What is Dolby Atmos and what speakers do you need?

Home cinema isn’t just about the picture – sound is equally as important, and there have been significant advancements in that area in recent years.

No longer are we confined to 5.1 and 7.1 surround sound systems, we can have fully encompassing, cinema-like experiences thanks to the proliferation of Dolby Atmos.

Available on movies, sports broadcasts, and even games these days, Atmos is doing for sound what Blu-ray and 4K Ultra HD did for video performance.

But, what is Dolby Atmos? Why is it exciting? And what do you need to get the most from it?

What is Dolby Atmos?

Dolby Atmos started in the cinema, and takes the longstanding surround sound concept and adds extra height channels to provide a more enveloping 3D sound.

So, rather than have sounds of raindrops, or a helicopter moving around the same height as your ears with 5.1, for example, Atmos means you’ll be able to hear rain actually falling from above or a helicopter moving from over your head and into the distance. At least, that’s the theory.

In a cinema or movie theatre, this is delivered at its very best, with up to 64 speakers supported. But it is more increasingly being used in soundbars and speaker packages for the home.

Here, it introduces new speaker configurations, such as 5.1.2, where there are five speakers around the room – generally a centre channel and four surrounds – one subwoofer and two height channels. These height channels can be delivered through in-ceiling speakers or drivers that fire sound upwards.

You could also have 5.1.4, 7.1.2 or 7.1.4 – sometimes even 9.2.6 in the most complicated setups. However, Dolby Atmos isn’t defined by the number of channels. In fact, Dolby Atmos is called object-based sound, as while its basis is 10 bed channels in a 7.1.2 setup, it can also have up to 128 individual objects that can be placed independently anywhere in a 3D soundscape, and move around freely.

When exported for a home environment mix, this is downscaled slightly to as many as eight dynamic object groups – but the concept is the same. The best thing about object-based sound is it can adapt to however many speakers you have.

What do I need to get Dolby Atmos at home?

For the best possible Atmos experience, in-ceiling speakers are the way to go.

However, not everyone is able to facilitate them, so the more common approach at home is to get upward-firing Atmos speakers to send the sound up to the ceiling and reflect back down to the listening position. And, this is the form adopted by many speaker, AV receiver and soundbar manufacturers today.


For those with traditional separate speakers – like a home cinema surround sound system – this might just mean the addition of upfiring modules. Several brands, including Onkyo and KEF, offer speakers that you place on top of your existing left and right floorstanders, or nearby on an AV stand. These are dedicated to Dolby Atmos and are angled slightly to bounce the sound off the ceiling and back down to your sitting position.

Some manufacturers build upfiring units into their left and right bookshelf or floorstanding speakers. So, as well as fire sound towards you, they also fire upwards too.

In order to drive dedicated Dolby Atmos speakers, whether they are upward firing modules or are built-in to the ceiling, you’ll need a compatible AV receiver. The majority of major AV brands support Dolby Atmos across their ranges, and all at different price points to suit different budgets

But that’s not the only route to getting Dolby Atmos in your home.

What Dolby Atmos soundbars are available?

If you don’t have space for a full Atmos surround sound setup, you can still get some of the added height effect with a Dolby Atmos soundbar.

Most of the big audio brands offer Dolby Atmos soundbars in some form. Many offer models with upfiring speakers, either built into the top of bar or angled upwards, while some offer a virtual Atmos effect instead, with clever yet subtle sound handling that places sounds wider and higher virtually instead.

A few years back it was only the high-end bars that had this option, but we’re seeing a much wider selection of mid-range bars offering Atmos too, meaning it’s getting much cheaper to get that boosted audio effect.

What other hardware do I need for Dolby Atmos?

A big part of the puzzle, of course, is the source. You need to find a way to feed that Dolby Atmos signal to your speakers. The starting point for movie fans is likely to be a Blu-ray player – and you’ll probably want one that supports 4K Ultra HD.

However, as long as the Blu-ray player has been set to output a direct bitstream signal, your Dolby Atmos-enabled receiver or soundbar should be able to decode the signal and send the height channels to the Dolby Atmos speakers.

You will of course also have to make sure the Blu-ray disc you’re watching has a Dolby Atmos soundtrack on it. You can check the rear of the case to see if it does.

Some TV services offer Dolby Atmos – BT Sport Ultimate will give you Atmos on some live football matches if you have the 4K Ultra HD set-top box. Sky also provides Dolby Atmos on some sporting events and Sky Cinema movies through its Sky Q box.

Media streaming is another area that supplies Dolby Atmos soundtracks. Netflix, Amazon Prime Video and Disney+ each support Dolby Atmos on movies and TV shows, as does Apple TV through its Smart TV apps and own set-top box. In terms of other streaming devices, Roku supports it, as well as Android TV boxes, such as the Nvidia Shield TV, and Amazon’s Fire TV.

You can use a games console too, as the Xbox Series X/S, Xbox One, Xbox One S, PlayStation 5 and PS4 all support Atmos soundtracks on films, either through streaming, with some games adopting the format too. The newer Xbox consoles also support Dolby Atmos for gaming.

Some flagship TVs now support Dolby Atmos as well, with built-in sound systems and upfiring speakers to support it natively. It’s best to check though before you purchase your next TV though – some advertise as supporting Atmos but can only offer it virtually, or pass it through to a soundbar or receiver.

You will need an HDMI 2.1 port that supports HDMI eARC technology in order to hear full-fat lossless Atmos, though. Older HDMI ports with standard ARC can pass Atmos though in the lossy Dolby Digital Plus codec – you might not hear a whole lot of difference but if you’ve spent the cash on a good setup you want to make sure you’re hearing it at its best.

You will need the eARC support at both ends of the system though – so if you’re passing it through to a soundbar, that will need eARC support too – it tends to be found on sets and devices released in 2019 and up.

A final option is to purchase a TV with Dolby Atmos speakers built into the set itself – such as Sky’s own connected TV

What content can I hear in Dolby Atmos?

One of the first movies to be released with an Atmos soundtrack was Transformers: Age of Extinction in 2014. Luckily films with Atmos have greatly progressed since then, in both quality and quantity. Many 4K and standard Blu-rays on the shelves will have an Atmos soundtrack – so check your collection, as you may already have a library ready to go.

BT TV offers Atmos through its 4K Ultra HD sports channel. Live sports have been shown with the added height since 2017, but to get it you need to have the BT YouView+ 4K Ultra HD set-top box.

Sky Q also sports Dolby Atmos in its content offerings. This includes many movie downloads if you have a Sky Cinema subscription and Premier League football coverage.

Dolby Atmos Explained What Is It And How Do I Get It image 5

Netflix offers Atmos content, as does Amazon Prime Video. Most new content added to Disney+ also comes in Dolby Atmos, including Marvel and Star Wars movies and TV shows.

You can purchase or rent many digital films with Dolby Atmos soundtracks through the likes of Apple TV and Rakuten TV.

Plenty of Xbox games now have Dolby Atmos soundtracks too – check out Forza Horizon 5 or Halo Infinite on an Xbox Series X or S, for example.

Most recently, Dolby confirmed it was bringing Atmos soundtracks to some Audible audiobooks. You can find out more on how you can listen to that in our full feature.

What about Dolby Atmos on laptops, phones and tablets?

In more recent years we’ve seen Dolby Atmos being talked about in other terms – not just in the context of the home cinema experience.

If it can play audio, Dolby wants to bring the Atmos experience to it. That means we are seeing laptops, tablets and phones stating that they offer Dolby Atmos support – though of course the experience is quite different to that you’ll hear at home or in the cinema.

In these cases, it’s about virtualising a more immersive soundscape. Yes, those devices sound better when the Dolby Atmos mode is turned on, but it’s not aiming to place sound objects in space like you might get at home from your separates system or soundbar. It’s about creating a feeling of sounds being in different places, using some clever audio trickery that delays – just slightly – when sounds are delivered, to give a feeling of them being closer or further away.

That means you’ll need to take Dolby Atmos on devices like mobiles with a small pinch of salt – it’s using the same branding, but it’s not really the same thing.

What about Dolby Atmos Music?

More recently, we’ve seen Dolby Atmos move away from the home cinema space and into the music space, with Dolby Atmos Music. This is a spatial audio format, just like it is for cinema, but now with music tracks instead.

The music tracks have to be specially mixed for Atmos, so you can’t just play a regular song through an Atmos system and expect it to work. At the time of writing, Apple Music, Tidal and Amazon Music include Dolby Atmos music tracks in their catalogues.

Of course, to hear them at their best, you’ll need to have the hardware that supports Atmos playback. Amazon’s Echo Studio does just that, as does Apple’s HomePod 2 and the Sonos Era 300.

You can also listen to them using any regular headphones and a compatible phone or tablet, but this will be a virtual mix as discussed above – using the speakers will provide a much more immersive experience.

You can read more about Dolby Atmos Music in our full feature.

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