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4 Ways Dolby Atmos Can Gain Consumer Appeal

by August 25, 2014
All the ceiling speakers. ALL OF THEM!!

All the ceiling speakers. ALL OF THEM!!

Recently, I wrote an article describing why I thought Dolby Atmos was DOA. This has created a bit of controversy and debate, some of which is well founded. While I stand by my original points, and if Dolby continues down the same path I fully expect to be proven right, it isn't too late for Atmos.

Let me also take a moment to stress that nowhere in my previous article do I suggest that Atmos doesn't work. I'm sure it does. I've heard it in the theater (Guardians of the Galaxy) and walked away unimpressed. That said, the Atmos mix for GotG isn't supposed to be that great so I'm still reserving my opinion on whether Atmos is effective until I hear more examples. What I did say (and am saying here) is that Atmos for the home is a non-starter. Most people aren't going to adopt a system that requires you to place speakers on their ceilings. I don't think that's an opinion I really have to defend.

As I said before, Dolby Atmos is a fantastic tool for content creators. Being able to place sound "objects" in a three-dimensional space makes their jobs much easier. They no longer have to worry where the speakers are in a room. Instead, they just give the X, Y, and Z coordinates and let Atmos do the work. But the home version is focused on getting people to place more/different speakers in their home theaters at very specific places and heights. Dolby is also contradicting their previous placement suggestions. People are understandably confused and that confusion may lead to the ultimate demise in the Atmos as we are told it works today. But it can be saved and more easily adopted to the consumer market. Here are some ideas:

4) Aimable Speakers

Getting people to put speakers in their ceiling is a risky bet (to say the least) so the idea of a speaker to bounce sound of the ceiling is a good idea. However, it is clear to anyone with half a brain that top mounted speakers that are at a fixed angle are a terrible idea. Even with ideal placements, there are too many factors that can make them ineffective. Shorter than average ceilings, off-center seating, ceiling fans and other obstructions, variations in ceiling material, and more can all make it so that a fixed angle speaker isn't going to bounce the sound to the right location.

If we put aside what we know about the effectiveness of reflected sound and assume that they'll sound exactly like in-ceiling speakers, the problem is that there isn't a "standard" room. Getting the sound to bounce off the right part of the ceiling is critical. You're just not going to be able to do that with a fixed-angle top speaker for most installations.

The solution should be obvious: Allow the top speaker to be aimed. I envision a top speaker that is "floating" on top of a layer of foam (decoupling the top speaker from the bottom - an additional benefit) with some sort of adjustable front baffle. A fantastic design addition would be a laser pointer that fires from the front baffle to show you exactly where it hits on the ceiling.

We wrote about this before in our Dolby Atmos Steerable Speaker Proposal.

laser sharks 

Speakers with lasers. Speakers! NOT SHARKS!

3) Better Ceiling Speaker Options

Want to make someone laugh? Suggest to them that they "need" in-ceiling speakers. The sound I've heard from most people when I talk about Atmos' in-ceiling speaker requirement would be best described as a "scoff of derision." It takes home theater enthusiasts a long time to convince their significant others that surround speakers are a thing that they need. Even after years of having a home theater, I still hear my wife will tell people that she doesn't really notice the surrounds.

No, I don't know how that is possible but that's what she says.

Again, it doesn't take an acoustical engineer to figure out that dedicated speakers in the ceiling will sound better than reflected sound. In-ceiling installations, however, are just not something people are likely going to implement. Not on a large scale. Anyone that claims differently is delusional (and you can tell all their personalities I said so). I can see two different solutions - both would benefit from an Atmos receiver equipped with a wireless streaming solution. Think something along the lines of WISA.

First, there needs to be a Dolby Atmos ceiling-mounted speaker. To me, an in-ceiling speaker is something reserved for new constructions. For all the rest of us that are trying to work within an existing room, being able to hang speakers from the ceiling is something that may actually be possible (if highly improbable). An "on-ceiling" speaker mounts to the ceiling like a wall-mounted speaker. Yes, there will need to be a wire running to it, but that is unavoidable barring the integration of a battery. Now, either that wire could run back to the receiver or perhaps it could run to a power source - I'm thinking either a nearby outlet or perhaps a light fixture.


Like these but on the ceiling

The second possible speaker solution is a "speaker light." We've seen these before and, honestly, they've gotten mixed reviews. The idea is that they screw into existing light fixtures and provide both light and sound. Sound quality generally seems to vary between "crappy" and "okay, I guess." The problem here would be that you'd need lights placed where those reflection points would be - an unlikely scenario. But, at least they'd get speakers above your head.

light speaker

Like this but not crappy

Both these speakers would benefit (the lights would require it) from an Atmos wireless streaming solution. Being able to tell consumers that they'll be able to stream their Atmos information to their ceiling-mounted speakers (even if they don't use it) will put a lot of minds at ease. At least until they figure out that those speakers still need power. Regardless, I have heard from a lot of enthusiasts who are generally interested in Atmos that have suggested that the lack of on-ceiling speakers is the main reason they won't be adopting.

2) Change the Script

The real problem that Dolby has is one of communication. "Hey, look at all these new speakers you get to buy!" sounds great to the people selling the speakers. It sounds decidedly less exciting to those that have already dropped a few thousand on a home theater. Custom installers and AV professionals are understandably excited about Atmos. It’s the consumers that need to be convinced. Telling them they "get" to spend more money isn't the way to do it.

give me the money 

Don't tell them they GET to spend money, make them WANT to spend money

"Dolby Atmos soundtracks will be better than others because of our object-based system. Make sure the next receiver you buy has Atmos! And here are all the reasons why..." will excite consumers. It will get them to buy. After they've got the receiver, you can start talking about the benefits of ceiling speakers. Make the marketing line "Atmos is better, you need Atmos" rather than "Atmos is better, but you need more speakers on your ceiling to experience it."

1) Make Atmos Work for ALL Speakers

When Dolby Atmos was first announced, I was excited about it. I know that it is hard to tell that by my previous article, but it is true. An object-based surround decoding format makes a lot of sense to me and I truly think it could revolutionize home theater.

If it worked with all our speakers.

The problem with Atmos as we're currently seeing it implemented is that it acts like a conventional decoding system. It assumes "ideal" placement of speakers (including those on the ceiling). This essentially creates another 7+ speaker solution that is just like all the others. What exactly is the point of an object-based surround solution if you HAVE to place your speakers (or reflect your sound) at specific locations? This doesn't even cover the fact that all the surround sound providers including Dolby have been telling us for years to place our surrounds above ear level. But all the Atmos diagrams have them at ear level (even the surround back speakers). So, if you followed the recommendations of all us AV professionals, you'll have to take your surround speakers off the wall and place them at ear level. How likely is that to happen?

Atmos Enabled Speakers

  How many of you have your rears at ear level?

When I first heard of Dolby Atmos and started discussing it on the AV Rant podcast, I opined that Atmos would be best if it was implemented so that it measured the location of your speakers (all your speakers) and calculated how to best place each sound in your room given your speaker placement. Right now there are only two room correction systems that I can think of that measure speaker location within a room (Yamaha's YPAO with R.S.C. and the Trinnov system). Most can't do it.

Think about it - what is the hardest part of setting up a home theater? It's placing the speakers in a real room. On AV Rant many of our questions come from people having to deal with non-optimal speaker placements. Why? Because most people don't have dedicated spaces for their home theaters, and even those that do often have to make compromises for physical (placement of studs, seating, doors, windows, etc.) or aesthetic reasons. In a space that has to double as a living space, compromises are even more common.

If Dolby Atmos could be enabled so that it detected speaker placements and "made due" with the speakers available, consumers would flock to it. Have a 5.1 system where one of the front speakers is near a wall and the other is pushed back a bit because of a window or door? No problem for Atmos! Have one surround speaker at ear height and one on the ceiling? Atmos can correct for that! Hey, do you have a nicely laid out 7.2 channel system but have a couple of in-ceiling speakers that were a holdover from a whole-home audio system placed in non-optimal Atmos ceiling locations? No worries, Atmos will just take into account the speaker placements.

If this sounds at all familiar to you, you've probably read about DTS's announced UHD. DTS announced their object-based solution a while back and said, specifically, that it will work with "arbitrary speaker layouts." (SOURCE) When Dolby released Atmos with essentially fixed locations, I felt like a huge opportunity had been missed. Here is a technology that can potentially make it EASIER for neophytes to set up their systems while, at the same time, allow power users and Audioholics to add tons of additional speakers for the ultimate sound. Instead we get 7.2.4 channels with speakers that are trying to bounce sound off specific spots on the ceiling. Atmos could be a game changer. Instead, it launched sounding more like a way to force users to buy more speakers. That's unfortunate as, by all accounts, Atmos CAN do all of the stuff I'm suggesting.

So, why isn't it? We can't know for sure but if I were a betting man I'd guess that Dolby is trying to reach critical mass before DTS can bring UHD to market. On the Blu-rays that I own I see DTS a heck of a lot more than I do Dolby. Has Dolby rushed Atmos to market before they could implement all its features? Maybe. More importantly, will Atmos and their required ceiling speakers poison consumers' opinions of object based solutions? I hope not because I think that allowing consumers to place their speakers where they are able to rather than at predefined locations will do more for home theater adoption than all the ceiling speakers in the world.


About the author:
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As Associate Editor at Audioholics, Tom promises to the best of his ability to give each review the same amount of attention, consideration, and thoughtfulness as possible and keep his writings free from undue bias and preconceptions. Any indication, either internally or from another, that bias has entered into his review will be immediately investigated. Substantiation of mistakes or bias will be immediately corrected regardless of personal stake, feelings, or ego.

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