QotD: How You Should Label Your Atmos Speakers
One question we get on the regular is about the placement of Atmos speakers. Where should they go? What angles? What gives the best overhead effects? After they place their speakers, users look up Dolby’s suggested angles to see where their speakers fall. Are they Front Heights or Top Fronts? What’s the difference really? Does it matter what label you give your Atmos speakers? It does, but not for the reason you think.
If You Have a Single Pair of Atmos Speakers
If you have a system that only has one pair of overhead speakers, you’ll label them as Dolby suggests. Are they on the front wall above the main speakers? They are Front Heights. Are they above your couch? They are Top Middles. Are they anywhere else? You’ll want to move them. If you have a single pair of overhead speakers, the vastly superior location is Top Middles. If you can’t do that, Front Heights are okay but be prepared to be underwhelmed. Most people that have installed Front Heights only (or “Presence” speakers back when Yamaha was the only one doing height speakers) have reported the effect to hover somewhere between “subtle” and “I just wasted a bunch of money.”
If You Have Two Pairs of Atmos Speakers
If you have two pairs of Atmos speakers, you have many more placement locations. Just remember that most (if not all) receivers will not let you label two pairs that are next to each other. From the front to the back of the room you have the option of picking Front Heights, Top Fronts, Top Middles, Top Rears, and Rear Heights. So you can have Front Heights and Top Middles but not Front Heights and Top Fronts. There must be an empty speaker slot between the labels.
There are two popular placement options. The first is Front Heights and Top Middles. This is a perfectly reasonable Atmos setup but it isn’t as good at steering sound around your room. Having a pair of speakers in front of you and a second pair behind you works much better. But now you have options? Should you label your Atmos speakers Heights or Tops?
Regardless of the placement, it is vastly better to label them Front Heights and Rear Heights. Even if the angles laid out by Dolby suggest they should be called Top Fronts and Top Rears, label them Front and Rear Heights. This is because of DTS.
That’s Right – It’s Because of DTS
DTS has an object-based surround format called DTS:X. This has speaker labels that are the same as Dolby Atmos. But, because of the way that DTS:X and Neural:X (their overhead upmixer) work, if you label your Atmos speakers Top Fronts and Top Rears, some of the overhead sounds will be mixed into the nearest speakers. That means that some of the overhead sounds meant for the Top Fronts will end up in your main Left and Right speakers. The sounds meant for the Top Rears will end up in the Surround Back speakers.
The solution? Label them Front and Rear Heights and DTS will put overhead sounds in these speakers. This makes the sounds more discrete. While it won’t make a difference for how Dolby mixes the overhead sounds, your DTS tracks will all sound better if you label them this way.