Dolby Atmos – what is it, and why do I want it?

March 27, 2015

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The biggest breakthrough in home entertainment is here… and it’s something that’s easy to see. Dolby Atmos was originally launched in theatres in 2013 and began finding its way into consumer platforms a year later. The question we’re hearing is “…what is this Dolby Atmos thing… and why do I want it?” Read on to learn more!

Dolby Atmos – A little history

mixing boardAtmos is a digital audio format from Dolby, the world leader in the space. You probably remember Dolby Surround; it launched in the 80s and added the first surround channels to home theatre systems by putting a speaker behind you. If you only had two speakers it pulled a neat trick that made it sound like the surround speaker was there–it was a very cool effect. In the late 80s it was renamed Dolby Pro Logic . Both Surround and Pro Logic were matrix technologies, where sound channels were mixed together to give you the feeling that it was all around you.

In the early nineties we saw the launch of a format that has been with us for over 20 years: Dolby Digital. Launching with Batman Returns, Dolby Digital separated the channels of audio that you heard, providing a distinct audio stream for each speaker. Up front you have your centre channel–it’s generally a larger speaker designed primarily to delivery dialogue clearly so that you can hear what’s being said. On the left and right are your stereo channels, adding depth to the sound stage that makes up your room. With the original Dolby Digital spec there were 2 surround channels. We’ve since seen the addition of a sixth channel – the rear centre. That rear centre was then split out and became two rear channels for left and right. Dolby Digital has evolved to include the very latest specification in that family, Dolby TrueHD

Atmos speakerDolby Atmos today

With Dolby Digital sound designers had to mix independent sounds together, sending those sounds to individual channels. It created the illusion of dynamic sound all around you; instead of putting the sound of a helicopter above and behind you, it would come out of the rear left speaker with a delay that made it feel like the helicopter could be there. The problem of locking sound to these channels–even when it could move around–made it difficult to really immerse you, the listener in sound.

That’s where Dolby Atmos comes in: it breaks the barriers between channels by dynamically assigning the sound information to speakers on the fly. It also adds a whole new dimension to your sound system: height!

With Dolby Atmos, sound designers aren’t playing with a flat 2D space anymore, their software tools allow them to build a soundtrack that is truly 3D. This truly enveloping effect is made real by adding either in-ceiling speakers or by upgrading your stereo and surround speakers to include upward-firing reflective elements for height.

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Does that still sound a bit complicated? Let’s break it down: Dolby Atmos can now create an incredible audio experience on-the-fly in your home theatre room. Your amplifier has a smart processor in it that knows what your room looks like–because trusted professionals such as our Pure Image master installers have told it what the space looks like and where all your speakers are. That amplifier sends sound to locations instead of speakers; your speakers get the right sound information and create an amazing 3D audio scene that’s built specifically for you and your space.

Dolby Atmos also has height information, so if you have two or four height speakers (either in-ceiling or using reflective front and rear speakers) letting your amplifier place sound almost anywhere in the room. Some theatres will need an evaluation to retrofit them properly, but if you’re looking to upgrade your home entertainment space that evaluation can be done in an afternoon, and a new theatre design can be created in about 48 hours.

Over 120 titles in 2015 will be Dolby Atmos enabled, and Dolby Atmos systems are fully backwards compatible with Dolby Digital and Dolby TrueHD. Every major blockbuster in 2015 will be using Dolby Atmos, so if you’re looking for the real theatre experience in your home, you owe it to yourself to call us about an upgrade today!

Graham Williams
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Graham Williams

Technology Expert at Pure Image
Graham is a Vancouver-based technology writer and TV personality. He writes technology content for Pure Image, offering insight and education for home theatre, home automation, and commercial a/v projects.
Graham Williams
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