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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.

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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

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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.

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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:

Cdx posts on July 07, 2020 18:20
Philnick, post: 1398267, member: 73339
No bounce speakers or holes in the ceiling - instead, I hung my 4 overhead speakers just below the ceiling,
I have up-firing speakers and they perform brilliantly in my room. But deepening on the room type I would probably recommend downward firing for most people.
The AVR, like most (maybe all) flagship AVRs - has 11 preamps in addition to the subs but only 9 power amps, so I found a an older AVR of the generation that still had the multichannel analog input used by pre-HDMI DVD-Audio/SACD players, and used it to power all four ceiling speakers, reserving the main AVR's power supply for just the other seven speakers.
That's an interesting idea. If at some point in the future I get separate Atmos modules I might consider doing that.
An important thing is not to trust the auto-room correction about relative speaker levels. Because those systems don't use a forward-facing cardiod microphone, they tell the AVR that the surround speakers - side, rear, and above - are louder than our ears hear them, and thus set those channels too quiet. Let the automation set up time delays and eq, but manually boost each of the surround channels so that they sound as loud as the front channels.
TLS Guy, post: 1398278, member: 29650
Audyssey sets levels correctly. Those other channels are not supposed to be as loud as the front, on most program. You are creating an incorrect set up.
I find that Audyssey gets the surround levels pretty close to how I want it, but I find that I do have to rebalance my surrounds a little after calibration. The heights always have to be bumped up at least a decibel or two.
DBlank, post: 1398285, member: 89851
the biggest problem with Dolby Atmos in the home is that people simply don't have high enough Ceilings, big enough rooms and enough and proper Acoustic Treatment to handle that many full range channels. You should have ceilings that are at least 12' to preferably 14' high ceilings, and most homes have between 8' and 10' ceilings, because you'll need the room to put low frequency absorption (100hz and lower) otherwise you are going to have a mess and you might have problems hearing the mid range (dialog) with the large special effects of low frequency explosions, etc. Just my observation.
When it comes to Atmos, Audioholics is the old man in the corner shouting that things ain't what they used to be. My ceiling height is just under 8ft. No mess, no problems with mid-range and I get great special effects and low frequency explosions. I got all that before I added DSP.
Dmac6419, post: 1402399, member: 92195
Listen folks they ain't making AVR' s like they used to,so you don't have to break the bank for Atmos, don't fall for boutique no better than consumer off the shelf, probably worse, that said you what Atmos get yourself something entry level and work your way up from there.
True up to a point. I would still get a half decent Denon/Marantz over the cheap Pioneers that came out recently. At their lowest price point they must be built down to a price.
Oh and Atmos sounds good
It certainly does
Dmac6419 posts on July 05, 2020 20:37
Listen folks they ain't making AVR' s like they used to,so you don't have to break the bank for Atmos, don't fall for boutique no better than consumer off the shelf, probably worse, that said you what Atmos get yourself something entry level and work your way up from there,Oh and Atmos sounds good
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.
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