Should I Use My Ceiling-Mounted Side Speakers as Atmos Overheads? Ask the Editors

side speakers

Q: I just read a recent Ask the Editors about whether an Atmos-capable AV receiver will enhance the soundfield of an existing 5.1 in-ceiling system. I have a similar but different situation: a 7.1 system with the front and rear speakers mounted at ear level with ceiling-mounted side speakers. My Onkyo TX-NR737 AVR supports Dolby Atmos, so I have the option of setting up my receiver for a standard 7.1 configuration using the ceiling-mounted speakers as left and right “sides,” or enabling Atmos and using them for overheads. Which configuration will be more immersive?

– Michael Gabbitas (gabbitas)

A: I think that using the ceiling-mounted speakers as Atmos overheads will be more immersive. Granted, with the side surrounds mounted on the ceiling, even a 5.1 or 7.1 soundtrack will feel more immersive than if they were also at ear height. But that isn’t the correct rendition of a conventional surround soundfield because the side surrounds are not where they’re supposed to be. In particular, sounds that are intended to pan by you to the left or right take a detour above your head, which isn’t what the mixing engineer envisioned.

If you decide to configure your AVR for 5.1.2 Atmos using the two ceiling-mounted speakers as overheads, you’ll probably need to move your rear-surround speakers closer to the sides. If you don’t, the distance between the fronts and surrounds will be too great, and the soundfield will collapse between them—you’ll hear a gap as sounds pan by you.

Another approach to this problem is to add two more side-surround speakers at ear height, which would result in a 7.1.2 Atmos setup. However, the Onkyo TX-NR737 is a 7.2-channel AVR, so you can’t do that. Interestingly, it has terminals for nine speakers—Front LR, Center, Surround LR, Back/Height LR, and Zone 2 LR—so I wondered if you might be able to use the Zone 2 outputs to power the side surrounds.

After digging around the manual, I don’t think so. I assume it has a total of seven amplifier channels, though the manual does not state that explicitly. Presumably, if you use surround and back or height speakers, the Zone 2 output is disabled, and if you use the Zone 2 output, you can have no more than five full-range channels in the main room. Unfortunately, I could not confirm that in the manual I found, but it makes sense. (I did confirm that you can bi-amp the front LR speakers using the Front and Back/Height outputs, in which case, the Zone 2 output is disabled.)

So the question is, should you configure the system as 7.1 with ceiling-mounted side speakers or 5.1.2 Atmos and move your back speakers to the side-surround positions? I would do 5.1.2.

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