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Predictions of Dolby Atmos Success or Failure Five Years Later

by January 28, 2020
Successes and Failures of Dolby Atmos

Successes and Failures of Dolby Atmos

Five years ago, Dolby launched Home Atmos, and Audioholics published two articles that took different views of its potential for success: 5 Reasons Dolby Atmos May be DOA and ‘5 Reasons Why Dolby Atmos Will Succeed.’ Now that some time has passed to see how the Atmos has panned out, we decided to revisit these predictions to see what was correct and what turned out not to be.

Regular readers of Audioholics will remember that the more pessimistic article of the two turned out to be a source of controversy for Audioholics that earned us an anti-Atmos reputation merely for publishing the pessimistic predictions of a single contributing writer. Of course, it is not the case that Audioholics as a whole holds animosity against Dolby or Atmos. Audioholic’s content is created by a group of contributing writers, and, as with any group, not all of the writers hold identical views, but Audioholics is willing to publish differing viewpoints so long as they are well-informed.

Dolby_Theatre_v2.jpg 

So how well did the authors of these respective articles do in predicting the future? Of course, the answer to that is well-known by most home theater enthusiasts by now, and Home Atmos has achieved a resounding victory, at least in terms of wide adaptation. Most Blu-ray releases of new Hollywood movies include an Atmos sound mix, and support for the Atmos format is now included on all newer UHD Blu-ray players and mid-priced and higher AVRs. But ‘success’ here can mean more than just market share, and we should also ask the question has Home Atmos improved home audio in general? The answer to that is complicated and not as clear-cut.

Has Atmos Improved Home Audio?

AtmosYou might be asking yourself at this point, “How has Atmos been anything other than an improvement? After all, it is a far more sophisticated format than conventional sound mixes!” While it is true that Home Atmos is a more advanced sound mix format than prior formats, it is also more complex and demanding, and that has taken a toll on home audio on the whole. To be fair, a well-designed and competently-assembled Atmos system really is a superior sonic experience over prior sound systems. But a better question at this point might be, "How much better is the Atmos experience over previous sound formats and how many Home Atmos systems were put together competently?"

Let’s tackle that first question: how much better is the Atmos experience over prior sound formats? It should be said that without the additional channels, Atmos doesn’t have any real advantage over a properly-engineered standard sound mix such as DTS:HD Master Audio or Dolby TrueHD. If the standard sound mix is well-done, the panning and spatial cues of sound sources should be indistinguishable from that of coordinate space of an object-oriented sound mix like Dolby Atmos from a two-channel system to a 7.1 system. To utilize the advantages of Atmos, the extra channels are needed. The problem is that, for the most part, the extra channels are ‘height’ channels that only convey vertical information, but human hearing isn’t as well-equipped to track overhead sounds as well as sounds coming from roughly the same altitude as our ears. The overhead soundstage, such that it is, could never be as well-defined as the more horizontal soundstage. Does the overhead content add to the experience? Yes, we can perceive it, but does it add a lot? In this writer’s opinion, no. It is only slightly more spatial information than could be had before. I would bet real money that, in a blind comparison between a standard 7.1 mix and a 7.1.4 Dolby Atmos mix, most people would find the difference to be slight. It should be noted here that Atmos sound mixes can have support for a ‘front wide’ speaker on the horizontal plane between the front left/right speakers and side surround speakers, but very few Atmos processors support ‘front wide’ channels. Even fewer home installs can accommodate a speaker layout incorporating "front wide" channels.

Front Wide speakers

Atmos speaker positions with front wides: image courtesy of Denon

At this point, it might be argued, “so what if the effect isn’t enormous; it still comprises an improvement, so why not go after an improvement in sound if an improvement can be had?” Ideally, there is no reason not to go for the kind of improvement that Atmos can offer. Ideally. The problem is circumstances are rarely ideal. As was said before, Atmos is a more complicated and demanding system to set up correctly than a standard 5.1 or 7.1 setup. However, it is becoming a baseline feature of AVRs at around $500 and above. Most people who are looking to set up a home theater today will have Atmos on their checklist of features, regardless of their budget. The good news is that AVRs with Atmos can be had for not too much money, but the bad news is that the manufacturers have to take other shortcuts in order to accommodate Atmos channels and Atmos processing in a budget receiver. The shortcuts that they take usually come at the expense of the amplifier which will very likely have a larger role to play in sound quality than extra Atmos channels. So Atmos can hurt the sound quality of a system more than it can help, where the user doesn’t have a large budget for their sound system. We have seen a trend of shrinking power supplies and growing channel count in AVRs, and that is basically an exchange of quality for quantity. In many systems, Home Atmos has often been a step back for fidelity in sound, not a step forward.

For more information, see: Power Manipulation in Dolby Atmos AV Receivers

Atmos speaker positions.jpg 

Atmos speaker positions: image courtesy of Denon

The same principle holds true when there is a limited budget for loudspeakers. The front stage speakers are by far the most important part of any home theater system and are comprised of the front left, right, and center speakers. The front stage set along with the subwoofers makes up 90% of the sound of home theater. That is the area of a sound system where compromises can most degrade sound quality. However, if there is only so much money in the budget for the speakers, the quality of the speakers becomes diluted as more speakers have to be added to the system. The quality of the front stage will inevitably take a hit as seven or nine speakers or more have to be purchased within the same budget, and the sound of the system as a whole is diminished.

The idea of AVR’s being underpowered for the inclusion of Atmos or a lessened front stage in favor of ever more surround speakers relates to our other question of proper set up: how many Home Atmos systems are put together competently? In other words, how many users have the know-how to properly place and calibrate a Dolby Home Atmos system? Given that proper speaker placement and set up of a relatively simple 5.1 system was uncommon for the average person, we are going to guess that not many people will be able to correctly deal with an Atmos system. If the system is set up incorrectly, the result can be a degradation in sound, not an improvement. Those who have the time and wherewithal to properly set up an Atmos system will know to use the Dolby Home Atmos Installation Guide or at least refer to their Atmos-equipped AVR or Atmos sound system user manual. But, even then there are aspects of Atmos that are important for success that is not really addressed by these guides.

Sound bounce question.jpg 

The "Bouncy House" Atmos Reflection Speaker

Atmos speakerC.jpgOne facet of Home Atmos that we don’t see addressed much concerns the ‘Atmos Enabled’ speakers (aka. 'bouncy house') that use ceiling reflections to create a sense of sound coming from above, and we have seen mixed results of their efficacy. We have experience with some speaker systems that use these reflections well and did manage to create the intended effect, but, on the other hand, some other speaker systems utterly failed to pull this trick off, and the intended sound was heard coming directly from the speaker itself rather than a reflection. That, of course, makes things sound worse, not better. What is not often mentioned about Atmos-enabled speakers or Atmos modules is that they should be positioned above the listening position- as high as possible, to increase the chances of creating a successful effect. The reason for higher elevation placement is that these speakers often spray sound out at a wide angle, and if the listener gets hit directly with a significant amount of this off-axis sound, the Atmos effect is ruined. Many Atmos modules and Atmos-enabled speakers do not do a good job of shielding the listener from direct sound from the speaker, and so the precedence effect comes into play (the precedence effect is where the first arrival of sound on the listener determines its perceptual location, even the same signal arrives at a higher amplitude from a different location at a slightly delayed time). Dolby has mandated a certain response curve for Atmos modules which supposedly help to alleviate this effect, but, in our HRTF analysis, it was found to be a poor solution.

To Atmos or Not to Atmos

Returning to our original question asking if Home Atmos has improved home audio, the answer is, as is so often in hi-fi audio, it depends. For high-end home theater, the performance improvement is unquestionable, but for entry-level systems, absolutely not. For middle-tier systems, it depends on how extensive the Atmos system is pushed and whether it is properly set up. A medium-budget 5.1.2 Atmos system in a medium to small room is probably fine if the setup guidelines were followed and the user isn’t going after THX reference loudness levels. This type of system would encompass an AVR that can normally be had for around $1k. It would be all the better if in-ceiling speakers were used rather than Atmos module speakers as well. We should also mention that, in our experience, we find the Atmos upmixer to be leagues better than older upmixing algorithms, so we do find improvement on that front. It should also be mentioned that content produced in Dolby Atmos has had mixed results as well; Disney films, in particular, seem to suffer from inconsistent quality in their Atmos mixes.

Atmos Room

However, if we take a wider view of the audio hobby as a whole, it is hard to say whether Atmos has really improved audio. We don’t have any concrete consumer usage information, but we are guessing that most Atmos systems deployed in households are using up-firing speakers to simulate a height effect. We would also venture to guess that in many cases the effect isn’t working as intended. And what is more, it is coming at a qualitative cost to the rest of the system as amplifier and loudspeaker quality is diluted for quantity. Another thing that is worth mentioning here is the Atmos Paradox that we wrote about when Home Atmos was announced; if it seems like a requirement to have all of these extra speakers in a modern home theater, that could be a turnoff to prospective audio enthusiasts who could be intimidated by the complexity of a seven or nine or eleven channel system. It would be a shame for someone who wants to get into home theater but decides not to from thinking that a complex Atmos system is the current minimum standard for a good home theater.

How do you feel Dolby Atmos has impacted the sonic enjoyment in your home theater? Share your experiences in the related forum thread below.

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About the author:

James Larson is Audioholics' primary loudspeaker and subwoofer reviewer on account of his deep knowledge of loudspeaker functioning and performance and also his overall enthusiasm toward moving the state of audio science forward.

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Recent Forum Posts:

Trebdp83 posts on June 17, 2020 22:25
That is one sharp room, though. Very nice work.
Trebdp83 posts on June 17, 2020 22:19
Come on people. He’s not a blooming idiot. The bloom has been off that idiot, I mean rose, for some time now.
NINaudio posts on June 17, 2020 20:26
TLS Guy, post: 1398802, member: 29650
That is probably the mix rather than your speaker settings.
Philnick, post: 1398849, member: 73339
Yamaha's YPAO (their room correction routine) allows the user, after the auto routine has been run, to travel a test tone around the room and tweak each channel manually. I would be surprised if Audyssey didn't let you do the same thing.
Auditor55, post: 1398850, member: 76893
Turn your surrounds up.

Geez people, I'm not a blooming idiot. I check it on the Audyssey speaker setting tones and adjust my surrounds so that the levels all match and I usually end up bumping my surrounds by 2 dB or so to bring them in line with everything else.
TLS Guy posts on June 16, 2020 23:36
VonMagnum, post: 1398881, member: 86028
It's not that they're optimal, but until recently outside a Trinnov, very few AVR/AVP models offered more than 11-channel operation. Thus, it has been born more of necessity than any kind of optimal setup. There are a lot of people excited about the newer 15-channel AVRs that are just now becoming available (outside a Trinnov that costs the price of a mid-sized sedan). More speakers means more precise imaging for more seats in the home theater. Without those speakers, seats that are off-axis won't get as accurate placement of many sounds due to the precedence effect, whereby sounds tend to pull towards the nearest speaker when you're not centered between a given pair. So while your home theater may sound great to you in the primary seat, I think you'll find it sounds quite different if you sit off-center. That is precisely the reason I have front wides and surround#2 speakers in my 3-row home theater. That keeps the surround effects from pulling as much to the left or right and imaging from moving in straight lines over head (keeps them in a circle around all seats). In other words, those speakers aren't actually needed for the MLP, but for the other off-center/off-axis seats.

As for overheads, without top middle, front-to-back overhead effects will similarly pull to the nearest overhead speakers (front-to-back) that you're sitting underneath. So say a sound is meant to be directly overhead in the middle of the room. If you're sitting closer to the front tops speakers, it will image towards those speakers instead of the top of the middle of the room and the opposite for the third row. Only the seats directly in-between will image properly. That is where Top Middle speakers fix the imaging as it creates an anchor point in the middle of the room the same way a center speaker keeps centered screen effects and dialog in the middle of the screen even if you sit to the left or the right. Without it, the dialog will pull towards the left or right speaker depending on whether you're sitting left or right of center between the main speakers.

Thus, the more speakers the better for proper imaging for all seats as the more discrete speakers you have, the less effect the precedence effect has on the imaging for any given seat. Again, this is not for the benefit of the MLP, so if you're the only listener, you don't need them. But if you have a lot of people in your home theater watching movies, those people sitting off-axis aren't getting optimal experiences without more speakers. That is why high-end Atmos home systems offer up to 34 speakers (plus subs).



It doesn't “really” require any such thing. A good installer can make many rooms work well. Some will need more work than others. A custom room should probably have the speakers behind a transparent audio screen, for example and hide all the wires, use drop ceilings, etc. to make it classy looking with custom lighting and all that. I've seen some pretty “wow” rooms done this way. That doesn't guarantee they sound “better” than a well done retrofit, however. Moves aren't about watching the drop ceiling back-lit or star fields on the ceiling, however cool it looks.



Something tells me you have also never sat in any seat but the MLP either or you'd notice the 360 degree sound field fall apart for the same Atmos demos. It's not possible to do four rows of seating and maintain the surround field where it should be for every seat with only 11.2 speakers. As soon as you sit off to the left, center height effects will pull to the left top Atmos speaker and surround effects that should travel through the middle of the room will pull to the left side of the room, all due to the precedence effect. That's precisely why the “extra” speakers in Atmos and X exist in the first place.



How odd my 17-channel system manages to work just fine, but then I don't “triamp” speakers (particularly since they are all 2-way speakers to begin with). The way I “slice it” is to not waste money on bourgeois tri-amping and custom ventilation systems (my air conditioning system functions just fine for the entire 12x22x8.5' room). Oddly, I cannot hear any “hiss” from the seating despite 17 channels of operation.



Now I think you're just being overly dramatic. If my 17-channel system works fine in a 12'x22'x8.5' room, I don't think even larger rooms would be pushed over the edge. Any hiss decreases the further you sit from a given speaker. They do not all add together evenly.



Sigh.



Daft? Now you're getting insulting. I know people with maxed out Trinnov systems. They seem to like their systems just fine and don't bugger on about how it shouldn't work because someone out there wants to pat themselves on the back and tell everyone his system is the best it can possibly be which it clearly isn't outside your MLP seat and I can say that with 100% confidence without having heard a bit of it just by your speaker arrangement.



I suspect someone should have kept their opinions to themselves before they dove into the deep end. Your home theater does not work well with only 11-channels and 3 rows once you sit off-axis. That's a FACT (again without hearing it because I know about the precedence effect and it's clear you do not). Home Atmos is not “professional audio” nor is there some super skill into arranging a room of speakers with given angles offsets. I use 10 speakers plus the center channel which means 36 degrees between speakers would be optimal for an even rendered 360 degree circle. Oddly, Dolby's specs are within a 2 degrees of that using 11-speakers in their 11.1.8 diagram.

I do know that my room has an extremely even sound and presentation through out the room. Before lock down we had a full theater on one occasion and I did not take the MLP but an outside rear seat and everything was fine.

In any event this room is largely for music performances and not movies. I especially love to watch a good opera.

Now speakers vary enormously in their imaging and stability of the central image.

All my speakers present a stable central image even outside the two speakers. They do not have trouble creating a seamless field between them. So objects can move smoothly between speakers. I have not noted any localization to one speaker. Since this is largely a music room I do not want an acoustically transparent screen.

This is my second AV room and has very close to optimal dimension ratios.

These are the pictures.

Front



Rear



AV racks, DAW and turntable case.




FR front row. No Audyssey or any EQ. Speakers voice to room by amp leveling and active continuously variable Baffle Step Compensation. All channels driven for each measurement.



Middle row, which is the optimal row.



Back row.



The triamped and biamped speakers are essential to their design.

The effect in the front row is like being in the front stalls, the middle row the mezzanine and the rear a balcony. So you can take your pick.

If you are going to use first class speakers then receivers are going to have to do better then 100 db weighted. It is the pro pro that just has audible background and NOT the power amps and crossovers. They are silent. Now you can only just hear the pre/pro if you listen hard and no other background. It is never intrusive. If you added 20 or so more speakers, I suspect it would be a different story.

I stand by my assertion that you do not need 30 speakers in a room like that. Speakers 6 to 10 ft apart can easily produce a seamless sound field and these do.

Siegfried Linkwitz maintained that having speakers closer than 8' was a very bad thing and advised further spacing. You just get too much inter speaker interference which upset FR. The smoothest FR you can get is really important and too many speakers mitigates against that.
VonMagnum posts on June 16, 2020 22:48
TLS Guy, post: 1398492, member: 29650
You might be right about needing six ceiling speakers for a four row theater. However when I researched this for my room the consensus seemed to be that for most domestic situations four ceiling speakers is optimal.

It's not that they're optimal, but until recently outside a Trinnov, very few AVR/AVP models offered more than 11-channel operation. Thus, it has been born more of necessity than any kind of optimal setup. There are a lot of people excited about the newer 15-channel AVRs that are just now becoming available (outside a Trinnov that costs the price of a mid-sized sedan). More speakers means more precise imaging for more seats in the home theater. Without those speakers, seats that are off-axis won't get as accurate placement of many sounds due to the precedence effect, whereby sounds tend to pull towards the nearest speaker when you're not centered between a given pair. So while your home theater may sound great to you in the primary seat, I think you'll find it sounds quite different if you sit off-center. That is precisely the reason I have front wides and surround#2 speakers in my 3-row home theater. That keeps the surround effects from pulling as much to the left or right and imaging from moving in straight lines over head (keeps them in a circle around all seats). In other words, those speakers aren't actually needed for the MLP, but for the other off-center/off-axis seats.

As for overheads, without top middle, front-to-back overhead effects will similarly pull to the nearest overhead speakers (front-to-back) that you're sitting underneath. So say a sound is meant to be directly overhead in the middle of the room. If you're sitting closer to the front tops speakers, it will image towards those speakers instead of the top of the middle of the room and the opposite for the third row. Only the seats directly in-between will image properly. That is where Top Middle speakers fix the imaging as it creates an anchor point in the middle of the room the same way a center speaker keeps centered screen effects and dialog in the middle of the screen even if you sit to the left or the right. Without it, the dialog will pull towards the left or right speaker depending on whether you're sitting left or right of center between the main speakers.

Thus, the more speakers the better for proper imaging for all seats as the more discrete speakers you have, the less effect the precedence effect has on the imaging for any given seat. Again, this is not for the benefit of the MLP, so if you're the only listener, you don't need them. But if you have a lot of people in your home theater watching movies, those people sitting off-axis aren't getting optimal experiences without more speakers. That is why high-end Atmos home systems offer up to 34 speakers (plus subs).

Now unfortunately most domestic spaces are not really optimal for multi channel audio. It really does require a custom built room for optimal results. Few have that opportunity.

It doesn't “really” require any such thing. A good installer can make many rooms work well. Some will need more work than others. A custom room should probably have the speakers behind a transparent audio screen, for example and hide all the wires, use drop ceilings, etc. to make it classy looking with custom lighting and all that. I've seen some pretty “wow” rooms done this way. That doesn't guarantee they sound “better” than a well done retrofit, however. Moves aren't about watching the drop ceiling back-lit or star fields on the ceiling, however cool it looks.

In practice this has worked out well. The results from the Dolby up mixer has been excellent. I have no complaints with movies, they are terrifyingly realistic. I have never localized to an individual speaker. There seems to be an excellent 360 degree sound field with height illusion.

Something tells me you have also never sat in any seat but the MLP either or you'd notice the 360 degree sound field fall apart for the same Atmos demos. It's not possible to do four rows of seating and maintain the surround field where it should be for every seat with only 11.2 speakers. As soon as you sit off to the left, center height effects will pull to the left top Atmos speaker and surround effects that should travel through the middle of the room will pull to the left side of the room, all due to the precedence effect. That's precisely why the “extra” speakers in Atmos and X exist in the first place.

The other issue in the relatively confined domestic situation is the downside of adding more channels. Even the very best systems make a bit of noise. So as you add channels then you downgrade the S/N of the system. So you have 11 audio channels plus the sub/LFE channels. So at a minimum for a system like this you are going to have 13 amp channels. In this system because of active triamping of two speakers and active biamping of three, the number of amp channels is 18.

Anyway you slice it that is a significant outlay on power amps to say the least, to say nothing of the power bill, space required and the design and implementation of the necessary ventilation.

How odd my 17-channel system manages to work just fine, but then I don't “triamp” speakers (particularly since they are all 2-way speakers to begin with). The way I “slice it” is to not waste money on bourgeois tri-amping and custom ventilation systems (my air conditioning system functions just fine for the entire 12x22x8.5' room). Oddly, I cannot hear any “hiss” from the seating despite 17 channels of operation.

So with the power amps and active crossover on alone, the room is quiet and no improvement in S/N would be required. Add the pre/pro in the mix, and you can just hear noise in a very quiet room. It does not ever intrude in program. However you can see that adding further channels would probably push things over the edge.

Now I think you're just being overly dramatic. If my 17-channel system works fine in a 12'x22'x8.5' room, I don't think even larger rooms would be pushed over the edge. Any hiss decreases the further you sit from a given speaker. They do not all add together evenly.

So I think for the size of a domestic room we are at the realistic limit now, unless we go to more expensive electronics with improved S/N beyond the weighted 100 db.
That is the S/N of each channel in the pre/pro. The power amps are 105 db unweighted, which is why you do not hear them.

Sigh.

Putting 30 or more speakers in a domestic space is just not sensible or practical on any level. Actually it is daft.

Daft? Now you're getting insulting. I know people with maxed out Trinnov systems. They seem to like their systems just fine and don't bugger on about how it shouldn't work because someone out there wants to pat themselves on the back and tell everyone his system is the best it can possibly be which it clearly isn't outside your MLP seat and I can say that with 100% confidence without having heard a bit of it just by your speaker arrangement.

So my view is that 11 audio channels and 2 sub channels works very well indeed for a properly spaced three row cinema. I can see that 13 audio channels might be required for a four row theater. After that you are getting into the realms of professional audio.

I suspect the number of domestic AV rooms of the size of this one is very small and ones greater then 4 rows is likely miniscule.

I suspect someone should have kept their opinions to themselves before they dove into the deep end. Your home theater does not work well with only 11-channels and 3 rows once you sit off-axis. That's a FACT (again without hearing it because I know about the precedence effect and it's clear you do not). Home Atmos is not “professional audio” nor is there some super skill into arranging a room of speakers with given angles offsets. I use 10 speakers plus the center channel which means 36 degrees between speakers would be optimal for an even rendered 360 degree circle. Oddly, Dolby's specs are within a 2 degrees of that using 11-speakers in their 11.1.8 diagram.
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