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Dolby's Atmos technology will bring another layer of surround sound to your home

L Spector | Sept. 4, 2014
Ready for speakers in the ceiling? Dolby Atmos will soon make the jump from high-end movie theaters to the home theater, and then to your headphones too.

Of course, you may want more. Dolby's recommended home setup is 7.1.4. That's a standard 7.1 layout with four ceiling speakers. The home version of Atmos can support a 24.1.10 configuration, which seems more than a little excessive.

True ceiling speakers won't come cheap. Hanging speakers on your ceiling, making sure they're secure, and running the wires through your walls takes time and skill. So Dolby has designed a cheaper alternative: virtual ceiling speakers called Atmos enabled speakers. These fire upward and bounce their sound off the ceiling.

Believing your ears
I heard both real ceiling-mounted speakers and virtual ones at a Dolby press demonstration. The real, overhead speakers provided the best overhead sound, but the Atmos-enabled virtual ceiling speakers still impressed me. The sound really did seem to come from above.

But I can't promise that the effect will be as impressive in your home. These speakers were expensive prototypes built by Dolby, and they were played in a mock home theater room at Dolby's lab. I have to assume that this room had fantastic acoustics, and a ceiling designed for bouncing sound waves. Of course, that's the problem with vendor-controlled demonstrations. You get an ideal experience, not a real-world one.

In every way possible, that ideal version of Atmos for the home sounded incredible, with full, enveloping, surround sound. It was easily the best home theater audio I'd ever heard. I suspect that still would have been true if they had turned off Atmos and played a conventional 5.1 or 7.1 mix--but that wouldn't have pinpointed the sounds so accurately, or had some of them playing over my head.

The home theater you can take with you
In addition to the home market, Dolby plans to bring Atmos to tablets and smartphones, with immersive audio re-created through your headphones.

A great many subconscious cues--such as the lag time between when a sound hits one ear and then the other--tell our brains where that sound came from. The mobile Atmos re-creates these cues. Any stereo headphones will do.

I heard the effect at the press demonstration, which was equipped with what I believe were AKG K702 reference studio headphones. I was very impressed with the sounds in front of me, beside me, and behind me. But the overhead sounds were far less impressive, sounding as if they were coming from only slightly above everything else.

Atmos will likely come to tablets and smartphones both in apps and built into the hardware (Dolby didn't discuss partners). The hardware-based processor will probably produce better sound, but an app will let you experience Atmos before your next phone upgrade.

But what about content?
Atmos hardware in the home or on the road will be worthless without Atmos-mixed content. Dolby promises that Atmos Blu-ray discs will appear in the near future. Any player that properly conforms to the Blu-ray specs should be able to play an Atmos soundtrack, provided you set your player properly.


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