener creates an even greater sense of direction, space and depth. The most common surround sound configuration is a 5.1 set-up, in which a centre speaker is added to the main left and right speakers, plus rear left and rear right surround speakers, making five main speakers. The .1 refers to a bass speaker or subwoofer for handling low frequencies. In 7.1 configurations, two more side speakers are added.

Man in a living room watching TV with sound waves radiating from the speaker system

Dolby Atmos creates the most three-dimensional soundscape possible.

Dolby Atmos builds even further on the capabilities of surround sound by adding height channels to the mix. Like surround sound, there is a bed of left, right, centre and rear speakers, but there are also additional speakers, either positioned in the ceiling firing down, or in the form of soundbars and other speakers below firing upwards to reflect sound from the ceiling. As a result, Dolby Atmos creates the most three-dimensional soundscape possible. In Dolby Atmos speaker systems, the set-up is described as 5.1.2, 7.1.2 or 7.1.4, with the final number representing two or four height channels.

The way audio content is mixed in Dolby Atmos broadcast also enhances the immersive effect. Dolby Atmos mixes can feature up to 118 audio objects that audio mixers and sound designers can place anywhere in 3D space, roaming from front to back, floor to ceiling and anywhere in between. This creates nearly unlimited possibilities for movement and depth, and the most accurate reproduction of sound as our ears perceive it in the real world. This is the real power of Dolby Atmos, and why it’s so different from previous audio technologies.

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.

Soundbar on a TV console
Living room with a TV, soundbar and rear surround speakers

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 Soundbar 900 and the Bose Smart Soundbar 600, have full Dolby Atmos capability, with nine internal speakers, including two upward-firing speakers to reproduce the Dolby Atmos height channels. Adding a pair of Bose Surround Speakers 700, or a Bose Bass Module 700 subwoofer will add some additional immersion, especially on the low end. The Bose Smart Soundbars also make the set-up easy, with a single HDMI eARC port enabling connection to a Dolby Atmos-enabled source.

Performer at a concert

Where do I find 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 premium plans only. Most 4K video content includes Dolby Atmos audio too, including 4K Blu-ray discs.

Music artists are also releasing Dolby Atmos mixes of their albums, although sometimes under a different term, like Spatial Audio on Apple Music, but the underlying technology will still be Dolby Atmos, and you will see the Dolby Atmos logo on those albums.

Classic albums are also getting the Dolby Atmos treatment as labels update their catalogues. Albums you’ve been listening to for years will now sound even better in Dolby Atmos. The most common reaction after listening to Dolby Atmos versions of album mixes is noticing clearer separation between the musical elements, a greater sense of depth and 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.

Albums you’ve been listening to for years will now sound even better in Dolby Atmos.

Woman listening to music wearing Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones 700

Other Dolby Atmos listening options

It’s also possible to experience Dolby Atmos surround sound through headphones. Dolby has used a technique called binaural sound, which enables you to experience the immersion of Dolby Atmos while listening to music or watching a film with headphones on.

Using the Bose Music app, you can seamlessly switch from your soundbar to wireless Bluetooth headphones, such as the Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones 700, for late night viewing while the rest of the house is sleeping, or whenever you want to block out the outside world while keeping the sound level down.

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.

Dolby Atmos is here to stay, and the range of content featuring this immersive new sound technology is growing all the time. What is Dolby Atmos? It’s the future of sound, and now you have the knowledge you need to take advantage of this incredibly immersive new development in home entertainment.

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