Dolby Atmos® creates powerful, moving audio by introducing two important concepts to cinema sound: audio objects and overhead speakers. Together, these completely change how soundtracks are created and heard. Traditional surround soundtracks confine all sounds to a small set of channels that can deliver sound to you from only a few perceived angles. They cannot put sound above you. Further, sounds exist only as part of a channel mix. If one sound is emphasized in a traditional mix, another must be diminished.
In Dolby Atmos, by contrast, sound can be freed from channels. It enables artists to treat specific sounds as individual entities, called audio objects. These can be precisely placed and moved by the soundtrack creator anywhere in the cinema's three-dimensional space, though the artist can continue to use channel capabilities as desired. The Dolby Atmos cinema processor then determines which of a cinema's huge array of front, back, side, and overhead speakers it will use to recreate this lifelike movement.
As a result, a Dolby Atmos soundtrack brings alive the onscreen story as never before possible. The movie's sounds flow all around you to completely immerse you in the action, heightening the impact of the story and creating a powerfully moving cinema experience.
Movies for Showing Off Your Dolby Atmos Speaker System...
Top Gun Maverick
Opening with such an obvious one, but this is the latest movie that companies are using for their demos, and there's a good reason. It starts simple, with the scene of Maverick flying over grumpy Admiral Ed Harris, which gives you not only an early showing of Atmos height as Maverick's Mach 10 plane rockets right over you, but of the meat and dynamic power of your system as the plane fires up.
And then there's the dogfighting, of course. The training battle between Maverick and Rooster is one scene that's good for showing how the object-based sound of Dolby Atmos can put sound around you with precision, but I prefer the section when they're in the final mission. Surface-to-air missiles are streaking around them, and when you're in the cockpit, you can hear them closing in, droning just past, or exploding against flare countermeasures.
And on top of all that, you get that soundtrack in the best quality you've ever heard it.
This is a great looking and sounding movie in general, but there's one scene especially that's become part of my Atmos test suite. It's Kwame Ture's speech, in the first third of the movie.
It's a simple setup – he's at the front, speaking to a large room full of people, and a lot of the time, the camera is facing him, with the crowd behind it. And the sound design really digs into this aspect of it. Brother Kwame's voice is clear from the center, but also echoes slightly, from the walls and speaker system. But even more involving is the response from the crowd. They call back to him from behind and to the side of you, each voice from a specific person, in a specific place. These voices have their own slight echoes, making the room feel like a physical location, not some set on a screen.
This is obviously best in surround, but it's a great test even for a soundbar-only system, because how well the soundbar can layer out and separate those voices from Kwame's is a test of Atmos spatial skills – they should feel detached from him, even if they can't truly come from behind.
You know what's pretty great for testing positional sound in a 3D environment? The camera swirling in circles while bullets whoosh past in slow motion. If you want to show people why you wanted as many speaker channels as you got, go straight to the rooftop bullet time scene. The slo-mo shots from the gun ring out from one area, while the soundwaves of each bullet swoop closer and then further away tracking perfectly based on the camera's location.
But it's not just about that. It's an all-timer for sound design in general, and Atmos makes the most of that. Around the rooftop scene you've got Morpheus' breakout, where the sprinkler system really gets to show off height detail, with the hissing sound right above you, and water falling in all directions. When the helicopter gunship arrives, its falling cartridges tinkle across the screen, providing a showcase for forward positioning, and precision in treble.
And the famous swelling score and music cues will take advantage of as much power as your system can offer them, really.
A Quiet Place
The more you strip back from the sound of a movie, the more you need to absolutely nail anything that's in there. There's no accidental audio in A Quiet Place – every sound is deliberately chosen, balanced and placed, and Dolby Atmos is the way to experience that absolutely.
From the start on wards, it matters what a sound is, what direction it's in, and how far away it is. The opening of the movie emphasizes all this, and provides a kind of calibration for us – how loud the bare-feet tiptoeing is, the way the sound of footsteps follows across the screen from left to right when Beau crosses the aisle…
Other movies here showcase the power of Atmos mixed with its positional abilities – this is all about what high-quality 3D sound can do.
Dune showcase the power of Atmos mixed with its positional abilities', let's talk about Arrakis. A big part of this is that it's a vibes movie – a big tonal score interacts with big tonal sound effects from the vehicles, creating this all-enveloping swell of audio that a great Atmos showcase.
But it's not just about the tones. There's some incredibly specific and vibrant sound design to elements such as the ornithopter, with it's beating wings/blades that really feel like they're hammering the air pressure around you. These are dense, elaborate sounds that benefit from the quality of Atmos to avoid them falling into just a din.
And there's the scale of things. The attack on House Atreides' base is one thing; the Sandworm is quite another.
Even though this film is about the band Queen, there's a whole load of interesting audio engineering going on there, but there's one particular scene we need to talk about: Live Aid.
You see, when Queen performed at the original Live Aid, the BBC's sound recorder had secretly taken a multi-track recording of the band, rather than just letting it go out on a flat broadcast recording. So the movie's sound designers were able to use real live recordings of the different instruments, and then engineer them into a 3D space to mimic the band's location and movements on-stage relative to the camera.
On top of that, they went to an actual stadium while making the movie to record ambient sound to layer under the real recordings, which again is something a great Atmos setup is so good at. The stadium noise fills the gaps while the music plays in front of you – it's a marvel of movie audio.
Ambulance is the movie where someone let Michael Bay use drones, and you can imagine how that went. It's full of ridiculous flying shots rotating around cars as they whip around corners, or where the camera flips up and over a car narrowly as it drives past.
And this means a lot of extremely dynamic sound. You've got engines roaring as they go past, you've got sirens moving around you as the police close in, you've got the tactile sudden crunch of metal hitting metal, and you've got helicopters closing in overhead, contributing to the claustrophobia the characters are feeling in the titular Ambulance.
And if great bass has been a part of the Dolby Atmos system you've bought, this is a real good way to show that off. Between the rumble of huge engines, explosions and the score, this film will give your floor a real good shake.
Star Wars: The Last Jedi
Star Wars' score is always going to be fun with a great home theater setup, but the battle scenes in this movie are an especially good showcase for Atmos positioning. The opening scene is one, of course, with Poe's X-Wing veering around and taking out gun placements, followed by the bombing run.
But it's the battle of Crait at the end that really stands out as a way to show off what a good Dolby Atmos height setup can do. TIE Fighters shriek over the ski speeders, racing across and above you, and then then pop as the Millenium Falcon whirrs overhead – the shot looking down at its shadow while its engine thrums above you is great.
And just before that is the hyperspace collision, with its stunning monochrome look, deathly silence and then booming explosion.
Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse
Between the kinetic pace of… well, most scenes of this movie, plus the broad range of music types used in the score and soundtrack, this will give any audio system a great workout. The more dynamic your speaker or setup, the more this movie has to give.
Unsurprisingly, the huge portal chamber scenes provide a great showcase. There's movement happening all around, but specific voices and effects to focus on, and all have their own place. The scene with unconscious Peter is excellent as well, thanks to the train moving overhead, trucks rushing past, and slapstick thud of Peter hitting assorted things.
But it's the music I always think of in this movie, and more than all the impressive spatial effects, if you've invested in a great Atmos system, just let it go wild with this score.
Blade Runner 2049
Dune is by the same director and has the same 'oppressive ambient vibes' hook. But whereas Dune stands out for adding some great large-scale moments to those vibes, Blade Runner 2049 just keeps turning the 'oppressive ambience' dial up until it snaps right off in your hand.
In the city, you're lost among the sounds around and above you. A huge whirring noise fills the space above your head. Is there some great machine just out of view, or is it part of the soundtrack? Both? Neither?
The long drone of a spinner's journey is suddenly broken by the tinkle of a Vangelis-aping track. The voice of a girl in a strange cage echo around the halls. I'm not sure that any movie uses sound more effectively to totally hypnotize you and move you to another place.
*Which movies have the best Dolby Atmos effects? This isn’t a ranking, it will always be subjective!