What is Dolby Atmos?

Dolby Atmos is now the go-to benchmark for home cinema. It’s fairly complicated and technical so we have written this guide so we can all understand it, no matter what our audio or technical knowledge is.

What is Dolby Atmos?

In its simplest form, it’s Dolby Laboratories’ latest format that delivers ultra high-quality sound to multiple speakers (surround sound). Delving deeper, it is what is referred to as object-based sound which means the audio engineers who create the video’s sound, can precisely place the sound around you – so a helicopter sounds like it is overhead, a bullet shot towards you whistles precisely from the front right of you, over your head and past your left ear. This is because each of these objects is treated independently from every other sound. They move independently from speaker to speaker.

You can only experience Dolby Atmos if you are listening to a surround soundtrack that has been coded in either Dolby True HD or Dolby Digital +, but what’s the difference?

Dolby TrueHD

This is the raw, unthrottled format. Think of a Ferrari Formula One car. It has been tuned to the max. As a result, it is very data intensive and requires a lot of bandwidth. When you experience Dolby TrueHD, you are experiencing the best in home entertainment sound. You can currently only receive Dolby TrueHD by watching a Blu-ray disc that must be connected to a Dolby Atmos enabled AV receiver by high-speed HDMI cables. The reference to “high speed” should not be underestimated. A further benefit of Dolby TrueHD via Blu-ray is that it may support Dolby Vision. This gives a clearer image on the TV when it is supported by an AV receiver, like the Damson S-Series which allows for Dolby Vision pass through.

Dolby Digital +

A slightly reduced, but nevertheless impressive format is Dolby Digital Plus which uses less bandwidth than Dolby TrueHD. Think of this like a Ferrari you can buy from a car showroom i.e. it’s still pretty amazing. The reason for the compression is to allow the signal to be streamed via satellite from services such as Sky Q, Comcast, over cable with Virgin Media, DirecTV, or via streaming services like Netflix, Amazon Prime 4K and Apple TV 4K.

In all probability, if you’re reading this then you’re most likely to be watching content on one of the services above. Some TV broadcasters also use this to provide a more lifelike “match” experience for football, soccer and American Football games. The 2018 Champions League Final was broadcast in Dolby Atmos.

Some TV’s will also support Dolby Atmos via ARC (audio return channel) from your TV to a Dolby Atmos supported soundbar, such as the Damson S-Series or another AV receiver.

Dolby Atmos Virtual

Then we need to add to the equation Dolby Atmos Virtual. Essentially this is a souped-up version of a standard soundbar design. There are no height speakers to recreate the actual overhead sounds. It’s all virtual.

In order to create the illusion of overhead sounds through horizontal speakers, software kicks in to alter the data associated with the height levels through what is called “Vertical Surround Engine”. The best way to think about this is by considering soundbars that provide virtual surround sound i.e. 5.1 sound replicated from a 2.1 speaker. In this setup, the rear left, right and overhead speakers don’t exist however virtual Dolby Atmos adds virtual height via the software algorithms.

Whether or not users get any real benefit is genuinely debatable. At Damson, we trialed virtual software, and whilst the Damson S-Series Home cinema system can process Dolby virtual surround allowing you to use just the soundbar and sub-woofer, it is not something we would recommend for an optimum experience.

A lot of opinion about sound is subjective – what sounds great to one person can easily sound poor to another. However, we do feel that there is no substitute for having the physical speakers which is exactly why we chose to design, and patent, Dolby Atmos wireless surround sound for home cinema systems, as this essentially bridges the gap between virtual surround sound and a physically wired surround sound system. It offers a complete package with a simple setup and flexible installation options.

How can I get Dolby Atmos?

To get Dolby Atmos you must ensure you have the right pieces of kit. If one part fails, the whole thing fails and you will not receive Dolby Atmos. This is a list of what you need:

1) Content that is programmed and encoded with Dolby Atmos (either Dolby TrueHD or Dolby Digital Plus), whether you are playing a Blu-ray disc, streaming via Netflix or watching over satellite.

2) A compatible Blu-ray player such as Xbox One-S or a streaming box like Amazon Fire 4K TV. The device needs to pass the Dolby Atmos content out to whatever is converting the signal into sound.

3) If you’re watching via a streaming device, it is not sufficient to think the content you will watch will be in Dolby Atmos because the device itself supports it. The actual playing app needs to be able to support Dolby Atmos playback.

4) An Ultra high-speed HDMI cable (2.1). You don’t need to break the bank on a cable, but avoid ones that are too cheap or Amazon Basics. We’d recommend a cable in the range of £15 – £25.

5) An AV receiver, soundbar, or TV that supports Dolby Atmos. Since late 2018 some TVs like LG’s OLED range support both Dolby Vision and Dolby Atmos, although you will only experience Dolby Atmos virtual through a TV or soundbar that does not have surround speakers. If you want to experience Dolby Atmos surround sound you would need to use an AV Receiver, like the Damson S-Series V2, which will connect to the TV via the ARC port (Audio Return Channel) so that it can decode the Dolby Atmos audio for surround sound.

How can you guarantee to get Dolby Atmos sound?

The most simple way is to use a Blu-ray player that supports UHD playback and a Blu-ray disc which explicitly states it supports Dolby Atmos. Connect the Blu-ray player via high-speed HDMI to an AV receiver, like the Damson S-Series, and you will have a Dolby Atmos experience.

You can also get Dolby Atmos from a streaming device box such as Amazon or Apple’s latest TV boxes. Simply connect these into the HDMI port of a supportable AV receiver or Soundbar and selecting to play. Try Dolby Atmos enabled content like Jack Ryan on Amazon Prime or Altered Carbon on Netflix.

Alternatively, connect a set-top box from a broadcaster that supports Dolby Atmos, like Sky or DirecTV, to an AV receiver and when they are broadcasting UHD content in Dolby Atmos, you will get this.

Finally, there is ARC. If your TV supports Dolby Atmos over ARC, and you’ve got a high-speed HDMI cable, then content from smart TV apps such as Netflix can stream to your AV receiver or Dolby Atmos enabled soundbar.

Do I have to use high-speed HDMI?

Yes. Any other form of cable, be it standard HDMI, optical, aux or whatever, will not provide Dolby Atmos because they do not have enough bandwidth to send all the data down the cable.

Does it have to be this complicated?

In reality, it sounds a lot harder than it actually is. Unless you’re a massive audio and technophile that wants to pile loads of money into a fully embedded custom built home entertainment room then do yourself a favour and pick up the Damson S-Series. It does everything that’s written in this blog and should you get stuck on set up, our customer service team is right on hand to get you up.