Friday, September 23, 2016


Watching movies at home used to be a trade-off between the big screen and massive sound of a movie theater. Those days are gone because big screen TVs are now available and movies, whether taken off of a 4K Blu-ray player or streamed through the Internet, can now be seen in high resolution also. But sound is also important, and that’s where surround sound comes in.

Surround sound at home requires not just a pair of front left and right speakers (stereo), but also a front center speaker (for dialogue) as well as a pair of left and right speakers at the side of the listener. This, along with a subwoofer gives you what is called a 5.1 audio sound system: a total of four speakers are conveying the sound, along with the subwoofer which handles the very low bass frequencies. Together this provides a surround sound effect that is more satisfying and enjoyable than the old days where the best you could hope for was stereo coming from two speakers in front of you.

But just as the TVs have improved in size and quality reproduction, so too has the audio enhancement been improved. This is called Dolby Atmos and it enhances what is now “conventional” surround sound audio by making it flow around you in three-dimensional space where all of the original sound mix is reproduced in realistic fashion.  Here’s a simple example: a helicopter in surround sound can be heard in front and to the sides as it moves, but add Atmos and now you hear it moving all around you, not just in a few predetermined locations defined by the speaker setup. That means hearing it overhead as well as in all the ways that the “real” sound would be heard if you were standing in its midst. Does this mean a more amazing sound experience for viewers? For sure. Here’s how it all gets put together.

The Hardware
Dolby Atmos is a new technology and so must be built into the system that conveys the sound signal to the speakers. This means you must have a new AV Receiver (audio-video receiver) that has been designed with Dolby Atmos from the get-go; it isn’t possible to add the Atmos technology through any kind of update to an existing receiver so that option is unfortunately off the table. 

The Speakers
There are three methods for getting Dolby Atmos besides the obvious one of getting all new speakers that are Dolby Atmos-compatible. The first two methods rely on adding speakers to the already surround sound setup, with the first method being to add in-ceiling speakers that provide overhead sound. The second method is to add speakers that reflect sound off of the ceiling — these speakers are placed on top of front and rear speakers. The third method is a single-speaker solution that also takes care of the AV Receiver — this is a Sound Bar which is designed with upward firing drivers to reflect sound down from the ceiling towards  your listening position. 

The Content
To play a Dolby Atmos soundtrack, you need a movie that has the technology built into it. There are online services offering this, but since Blu-ray players are compatible (you don’t need to buy a special one), the most convenient way is to get the disc that has it built-in. These are commercially available and include such titles as American Sniper, 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi, The Fifth Element, Enders Game among others. Getting a high definition disc that has Dolby Atmos embedded in it guarantees that, short of an electrical outage, you won’t be disturbed in your viewing of it.

Having a surround sound system at home makes watching movies and TV a treat and is why a home theater is so attractive over that of going to the movies. Plus the cost of snacks is significantly less, especially if you go back for seconds.


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