back to article Is living with Dolby Atmos worth the faff?

I confess, I came to the home debut of Dolby Atmos spluttering with enthusiasm. Some of the best movie audio I’ve ever heard has been in Dolby Atmos equipped theatres and early demonstrations of the domestic version seemed tantalisingly authentic. My stereocilia positively craved this revolutionary, object-based sound system. …

  1. Michael H.F. Wilkinson

    Neat technology, nicely reviewed. Given my living room (and other expensive technological hobbies) not for me, alas, but interesting from the point of audio technology nonetheless. After working on phased-array data from radio astronomy for whole-sky imaging, I cannot help thinking that the ultimate solution must be a phased array of tiny speakers all around you, and the recording must be done by a similar phased array of microphones. That could record and recreate the sound field (similar to light-field recording by certain advanced cameras). Totally over the top of course, but a man can dream.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward


      Yes well you could argue it already is.

      I mean really, who is going to that much effort to watch a Transformers movie??

      The tech is impressive, but it's a pity the source material being churned out is ultimately pretty disappointing.

      1. Michael H.F. Wilkinson

        Re: OTT

        Agreed, just about the last thing I want to watch when I do have time to watch a film is something like "Transformers". Each to his own, of course, I just do not seem to get the hang of films with more explosions than dialogue (not that I mind the odd explosion, hence the icon)

      2. JDX Gold badge

        Re: OTT

        When all the film has going for it is the GFX and SFX, you want to get the most out of them!

      3. Fungus Bob

        Re: OTT

        "I mean really, who is going to that much effort to watch a Transformers movie??"

        I think the author listened to the movie instead...

      4. Alan Brown Silver badge

        Re: OTT

        "The tech is impressive, but it's a pity the source material being churned out is ultimately pretty disappointing."

        And if you watch it at your local multiplex, the audio ius likely to have been tweaked by a cloth-eared "manager" who subscribes to the "let's turn it to 11" school of audio.

        Any movie can be ruined by the sound of the subs going "BWAAAAAAAAP" instead of providing ambience.

    2. john.w

      Ambisonics - before its time

      A soundfield microphone records four (XYZW) channels and can be replayed in 3D with 8 or more speakers, in effect a phased array without the heavy signal processing. It's a great technology and sounds fantastic but never had any real money put behind it. If Atmos and DTS can justify this many speakers maybe ambisonics will get a come back along with all those other 70's acts, not yet guests of HMP.

      1. Expectingtheworst

        Re: Ambisonics - before its time

        Poor Michael Gurzon must be turning in his grave. All the hard work he put in to develop the system over many years.

        I heard it demonstrated a few times at AES conventions. It was in the form of Periphonics a three dimension version which gave full height reproduction with only 6 speakers. It was very impressive and when you turned it was perfectly natural, which ever way you faced. IMF (RIP) were one of the main proponents and Nimbus records produced quite a few discs.

        The main problem was the NRDC who tried to make money from everyone in the chain, unlike Dolby, then in south London, working on Dolby A, who got it right. But how many government type quangos ever get anything right !

  2. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward


    and i've only just finished with the 7.1 setup.

    Back to the store ....

    AC in case the missus sees this and cancels my card.

    1. Vector

      Re: Damn

      Why? Replace your 7.1 receiver with an (overpriced) Atmos receiver and you're done.

      So, let's see if I have this right. Atmos installations in a theater use a matrix of ceiling speakers to achieve their (in my mind questionable) effect. Now, we're being told that 2 speakers can imitate that effect in your home. Oh, and we'll just subtract the side channels from your current setup and replace them with these special ceiling bouncers. So, instead of two side speakers (which are often mounted high anyway) we've got 2 Atmos channels that fill in the center of the sound field by bouncing the sound high.

  3. Bassey

    Unfortunately, all of this technology does rely on films with soundtracks that take advantage of it - and that means big-budget blockbusters. And big-budget blockbuster have been unremittingly dire for quite some time now. The Planet of the Apes films would work well and are outstanding but until Hollywood gets over it's truly bizarre comic-book obsession and stops churning out such awful shite as Silver Surfer, Spiderman, Superman, Fantastic Four, endless identically dull X-Men films etc. then a several thousand pound investment in a new sound system is a waste. There are brilliant films being made but they don't benefit from decorating your walls with speakers in the way a Terminator 2 or the Lord of the Rings Trilogy does.

    1. Michael Strorm Silver badge

      There's nothing "bizarre" about Hollywood's obsession with action-oriented comic-book superhero blockbusters over the past decade.

      Why? Short answer- even allowing for the occasional flop, they make Hollywood lots of money. End of story.

      Despite its navel-gazing self-romanticisation, that's what Hollywood at the top level's always been about, not art. If two hours of a turd overdubbed by PewDiePie made more money than "Spiderman Re-Rebooted VII", they'd jump on that franchise. (*)

      Hollywood studios' management have always been a bunch of creatively bankrupt f**ks that see something making money, then jump on the bandwagon and milk it. They won't stop doing this until it's blatantly obvious that this particular bandwagon, er... cow is dead and even decomposing, i.e. no longer making money. The Comic Book Cow is still alive and well, however.

      Superhero movies suit Hollywood because they're focused on "properties" (*) which are more easy to control than star actors who have a tendency to ask for lots of money after a while and often end up featuring in films that flop regardless of their presence.

      Their spectacle-focused nature and easily-understood characters painted in bright, primary colours (literally and metaphorically) over subtle dialogue and character development is suited to the increasing reliance on "international" (read 'non-US') markets- *especially* China- where the former type of movie is more likely to work in markets where the audience has little or no English.

      This last point is why anyone who dislikes the current trend of Michael Bay style films (i.e. primarily a disjointed mess of noisy explosions and cluttered action) shouldn't hold their breath expecting it to get better. If anything, it's likely to get worse. Hollywood sees big money in China... and as noted, that's all it comes down to.

      (*) Note how widespread the use of the (originally) business-oriented term "franchise" has become when discussing these "properties" (there's another one) in cultural and artistic terms. Whether it started out as pretentious- and intentional- aping of Hollywood-speak by wannabe critics who didn't realise it reflected not the "show" but the "business", or it simply reflects how Hollywood's underlying mentality has ultimately rubbed off on popular culture... its use is nevertheless appropriate. Spiderman et al *are* business "franchises" and business "properties".

      1. J__M__M

        They won't stop doing this until it's blatantly obvious that this particular bandwagon, er... cow is dead and even decomposing, i.e. no longer making money....

        At which time they will predictably and reliably blame everyone with an internet pipe... since us internet connected bastards are the ones who put all the honest and hard working movie industry little guys in the poor house. You know, the assistant's assistant key grip personal assistant's assistant... with five sick kids at home. I hope all of you feel really shitty for all the little kids you're going to kill here in the not so distant future. You should be in jail.

  4. Frankee Llonnygog

    Bring abck Ambisonics

    4 speakers arranged in a tetrahedron. Make the top speaker a flat-panel NXT with Wifi, powered from the lighting circuit - job done

    1. stanfordsteve

      Re: Bring abck Ambisonics

      I believe Michael Gerzon tried a tetrahedral speaker setup in his research and found it worked only at bass frequencies, with aliasing towards speakers at higher frequencies. He found a cuboid setup more satisfactory overall.

  5. DrXym

    Doomed technology

    Atmos requires speakers plastered all over the room to achieve its effect. The amount of effort required almost guarantees that it becomes a niche technology and one which is very unlikely to supplant 5.1 or 7.1 which are far easier and cheaper to setup. Maybe some home cinema enthusiasts might go to the effort but even they might take pause from the paltry selection of movies which offer Atmos (Transformers ffs) and decide it's a waste of money

  6. silent_count

    And once I had all 2,048 speakers arranged in a fractionally asymmetrical snowflake pattern, as suggested by the Antikythera mechanism, I was able to listen to the Sesame Street theme song *as it was meant to be heard*.

    This is kind of like the Concorde. Sure it works but it'll never be a practical option for the vast majority.

    1. dogged

      Surely "fractally"?

      1. Wombling_Free

        No, he was correct in saying 'fractionally' - as in referring to 'a small fraction' - in this case, OF COURSE the snowflake has to be every so slightly asymmetrical or you're going to get subtractive sono-quantum diffraction all over the place. I mean really, you may as well just use any copper instead of atomically pure mono-isotopic copper nano filaments!

        Personally I wouldn't use a speaker number that is a power of two, you should always stick with 2039 or 2053, which are of course primes and thus won't give you any binary artefacts. 2048 speakers is going to end up sounding like a CD and we all know what THAT does to the subtle harmonics that reflect off the conductor's baton.

    2. ThomH

      In defence of Concorde!

      It would have been a very practical option but Aérospatiale-BAC didn't see that oil crisis coming any more than anyone else and when BA realised that most fares were corporate they multiplied up the price.

      Doing the big post-crash press relaunch on the morning of the 11th of September 2001 also turned out not to be ideal with hindsight.

  7. JeffyPoooh

    Pure H2O versus Flavoured drinks

    Has the marketplace shifted from striving to achieve perfectly pure audio reproduction towards the flavour of the day?

    Such home theatre systems should be judged on one criteria: start with 100 points and deduct one point each time the judge thinks "God, that's sounds awful!" and deduct TWO points each time the judge thinks "OMG! What an amazing sound system! The bass is... Oh, did I miss an important plot twist? Rewind a bit."

    My silly 15-inch 200 watt RMS subwoofer rates about -158 Points due to the real world movie interruptions caused by breakable things falling off shelves in the next room, and dust raining from the ceiling.

    1. Tom 7

      Re: Pure H2O versus Flavoured drinks

      The audio industry (It doesnt even try to be hi-fi these days) gave up on reproduction quality years ago.

      And who can blame them - there's no point in making good quality amps that last for 50 years like they did in the 60's when you can sell them woo every few years for 10 times the price.

    2. Stacy

      Re: Pure H2O versus Flavoured drinks

      This is just what I was thinking. When I started building my AV system I had a base point of music has to sound stunning, films should be good as well.

      As a result I have a 4.0 system (I only use the front speakers for music though) that keeps up with any 5.1 system that I have heard (to be fair, for the money it should). When it rains I look outside (deduct a point ;p), when Star Destroyers come into picture the glass above the doors rattles (on the low notes of Taccota and Fugue in D minor as well) and most importantly when playing Air on a G String I can close my eyes and almost be in the same room as the violinist.

      I wonder just what extra dimension this adds, and considering the price of the amp for everything it does, what it takes away with quality short cuts.

      1. Martin

        Re: Pure H2O versus Flavoured drinks

        When it rains I look outside...

        I remember playing Atom Heart Mother on a pretty crap stereo system in the early seventies, with very ordinary speakers wall mounted either side of my bedroom window. There's a bit near the start when a motorbike starts up and goes from one side to the other and off into the distance. A friend of mine who was a motorbike enthusiast, and who hadn't heard the album before, ran to the window to look outside to see if he could spot the bike going past.

        1. Alex Walsh

          Re: Pure H2O versus Flavoured drinks

          I can still smell the bacon cooking when I listen to Alan's Psychedelic Breakfast :)

        2. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Mono Dansettes sink, stereo systems *float*!

          "A friend of mine who was a motorbike enthusiast, and who hadn't heard the album before, ran to the window to look outside to see if he could spot the bike going past."

          Yeah, but that was over 40 years ago when your cheap hifi's newfangled stereo tricks were still likely to get it burned as an instrument of witchcraft.

          (Joking aside, AFAIK, it was only from the late-60s onwards that stereo started to become common in consumer equipment, so am I right in assuming people back then probably *were* more easily fooled, or at least impressed?)

        3. JibberJabberBadger

          Re: Pure H2O versus Flavoured drinks

          Reminds me of the time at a music festival when the Orb came on with similar motorbike sound effect, a friend of mine dived for cover and ended up crawling all the way back to our tent. I think this may have been more to do with the voices in his head than the sound quality though. The same friend also made me a little crazy by making sit between the rear speakers of his circa 1990 Cavalier while playing Interstellar Overdrive on full volume (on the World's worst unbranded car stereo).

    3. Duffy Moon

      Re: Pure H2O versus Flavoured drinks

      Plus, I would have thought, panic in the neighbourhood caused by people thinking an earthquake is in progress.

    4. JeffyPoooh

      Re: Pure H2O versus Flavoured drinks

      Interesting posts.

      I also have some speakers equipped with Dipole Ribbon Tweeters. Quite a few actually (a dozen perhaps?) because I went around two provinces and bought up every last one when they were on clearance sale for 75% off. They're very nice, the tweeters themselves. The speakers they came bolted to are, at best, average. But the dipole ribbon tweeters themselves are 'to die for'.

      For live recording classical music and ambient 'nature sounds' pieces, these tweeters get quite a few -2 point penalties for being so distractingly good.

      I have a 'St Martins in the Field' CD where there's a truck gently rumbling by, outside the church, embedded in the track. When I forget, I have to pause the CD and look outside. Crazy.

    5. Fungus Bob

      Re: Pure H2O versus Flavoured drinks

      "real world movie interruptions caused by breakable things falling off shelves in the next room"

      If you'd stop putting the breakable things back on the shelves the problem would get solved quickly.

  8. Martin

    A perfect example of Betteridge's Law of Headlines.

    That is all.

  9. Dabooka

    Well it's not just the hassle and faff is it?

    In my good old days of pre-domestic bliss, my house had a nice (for its time) 32" TV, 5.1 and a projector. Big square room, with the TV and screen in the window bay and projector opposite above the sofa. Great for all sorts of fun. Unitl I got married and moved....

    Now? Now I have a good (for its time) TV in the corner of the room, 5.1 with speakers placed where I'm allowed (with the sub in the shed as it's too loud and wakes the little one) and the sofas at obtuse viewing angles from the TV. The thought of asking to balance more speakers around the room fills em with dread. And I know I'm not alone, certainly not compared to my friends and family, and I suspect the majority of readers on here will know what I mean too.

    I'm actually perfectly happy with the setup and never complain about the lack of sound stages etc. My amp was going to get replaced, but I setytled on a £35 box off the interweb that is actually more funtional than most amps.

    1. Alex Walsh

      Re: Well it's not just the hassle and faff is it?

      Found myself looking at virtual 5.1/7.1 headphones recently for a very similar reason. Any time I turn the surround sound up to a level that it actually works well, one of the kids comes downstairs and tells me to turn it down :/

      1. Dabooka

        Re: Well it's not just the hassle and faff is it?

        Yup, in the unit beside my TV lays a pair of some cheapo Turtle Beach lie wrapped in various charger cables and the like!

      2. Fungus Bob

        Re: Well it's not just the hassle and faff is it?

        "Any time I turn the surround sound up to a level that it actually works well, one of the kids comes downstairs and tells me to turn it down "

        My daughter does that when I use regular headphones.

      3. JeffyPoooh

        Re: Well it's not just the hassle and faff is it?

        A&W "... tells me to turn it down :/ "

        Once upon a time, I was once pulled over by a police officer from the other side of a dual carriageway, I suspect because my car had four 12-inch speakers and the stereo was turned up to 11. At my car's window (with everything off and my ears ringing), he mouthed something, and I replied "WHAT!!??" Again, his mouth moving in silence, deafened me responding "WHAT!!??". This exchange repeated several more times until he realized it was pointless and wandered off. Real life comedy.

    2. druck Silver badge

      Re: Well it's not just the hassle and faff is it?

      Either grow a pair and stand up for you right to decent speaker placement, or covert the garage, or at least get a man shed.

      1. Dabooka

        Re: Well it's not just the hassle and faff is it?

        My man shed is actually canny marvellpus to be honest. My old 32" Sony flatscreen, a Spiderbox for footy, couple of fridges for beer and brewing the stuff and even an old X-Box loaded with games, but mainly MAME.

        The main issue is actually I live in a house with the TV in the corner anyway. As, I suspect, most people do....

      2. Glenn Amspaugh

        Re: Well it's not just the hassle and faff is it?

        I never finished the roof on my Man Shed. At least the rainy season is over for the year.

  10. Frankee Llonnygog

    Dear Santa

    Can I please have that mid-century Harm Kardon hifi rig for my space-age bachelor pad?

    1. Elmer Phud

      Re: Dear Santa

      Santa, while yer at it can I have a home big enough for a decent sound rig?

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Dear Santa

        "a home and property big enough"


    2. Glenn Amspaugh

      Re: Dear Santa

      With Klipschhorns in the corners.

  11. Henry Wertz 1 Gold badge

    Why these movies?

    Why this selection of movies? Now that I think about it, it makes a sort of sense. The main element Atmos is adding is height. So, Transformers and Hercules, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Step Up All In and The Expendables 3, I'm sure there'll be all kinds of stuff flying over your head in the course of all of these, the Atmos will get a good workout. I don't know if I'd want to watch any of those even if I got to see it on an Atmos setup but there ya go. However, I think it sounds great for better action movies. It'd be quite effective for forest scenes, if the trees are rustling in the wind then having some overhead rustle would add a lot to the immersiveness. It'd be pretty nasty to be watching some horror movie and hear things skittering overhead too. 8-)

  12. Fihart

    Been there, done that -- in the 1970s.

    Back when I had more money than sense the hifi industry came up with a way of selling twice as many speakers and amplifiers and the record companies hoped we would all buy duplicates of existing albums -- in Quadraphonic Stereo !!!

    In reality, having three competing systems; SQ (Sony, Columbia, EMI) QS (Sansui, ABC Records) and CD4 (Panasonic, WEA) was guaranteed to be self defeating. And the results were gimmicky, distracting and technically far from perfect, sometimes with added record surface noise and unintended phasing effects.

    It was a relief to return to regular two-speaker stereo. While I am sure that modern multi-channel systems are much better, the added wiring and hardware issues remain.

  13. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Call me a Luddite but...

    Err yeah....try doing that at home with my wife and the two kids! It is a nice idea but not part of the real world....Really? Is it a product or a lab demo unit that someone is trying to commercialise to justify their research? Also given the hightend experience of the audio I guess no one is planning on eating popcorn/crisps or drinking beer etc. whilst in this cocoon of sound.

    Your efforts with this kit will be further negated by the fact most domestic houses have an element of background noise [roads/people in the streets or house doing stuff].

    The other posters have a damn good point about the Floyd tracks. Put on a pair of head phones and listen to what was achieved in on "The Wall" in 1978 with [shock] analogue equipment and a mix down to [sharp intake of breath] 2 channel stereo. Forget the obvious effects, try listening to the way the mix down layers and shifts the strings and flute on Comfortably Numb....

    Half the problem is lazy sound engineers and producers wanting kit to provide tricks rather than being innovative with their craft.

    Check out Dave Grohol's "Sound City" documentary for an insight into sound and the nature of musicians/producers/ listeners relationship with it- I dont think he is a Atmos kid of guy...

    1. Verne

      Re: Call me a Luddite but...

      Not so much lazy sound engineers, rather those who have a job pandering to the marketing department, an element of take the money and run....

      Well engineered material, and the Pink Floyd track is a good example, is still available. Indeed, there are many fine programs and films with standard 5.1 surround that are brilliant. However Dolby Atmos is never going to be for the average punter any more than a new wall size 4K screen will be.

      However, this is not to say they won't be in the future but, like 3-D, it will never get off the ground when the only content is whizz-bang films or football. Sad really.


  14. John 110

    Mainstream audience

    "but a mainstream audience may prove difficult to convince."

    Don't faff about. If you mean "the wife" just say it!!

  15. Lamont Cranston


    what noise does a football make as it flies through the air?

    1. Glenn Amspaugh

      Re: So,


  16. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Or, you could just go to the Cinema.

  17. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward


    Blah blah audiophile blah

  18. trance gemini

    just ...

    ... drink half a bottle of captain morgan and chuck some skrillex on it ffs

  19. snovosel

    Atmos Bust


    I have a solid month's worth of personal experience with Atmos. I bought eight (8) of the available Atmos-supported Bluray films to use for my testing so I think I have a good sense of the promise vs. the reality. Bottom line for me, it's not worth the effort for the marketed/claimed rewards. This could be primarily because Dolby Labs refuses to support their Atmos technology by explaining how it is to be used or more importantly how its use can be appreciated.

    My screening room is 14 x 24 x 9. The ceiling is flat. The room is acoustically treated and includes a 15' screen and projector along with with a host of so-called top-end audio gear driving Klipsch reference line speakers. A Yamaha 3040 Aventage decoded the Atmos.

    As with many readers, I conducted due diligence before purchasing the Atmos-enabled Klipsch speakers. Even though I've been in the AV game for over 30 years, my first diligence stop was on Dolby Labs website to read all available Atmos materials; i.e. installation, set up, and placement requirements. Then I visited every other available AV-related website, Blog, and YouTube channel that even remotely discussed Atmos.

    The takeaway from my due diligence was that no one -- not professional reviewers, nor (incredibly) even Dolby Labs spokespeople/technicians (their interviews about Atmos are on-line if you search) -- can say with any degree of certainty how this technology will work in a prototypical (recommended by Dolby Labs) residential Atmos environment. If you listen carefully, and if you read carefully, Dolby Labs hedges all of their claims. The same is true for every other Atmos review out there.

    So, how does one decide what to do in light of a lack of consensus about a newer technology? You simply have to buy the stuff, install it, and see if it performs as advertised. Which I did.

    Now, I understand the puffery that goes into the development and promotion of marketing claims. But what my wallet will not accept after a $3k+ speaker purchase is a non-responsive, patronizing reply from Dolby Labs when all I wanted was a clarification of statements or omissions they make in their marketing material. My one-sentence question to them was simply: "Should there be a difference in EQ/Bass management for Atmos-enabled upward firing vs. Atmos ceiling downward firing speakers?"


    "Thank you for your interest in Dolby Atmos home products. Our information shows that you have questions regarding your home system’s compatibility with Dolby Atmos, system set-up requirements, or home speaker placement. Dolby does not provide individualized end-user consultation in these areas. For your convenience, however, we do offer several general resources on our website,, that may be useful to you. These include: An introduction to Dolby Atmos home technologies (Cinema to Home tab)*. Links to information on many of our partner products, An on-line speaker set-up guide, with a downloadable PDF speaker set-up guide, and several whitepapers on Dolby Atmos*, Our blog about Dolby Atmos for home theater. We hope you find these resources helpful. You may also wish to consult a leading home A/V retailer or independent dealer/installer for individual consultation on your specific home A/V system. Thank you very much for your interest in Dolby Atmos. * The configurations noted herein are illustrative. Dolby recommends that any overhead speaker installation be performed by professional installers with experience in installing overhead speakers."


    My $3k+ Atmos adventure is over. I have returned the speakers for a full refund. In my screening room, I didn't "Feel Every Dimension" that Dolby claimed I would. I wasn't "transported into the story with moving audio that flows all around [me] with breathtaking (seriously???) realism". In short, the experience was a bust with the Atmos-enabled speakers. I would have considered installing ceiling speakers for additional testing but not after the Dolby reply. That killed any enthusiasm to engage further. That response, to me, just shows that Dolby either doesn't bother to read customer inquiries, they don't bother to read their own support materials, or worse, they have no interest in ensuring that customers "get" the promised benefit. My one-sentence question was derived directly from language in Dolby's Atmos Set-Up pdf.

    The hope that Dolby Labs has for the adoption of residential Atmos installations parallels the promises made in the film FIELD OF DREAMS. Dolby apparently believes that all they have to do is build it and we will come. However, the difference is that in FIELD those who "came" had a reasonable expectation of what they were going to get. Here we have to take a leap of faith. And you better not expect clarification from Dolby. For if you engage them you will only get passed off to "consult a leading home A/V retailer or independent dealer/installer for individual consultation on your specific home A/V system". Hey Dolby Labs -- Newsflash! -- there are a ton of us out here in consumerland who actually have MORE knowledge than A/V retailers and independent installers, and it is likely only going to be us who would even bother to make the kind of inquiry that I did in the first instance.

    Bottom line -- Atmos is not a significant enough improvement (not any kind of a "wow!" factor which is what I was hoping for) over a good 7.2 or 9.2 installation. I get the underlying "object" theory behind the Atmos process but in the real world, it just doesn't translate.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Atmos Bust

      Get a life.

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