Surround Receivers

Is Dolby Atmos Worth It?

You can’t help but read a ton of articles and posts about Dolby Atmos. Everyone on Reddit is asking about setup and speaker recommendations. Articles (even here) will detail all sorts of tips and tricks on which speakers are best, how to mount them, and where to place them in your non-optimal setup. But one question they never address is whether or not Dolby Atmos is worth the hassle and expense. We’re talking about a new AV receiver, more speakers, and maybe even running wires into your attic. What a pain! Is Dolby Atmos really worth all that? Let’s discuss!

What’s the Deal with Atmos

Atmos has become shorthand for object-based audio. While Dolby Atmos is the dominant format, DTS:X also exists and uses basically the same speakers in the same locations. The promise of Atmos is that you’ll have a more immersive audio experience. How? By adding overhead speakers. The added speakers above you will create overhead sounds that you just can’t get in any other way. Most AV receivers can support at least two overhead speakers, the better ones can support four speakers, and the top-of-the-line ones support six. With all those speakers, overhead sounds can be directed precisely to where they would be if you were actually in the movie. Sounds awesome, right?

That’s a lot of speakers!

The Reality

Movies have had overhead effects for a very long time. One of the favorite tricks of sound engineers was to have your surround system make it sound like a plane or spaceship (or a bullet or whatever) was flying all around you. Not just to your sides (where you had speakers), but over your head. Even in the days of 5.1 audio, this was possible. They did it by adjusting the phase of your surround speakers. With this technique, a competent sound designer can trick your ear into thinking that a sound is coming from your side, above you, or even behind you. No speakers required!

The fact is that our ears are quite good at triangulating sounds coming from in front of us. The shape of your ears should tell you that. But as sounds come from different angles, we become less good at figuring out where exactly they originate. That’s why we tend to turn toward sounds when we want to know where they are coming from.

Those of us who have been in the home theater game for a long time remember many movies that contained convincing overhead effects without overhead speakers. Adding overhead speakers does make those sounds slightly more convincing, but the improvement isn’t very dramatic.

Why Do Some People Rave

Without once again repeating our points about the psychology behind why people love things they purchase, there are some real reasons why people may love Atmos speakers. Most of the time it is because their room acoustics and/or speaker placement wasn’t very good initially. If you have a bad room or poor speaker placement, putting a speaker above your head will create a sound where there was none before. For these people, spending money on Dolby Atmos speakers is definitely worth it.

The Problem with Atmos

The real problem we see with Atmos is that people tend to think they must have overhead speakers. They believe that if they don’t, they won’t have any overhead sounds. This causes them to shoehorn in far more speakers than they can actually fit in their room. When you shove a bunch of speakers in a room, you won’t be able to place them properly. We see people with surround speakers in front of their seats, surround back speakers too close to their heads, and overhead speakers in completely wrong positions simply because they think they need all those speakers to get “good” surround sound.

That’s just not the case.

The size of your room and the position of your seats (among other factors) should determine the number and type of speakers you install. If you have a large room, there is no problem installing a full 7.2.6 speaker installation (you may need it for full immersion). But in a smaller room, a 5.1 or 5.2 installation will likely sound the best. Yes, you’ll still hear sounds from above you because of your properly placed surround speakers. Installing more speakers won’t just make things not sound better, they may actually make things sound worse! Improperly placed speakers do more harm than good.

Take Away

It’s easy to think that more of a good thing must be better. If a 5.1 system is good, a 7.1 system must be better. Not true. To give an analogy that we should all recognize, think about the octane on your car. Higher octane gas isn’t “better,” it is just designed to be used with different engines. If you put the wrong gas in your car, you aren’t going to get better gas mileage or performance. You are wasting money at best and risking damaging your engine at worst. Your room should dictate the number of types of speakers you have in your system.

1 Comment on Is Dolby Atmos Worth It?

  1. Pablo

    I always read “small room”, “large room”… What do they actually measure?

    I bet American rooms, even the small ones, are big rooms for Europeans and the size of a regular apartment for many Japanese people…

    So can you give a hint of what large and small actually mean when it comes to surround sound settings?

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