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Can I Use Regular Speakers as Dolby Atmos Upfiring?

by July 25, 2016
DIY Atmos Speaker

DIY Atmos Speaker

We've received numerous emails from our readers asking if they could use ordinary speakers they have laying around as Dolby Atmos Upfiring units as opposed to purchasing specific Atmos-enabled speakers.  We talk about what is in a Dolby Atmos-enabled speaker and whether or not they are better suited for the task than regular speakers. Of course we always recommend direct firing speakers for height channels, but as a last resort, what should one do?  Read on to find out.

For those unfamiliar with the latest in immersive surround sound,  read our article: Dolby Atmos 101 Overview and please read our article on Dolby Atmos-enabled speakers if you're unfamiliar with these new type of speakers.

Ask Dr.AQ: I have seen your videos, and I know you are not a fan of Atmos speakers.

Two quick questions please:

1. Can you use regular speakers and place overhead for Atmos Sound? (meaning I don't need specialized speakers like the Onkyo Atmos speakers).

2. When buying a Yamaha RX-A860 Atmos receiver, it states that it plays Dolby Atmos and DTS:X but it doesn't show Atmos or DTS:X on the front panel. Is it limited to only 7.1 surround?

PS. (I love your website and videos)  

Before reading on, we suggest that you please watch our YouTube video overview about Dolby Atmos-enabled speaker technology.

 Dolby Atmos-enabled Speaker Overview Part 2

Atmos-enabled vs Regular Speakers

Atmos-enabled speakerA: First off, let's clarify our position on "Atmos Speakers".  We have nothing against Atmos as a technology and in fact are fans of expanding the surround field by including height channels along with the new Atmos CODEC. What we do have reservations about however are "Atmos-enabled" speakers both in their effectiveness for creating a convincing height soundfield and their employment of a specific 7-element crossover to enhance the HRTF that naturally occurs in the way we perceive sound. 

Despite that, most of the press was at one point regurgitating the Dolby marketing propaganda that Atmos-enabled speakers were "the greatest breakthrough in 20 years...." or that Atmos-enabled speakers were the "preferred" choice over discrete ceiling mounted speakers, which we never found to be the case.  In fact, ALL of the serious Atmos installations we've seen deploy discrete mounted speakers. It's also no coincidence that most loudspeaker companies grounded in legitimate science to advance their field don't even produce such speakers.  In our opinion, Atmos upfiring speakers should ONLY be used as a last resort option.

As you can see in our article, the Dolby HRTF built into all "Atmos-enabled" speakers can actually degrade the elevation effect depending on how each individual perceives sound. It also over complicated the design causing more problems than it solves and, in our opinion, is NOT a necessary element in such a product.

The first generation of "Atmos-enabled" speakers were all over the map ranging from single 4" whizzer cone fullrange driver recessed into a baffle, to concentric drivers and multiple fullrange drivers in a clustered arrangement.  While Dolby claims there are specific dispersion and directivity requirements (which you have to pay a licensing fee to access) for earning the "Atmos-enabled" moniker, we find it hard to believe that such radically different designs could meet those requirements equally.

 Dolby Atmos Home Theater Demo Results

If you want sound to come from a specific location, it's best to put a speaker at that location.

In our own testing, we've had better results repurposing old 2-way bookshelf speakers as Atmos upfiring speakers as opposed to the specifically designed "Atmos-enabled" speaker designs such as the Definitive Technology A60.  The Onkyo Atmos speaker you mentioned is a similar design to the A60 which in our opinion is pretty lousy and we'd recommend avoiding at all costs. 

Some of the newer "Atmos-enabled" speakers from the likes of PSB, Klipsch and even Definitive Technology (A90) do look to be an improvement over the first generation designs in that they now employ a waveguide to control dispersion of the high frequency drive unit and they are using similar driver topologies as their companion speakers for closer timbre matching. Thankfully most of the brands have moved away from that dreaded 4" whizzer cone woofer originally specified by Dolby to use in "Atmos-enabled" speakers. Good riddance.

Definitive A60 Atmos Speaker Onkyo Atmos speaker

Definitive Technology A60 Atmos Speaker (left pic); Onkyo Atmos Speaker (right pic)

Both of these speakers are, in our opinion, a waste of engineering resources and should be avoided if you're serious about taking full advantage of the capabilities of Dolby Atmos.

We always recommend placing discrete speakers in the ceiling for Atmos as opposing to using upfiring methods.  If you want sound to come from a specific location, it's best to put a speaker at that location. However, if you want to give upfiring speakers a try, then by all means start by re-purposing some old bookshelf speakers to see how you like it before going out and spending $500/pair or more for "Atmos-enabled" designs.  Just make sure you set the AV receiver to Atmos upfiring speakers, and a crossover point of 150Hz or higher if it gives you that option. It's best to limit low frequency info going to those speakers to help reduce localization.  In addition, we'd recommend placing the speakers slightly above seated ear level position firing at about a 20 degree angle just like most "Atmos-enabled" speakers have the slope of their baffled arranged.

Atmos/DTS:X Labeling on AV Receivers

Yamaha A-860 ReceiverA: Due to the various amounts of technologies built into receivers today, the front panels have become overrun with logos.  While Atmos/DTS:X  may not be embedded into the frontpanel silk screen of your Yamaha A-860 receiver, rest assured it is in fact fully capable of decoding Atmos and DTS:X though you may need to get the free firmware update for the latter depending on when you purchased your unit.  You should see Atmos/DTS:X on the LCD or OSD when you playback a compatible Blu-ray disc. 

The A-860 is limited to a 7.1 speaker configuration meaning you can only run a single pair of height channels which are ideally placed in the middle of the room ceiling mounted or on top of your front speakers if you go with the less desirable Atmos upfiring/enabled speakers options.


About the author:
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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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