Dolby Atmos For Home Theater Celebrates its One Year Anniversary!

Ralph Potts offers his thoughts on the format, the list of current and upcoming Atmos Blu-ray titles, and his recent visit to Dolby.

I have been an audio enthusiast for the better part of 30 years and an audio/video buff since the late 1990s. I have been fortunate enough to find an outlet for my interest in this great hobby, and over the last decade, I’ve reviewed both hardware and software, which has provided exposure to many products. I have seen the advances in technology that have allowed home entertainment to rival the theatrical experience.

A year ago, I visited Dolby and experienced Atmos for the home, and I knew immediately that it offered the next logical step in home-theater sound. I made plans to upgrade my system and did so late last year, adding two front-height channels and two in-ceiling speakers in the top-middle position. I added a Dolby Atmos pre/pro, going first with the Marantz AV7702 and later switching to the Marantz AV8802A when it became available, for a 7.1.4 configuration.

For more details about my move to Dolby Atmos and the Atmos-specific Blu-ray review template that I use, please see the following thread:

Dolby Atmos Has Come To AVS Forum Blu-ray Reviews

For those who may want to make the move to Dolby Atmos but aren’t in a position to install in-ceiling or height speakers in their viewing rooms, there is another option available—Dolby Atmos-enabled speakers. With a combination of unique physical speaker design and special signal processing, Dolby Atmos-enabled speakers allow you to experience overhead sounds from speakers that are placed at the same level as traditional speakers. These new speakers direct sound upward to reflect off the ceiling, creating a faithful reproduction of audio coming from above. You can purchase speakers that combine traditional design with the upward-firing Atmos-enabled drivers in one cabinet. Or, if you don’t want to replace your current speakers, you can purchase add-on speaker modules equipped with Atmos-enabled speaker technology that you can place on top of or near your existing speakers.

In my opinion, Dolby Atmos has favorably impacted the movie-watching experience. As with any other home-theater surround mix, the specific implementation is dependent on the source recording and the mixing engineer. Many Atmos adopters tend to judge the quality of an Atmos mix by its use of the object-based sounds mixed to the elevation channels. While I can certainly understand that (and to some degree I might feel similarly), it is important to remember that Dolby Atmos isn’t just about the “dome” effect. Dolby Atmos mixes can also utilize the channels at ear level to move sound objects around the soundstage.

Having listened to all of the Dolby Atmos-encoded Blu-ray releases currently available, I have found the overall quality of the sound to be rewarding and in some cases, downright thrilling. I will admit that the mixes that have received the highest ratings from me have been those that make use of the entire platform, but there are some, such as American Sniper, that sound fantastic while making limited use of sounds emanating from above. What I look for is how well the audio presentation mates with the visuals, serving to draw you into what you’re seeing, essentially allowing you to forget (even momentarily) that you’re sitting at home.

Currently, there are only 14 Blu-ray titles available, with seven more announced and slated for release in the coming months. This leaves early adopters of the format with only a few options that utilize all the speakers in their new multichannel system. Luckily there is a solution to this dilemma. Every Dolby Atmos-ready AVR and pre/pro comes equipped with Dolby Surround, which replaces the Pro Logic chipsets of old. The Dolby Surround Upmixer or DSU converts 2-channel sources and above to the entire Atmos platform, spreading the recording’s elements over the entire soundstage.

I have been using DSU, and the results are excellent with everything from stereo to multi-channel lossless soundtracks. It has been my experience that 7.1-channel sources seem to shine the brightest when used in conjunction with the DSU, but there are many 5.1-channel mixes that sound every bit as good. I started a thread in the review forum entitled Dolby Surround: How Do Your Favorite Legacy Blu-rays Sound? in order to provide a list of standard Blu-ray titles that benefit the most from DSU. I also started a list of my own recommended titles as well as adding an AVS Forum community-based list, which is updated following the recommendations from AVS Forum members. Additionally, members of AVS Forum started a thread where they can share their own personal views and sound-quality reviews of everything Atmos. You can visit that thread HERE.

Dolby has partnered with a number of manufacturers in the industry to bring Dolby Atmos to the home environment. Recently, I was invited to the Dolby offices in New York City to an event sponsored by Dolby in conjunction with Klipsch for a press demonstration of its Reference Premium Dolby Atmos-enabled speaker line, specifically the RP-280FA floorstanding speaker with integrated height channel, RP-450CA center channel, and RP-140SA add on Dolby Atmos elevation module.

Prior to the Klipsch demonstration, we gathered in Dolby’s 88 seat theater for two brief presentations. First up was Brett Crockett, Dolby’s Senior Director of Sound Technology Research. Brett briefly summarized the history of Atmos for the home with an overview of the technology and where it is now. He highlighted theBlu-ray titles currently available in Dolby Atmos and announced several upcoming Blu-ray releases, such as Game of Thrones (seasons 1 & 2 available in November 2015, seasons 3 & 4 available in the spring of 2016). He also mentioned that the Electronic Arts video game Star Wars Battlefront, available this holiday season, will include Dolby Atmos sound.

Next up was Mark Casavant, Senior Vice President of Global Product Development for Klipsch. Mark provided a general overview of the Klipsch Reference Premium speaker line, discussed Klipsch’s commitment to sound quality, and finished up with comments about the incorporation of Dolby Atmos in Klipsch products and how exciting Dolby Atmos for the home is.

After the presentations, the group was divided in two for the demonstration, which was set up in a small listening room in a 7.2.4 configuration that utilized an Onkyo AVR as a pre/pro with unspecified amplifiers powering the system. The RP-280FA floor standing speakers flanked the RP-450CA, which sat below a flat-panel display. The surround and rear speakers were Reference Premium RP-240S and RP-160M with the RP-140SA Dolby Atmos elevation module mounted on top. Low frequencies were handled by two Klipsch R-115SW subwoofers.

Jay Lawyer, the acoustic designer of the Klipsch system, showed Dolby Atmos clips from Game of Thrones season one, Unbroken, The Divergent Series: Insurgent, and an audio clip that switched back and forth between 5.1 and Dolby Atmos. The Klipsch system sounded dynamic, with sibilant-free, crystal-clear high-frequency detail and room-energizing bass. The system’s ability to produce dialog and sound effects especially at ear level was excellent.

Last year when I visited Dolby and first experienced Atmos for the home, the demonstration was held in the same room with Atmos-enabled upfiring speakers and in-ceiling speakers. At that time, I much preferred the reproduction of effects from the in-ceiling speakers versus the Atmos-enabled speakers. I thought the Atmos-enabled speakers sounded too diffuse compared to the in-ceiling speakers.

During the Klipsch demo, my experience was similar to that of last August. While there was certainly a notable level of envelopment, it lacked the imaging and effectiveness I am accustomed to hearing. The other journalists present appeared to be more impressed than I was, although I am not certain how much experience they have with Dolby Atmos for the home. I still believe that, if possible, the best way to experience Dolby Atmos is with speakers mounted above the listening position, but Dolby Atmos-enabledspeakers provide a viable option where this isn’t possible. I commend Klipsch on their Reference Premium Speakers; I really enjoyed listening to them.

AVS Forum’s review staff currently has the Klipsch Reference Premium Dolby Atmos system in for review, so stay tuned for that.

Dolby Atmos for the home has been up and running for a year. As I mentioned earlier, there are 14 titles currently available with another seven coming before year’s end. This isn’t exactly an avalanche, and I would like to see more tiles announced next year. To date, there are approximately 14 manufacturers partnered with Dolby to bring Atmos products to the home.

Available and upcoming Dolby Atmos Blu-ray titles:

  • American Sniper
  • Expendables 3
  • Gravity Special Edition
  • The Divergent Series: Insurgent
  • The Gunman
  • The Hunger Games Mocking Jay part 1
  • Jupiter Ascending
  • John Wick
  • Mad Max: Fury Road
  • On Any Sunday: The Next Chapter
  • Step Up All In
  • Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles
  • Transformers: Age of Extinction
  • Unbroken
  • The Age of Adaline – Available 09/18/2015
  • Games of Thrones seasons 1 & 2 – Available 11/3/2015
  • San Andreas – Available 10/20/2015
  • Bram Stoker’s Dracula – Available 10/06/2015
  • Leon: The Professional – Available 10/27/2015
  • The Fifth Element – Available 10/27/2015

Dolby Atmos for the home can be found in products from the following manufacturers:

  • Atlantic Technology
  • Definitive Technology
  • Klipsch
  • KEF
  • Triad
  • Pioneer
  • Onkyo
  • Integra
  • Denon
  • Marantz
  • Datasat
  • Steinway Lyngdorf
  • Trinnov
  • Yamaha

As an enthusiast, I find Dolby Atmos to be an excellent addition to home theater. Over the past year, we have seen the number of Atmos Blu-ray titles and product support grow. DSU has allowed us to revisit legacy home-video titles in an invigorating way that has been met with great enthusiasm. I would love to hear everyone’s thoughts on this topic, so please feel free to jump in even if you haven’t yet made the move to Dolby Atmos in your home theater.