Dolby Atmos Receiver Basics—What You Need to Know
Dolby Atmos receivers are taking the industry by storm, and it’s a good thing as far as I’m concerned. This is one of the more flexible DSP-based surround systems I’ve seen, and I love the adaptability of it to fit nearly any room configuration. Of course, there are some things you’ll need to be aware of in order to capitalize on the new Dolby Atmos features found on newer AV receivers. And for those of you bent on getting the latest and greatest, you’ll have some upgrades to make in order to receive all of the benefits the format brings.
Dolby Atmos Receivers and Speaker Channels
The first thing you’ll note about the new Dolby Atmos receivers is the additional speaker channel outputs. While a typical 7- or 9-channel AV receiver isn’t going to add more amplifiers to achieve Atmos functionality, it will allow you some room to maneuver when assigning your amplifiers. If you want to learn more about Atmos in general, please read our article entitled What is Dolby Atmos. For now, this article will center around what to expect from the new AV receivers and how they interact with your room differently than a typical Dolby Digital or DTS configuration or setup. Let’s take a look at the back of a recently-introduced Dolby Atmos receiver, the Denon AVR-X5200W:
Notice the Height 1 and Height 2 L/R speaker output pairs on the back of this receiver. Dolby Atmos receivers need to allocate signals for these additional channels in order to comply with the two or four overhead speakers required for the format. Any Dolby Atmos receiver that provides preamp outputs for these channels but no dedicated speaker terminals is going to limit your ability to reassign amplifiers as needed. Remember, Dolby Atmos adds speakers to a 5.1 or 7.1 configuration—not take them away. The height channels are in addition to those standard surround configurations. It’s likely this reason that Dolby Atmos features aren’t too popular on lower-priced receivers.
Take this Onkyo TX-NR636 receiver, for example. It is firmware upgradeable to Dolby Atmos. It has, however, only 4-1/2 pairs of speaker terminals (as opposed to the 11 pairs of the above Denon AVR-X5200W). The Onkyo is going to have to share speaker terminals in order to achieve Dolby Atmos connectivity, and really it will only ever achieve 5.1.4 or 7.1.2 functionality due to this limitation.
Dolby Atmos Receivers and Wiring
You’re going to need to take care in how you wire up speakers in a Dolby Atmos surround configuration. If you opt for height channels, your work is pretty clear-cut. Wire for the ceiling speakers needs to be run so that you have a wide pair just in front of the seating area and another wide pair just behind your main seating. Where it gets a bit confusing for those new to Atmos is in the case of using Dolby Atmos-enabled speakers. These are speakers that have a separate top-mounted speaker designed to reflect Dolby Atmos height channel audio off of the ceiling. This is truly another speaker, and it requires its own speaker cable. So when you run cables for your front speakers, a Dolby Atmos-enabled system will require two wires for the left channel, and two wires for the right channel. The same goes for your surround left and right speakers (in cases of a 4-speaker Dolby Atmos-enabled speaker system). This is the only way to get true Dolby Atmos information to those speakers since Atmos isn’t a “derived” format like the original Dolby Surround or Pro Logic. That information is discrete and needs to be sent separately on its own amplified channel.
Are you looking forward to Dolby Atmos in your living room or home theater? We are. The format is intriguing because it’s not terribly difficult to implement—particularly with the advent of Dolby Atmos-enabled speakers. Ceiling speakers are out of the question for most homeowners—at least practically speaking, but for even movie users the use of Atmos-enabled speakers makes a lot of sense…and the difference in envelopment is amazing.