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Where are all the Dolby Atmos-enabled Speakers?

by April 27, 2015
Atmos speaker under water

Atmos speaker under water

Reflections on Dolby Atmos-enabled Speakers - One Year Later

It's been a little over a year since I wrote my article the Dolby Atmos Home Theater Paradox.  In it, I discussed the struggle it would be to require consumers to add more speakers into their home theater systems in a market that is demanding less.  This wasn't a knock against the new format as much as it was pointing out an obvious truth in the reality of difficulties most people have just to implement a basic 5.1 home theater system; let alone a 5.1.4 or higher system to add height channels to take advantage of  immersive surround.  This is part of the reason why the soundbar and wireless speaker market is thriving while the home theater market is declining.

Dolby knows this quite well so they came up with their Atmos upfiring speaker (aka. Dolby-enabled speaker) which was designed to sit on top of your existing front and rear speakers firing up at the ceiling to bounce sound back down to the listening area.  On the surface this sounded a bit ridiculous since basic physics dictates sound does NOT project like ray optics shown in their diagrams.  Sure you could bounce the high frequencies off the ceiling, but its effectiveness depends on a lot of variables such as ceiling height, ceiling material, positioning of the speakers relative to the listener, etc.  It's far from an ideal solution to put it mildly.  That said, under the right circumstances this solution can give an elevated sound effect as intended but not without the penalty of muddying up the companion channels or being localizable if seated in close proximity to an upfiring speaker.  Rather than Dolby marketing this as a convenient solution to those that can't add the preferred discrete speaker, they and some of the Atmos-enabled speaker manufacturers were touting them as the "better solution" to discrete ceiling mounted speakers.  We heard all sorts of testimonies from "industry experts" as to why this speaker was preferred such as it offering better scatter or a more diffused and realistic sound.  Of course it was never mentioned that manufacturers licensing the Atmos-enabled speaker technology from Dolby have to pay a royalty fee whereas there is no such fee for using conventional ceiling mounted speakers.  But, I digress.

Most of the press mimicked Dolby's white papers calling it "the greatest breakthrough in 20 years".  It created quite a frenzy online.  Some people were getting ready to sell their speaker systems and AV receivers to upgrade while others were lowering their surround channels to accommodate discrete ceiling mounted height channels.  Our position was to tell folks to cool it for now.  The industry is in flux.  Things are changing.  Don't rush to change out your gear if you're already happy.  Like Billy Joel said, "Don't waste your money on a new set of speakers, you get more mileage from a cheap pair of sneakers".  Think things through before radically changing your room or speaker system.  The early adopter pays the price both from their wallet and from an immature technology standpoint.

Pioneer Atmos-enabled speakers

Pioneer Atmos-enabled Speaker Diagram

We of course skeptical about this whole bouncy sound scheme had reservations and questions, none of which were being answered by Dolby or asked by the rest of the press.  Instead, we were crucified by the most faithful Atmos supporters such as those from AVS Forum.  "Audioholics is anti-Atmos"..."Audioholics is against new technologies", "Audioholics has an agenda""Audioholics....(you fill in the blank)".  Suffice it to say, it wasn't pretty.  Some of the folks at AVS really hated our YouTube videos about Atmos calling them "misinformed", "unprofessional", some people even called us insults such as "the muscle guy looks like Lou Ferrigno" or "Hans and Franz".  Honestly, I had to laugh at these insults especially when looking at the self portraits of our critics many of whom could greatly benefit from some gym time themselves. 

Yes we were critical of the whole Atmos-reflection speaker NOT because it was Dolby, but because we have a good understanding of their limitations based on the laws of physics.  We were particularly critical because these speakers were being touted as "better" than discrete speakers.  We even had top Acousticians such Dr. Floyd Toole weigh in on the subject in our article the Dolby Atmos-Enabled Speaker Explained and Are HRTF Really Needed in Speakers?

Despite the flack, we pressed on and put our best foot forward to test Atmos-reflection speakers with the Definitive Technology A60 speakers and even did a comparison between Atmos-enabled speakers vs discrete in-ceiling speakers.  Our results confirmed the obvious, discrete speakers performed and sounded better.  This should really come as no surprise since we use a discrete speaker for each discrete channel in our home theater systems.  The movie-theaters also use discrete height channels too.  We published our demo results and also asked our YouTube subscribers to give us their feedback thus far about Dolby Atmos.

Dolby Atmos Consumer Comments and Reviews

As you can see, many of the comments about Atmos-enabled speakers were less than flattering.  Of course this didn't sit well with our critics.  But the guns remained silent for quite some time.  That was until we started covering DTS:X (Dolby's direct competitor to Atmos).  This time our critics were furious because our DTS coverage was "too positive".  We were once again under fire but this time the accusation was that we were in the pocket of DTS.  We were pro-DTS and anti-Dolby.  That's an interesting sentiment since we constantly plug Dolby TrueHD and DTS:HD as the ultimate surround codecs for high resolution audio.  All of our source material we use to for hardware reviews is either Dolby or DTS or to a smaller extent Sony's SACD.  So, Hugo and I decided to have a little fun with this and shot an impromptu video to address our critics.

AVS Forum Dolby Atmos and DTS:X Backlash

 Some key points from this video that are of particular interest:

  • One year after the Atmos-enabled speaker was introduced, we can count on one hand how many manufacturers are producing this speaker (Atlantic Technology, Pioneer, KEF, Triad, Definitive Technology) and I guess Onkyo if you count the freebee speaker they provide with their Atmos receivers.
  • According to top regional sales managers in the business, 95% of Atmos receivers being sold today are being used in a 5.1 speaker configuration only.
  • According to Harman, Atmos is being installed in upscale home theaters with discrete speakers only.
  • According to our contacts at Magnolia, Atmos-enabled speakers are not selling well.

Closing Thoughts

Atmos Upfiring Speaker DiagramSo here we are one year later.  Atmos is making strides in home theater, though not at the rapid pace Dolby hoped for.  They are releasing movies pretty regularly on Blu-ray.  That's good news!  DTS:X is around the corner and promises features NOT offered with Dolby Atmos.  Of course this is all on paper for the moment.  There is NO DTS:X hardware available yet and won't be until late this fall at the very earliest.  No DTS:X software has been announced yet,  so it remains to be seen how long it will take. 

As for the Atmos-enabled speaker, we don't see this being a real force in the industry.  In our opinion, the compromises they offer outweigh the benefits of convenience provided by easier installation in most cases.  It's interesting to note the real heavy hitters in the industry haven't signed on to produce these speakers such as Bose, Harman, Klipsch, B&W and Paradigm.  If you really want to add height channels to your system, we recommend doing it the right way by adding discrete speakers.  If you can't accommodate discrete speakers, its not the end of the world.  You can still get an incredibly immersive surround experience with a conventional 5.1 or 7.1 system.  Dolby TrueHD and DTS HD are still viable and wonderful formats.  It always irks me when the industry or the press throw proven technologies under the bus when something new comes along.   Your system is still viable despite the rush of urgency created by marketing and most of the AV press.  If you want to further improve your system but are unable to add height channels, perhaps focus your attention on ways to increase the system's fidelity by optimizing your room acoustics or speaker placement.  Don't have a second sub in your system yet?  The improvements and wow factor of adding a second sub to smooth out bass response are far more impactful than adding reflection speakers.

On a closing note about the whole AVS Forum fiasco, we hold no grudges against that website.  AVS is a huge forum with great discussions and information provided by very knowledgeable folks.  This article addresses the half dozen or so of our most vocal critics.  I actually thank you for your criticism, some of which has helped me refine my testing and tech articles about Dolby Atmos while some comments have provided great content for me to write about (like this article for example).  Audio can be a dry, nerdy topic that gets mundane to write or read about.  I really appreciate an active discussion that challenges our assumptions and predispositions.  I also appreciate the negative comments as it keeps the conversation going.  We experienced similar negative comments (but on a much larger scale) over a decade ago when I decided it was time to debunk the snake oil in exotic cables.  The Atmos speaker backlash is mild in comparison.  But, Ten Years Gone (forgive the Led Zepplin reference), and now most home theater enthusiasts, including those on AVS forum are in agreement with our sentiments about exotic cables and the associated manufacturer claims. 

With all said and done, it's important to remember, despite our disagreements, we all share a common hobby and common goal in achieving a better home theater experience.  I sincerely hope that Audioholics plays a small part in educating you (our reader) about the technologies to better arm you to make the best purchasing decisions based on your needs.

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About the author:

Gene manages this organization, establishes relations with manufacturers and keeps Audioholics a well oiled machine. His goal is to educate about home theater and develop more standards in the industry to eliminate consumer confusion clouded by industry snake oil.

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Recent Forum Posts:

Gunny posts on January 30, 2018 18:08
Montucky, post: 1231170, member: 72511
Still, is there no reason we can't have both?

That about sums it up for me.
Gunny posts on January 30, 2018 18:06
panteragstk, post: 1231070, member: 61217
Was a great film though. That and the upmixer is actually pretty impressive IMHO.

It may be but without an Object-Based soundtrack it is instantly regulated to Redbox rental status for me.
Montucky posts on January 30, 2018 08:12
yepimonfire, post: 1231136, member: 45132
His reason is stupid IMO, he insists on using and continuing to push film and that only carries 6 channels of audio.
While the audio component of his film ideology is certainly annoying, there are still some very, very valid reasons for using traditional film. For one, 70MM film is FAR beyond 4K and as such can be remastered far into the future.

Imagine if films like Baraka and Samsara had been shot digitally in their eras and we were limited to those renderings of them. It would be pretty lousy quality. But since they were both shot on 70mm film and have since been scanned at 8K (and downscaled to 1080p for home release), they are utterly spectacular.

Still, is there no reason we can't have both? Come to think of it, has ANYBODY filmed large format combined with modern object based audio formats?
yepimonfire posts on January 29, 2018 23:42
Montucky, post: 1231071, member: 72511
In all fairness, the DTS-MA 5.1 tracks on his films are usually OUTSTANDING, mastered so incredibly well (hat tip to whoever does those), and certainly pushes the format to its limits. Nolan has his own personal reasons for his disdain for such things, but I still don't like it. Really annoying actually.
His reason is stupid IMO, he insists on using and continuing to push film and that only carries 6 channels of audio.

Sent from my LM-X210(G) using Tapatalk
RichB posts on January 29, 2018 16:41
panteragstk, post: 1231070, member: 61217
Was a great film though. That and the upmixer is actually pretty impressive IMHO.

It was griping at times. The flight scenes are excellent.
Character development was weak and the replaying of incidents and time-sequencing was disorienting.
There is very little dialog.

- Rich
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