What is Dolby Atmos and How Does It Work

Not too long ago, you could only experience the premium sound of Dolby Atmos® in movie theaters. Now, it’s more common than ever to see speakers, receivers, and other home audio equipment sporting the iconic Dolby Atmos logo. Even streaming services and video games are offering Dolby Atmos content to satisfy home theater junkies.

Despite all this buzz, you may still have many questions. What is Dolby Atmos? Is Dolby Atmos worth it? Why should I care? How is this different from regular surround sound?


What is Dolby Atmos?

Dolby Atmos® is the first truly audible advancement in surround sound home theater systems. Through incredible advancements in acoustic technology and sound editing software development, Dolby has created a completely immersive, 360° audio experience that’s widely used by Hollywood’s top movie studios. Dolby Atmos delivers a captivating, object-based sound that places and moves audio anywhere in the room to bring entertainment alive all around the audience.

With Dolby Atmos, sound comes alive from all directions, including overhead, to fill a home theater with astonishing clarity, detail, and depth.

The unique Dolby Atmos sound is achieved by adding overhead and/or elevation channel speakers to your setup. This additional audio source creates an actual three-dimensional hemisphere of sound for the listener. Sound editors can now pinpoint a single sound and move it around, above, and through the listener.


Dolby Digital vs. Dolby Atmos

Dolby Digital is considered the traditional standard for cinema, broadcast, and home theater surround sound. Specifically, it’s Dolby’s proprietary audio compression technology that helps reproduce the original sound source (e.g., a movie’s soundtrack) and deliver it to your home theater in the highest quality possible.

Traditional surround sound formats like Dolby Digital are delivered through a 5.1 channel setup. The “5” includes the left front, right front, centre, left surround, and right surround speakers, while the “point 1” refers to the subwoofer. When a sound designer creates a movie soundtrack, he or she can assign different sounds to specific speakers. The centre channel is designed for dialogue. Dramatic music swells and similar sound effects are usually assigned to the front left and right channels. Sweeping effects and ambient noises are typically mixed into the left and right surround channels. All the low-frequency effects (LFEs) are sent to the subwoofer.

Dolby Atmos, on the other hand, is the next evolution of Dolby Digital. The general concept behind Dolby Atmos is that sounds are encoded as “objects.” Instead of sending an audio track to a specific channel, sound designers can assign an audio track to a location in the theater or room, including overhead. For example, filmmakers can have the sound of a helicopter pan smoothly across the rear wall, as opposed to panning from the left surround speaker to the right surround speaker. Dolby Atmos is a win-win for both filmmakers and viewers. Sound designers have great flexibility with the audio, while you get to enjoy a more immersive experience in the theater and at home.


How does Dolby Atmos work at home?

The most state-of-the-art Dolby Atmos theaters can accommodate up to 400 speakers. Let’s be real, though. Unless you have all the money in the world, it’s impossible to place that many speakers in your home. Fortunately, there are simpler solutions.

To create a Dolby Atmos experience at home, you’ll need the following pieces of equipment:

  • A 5.1 or greater surround sound system

  • Two or more Dolby Atmos speakers

  • Dolby Atmos receiver

Make sure your AV receiver offers Dolby Atmos. This type of receiver recognizes the sound that would typically be sent to the surround speakers and sends some of that sound to the Dolby Atmos elevation speakers. A receiver is the brains behind your home theater system, so it’s important to find one that can efficiently power all your speakers and decode a Dolby Atmos soundtrack.