The Bigger Wow: Atmos/DTS:X or 4K/HDR Video?

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Q About five years ago, I got serious (at least by my tightly budgeted standards) about home theater and purchased a 50-inch Panasonic plasma TV, a Yamaha 7.1-channel AV receiver, and Klipsch speakers. This setup has provided me with a great in-home listening/viewing experience, but I wonder which upgrade could better take things to the next level: Atmos/DTS:X audio or 4K/HDR video? Both would require a new receiver. For audio, I could easily add Klipsch Reference Premiere Dolby Atmos elevation speakers to my current system and be ready for Atmos/DTS:X. That option would be quite a bit cheaper than buying a new receiver plus a 60-inch or larger high dynamic range (HDR)-capable 4K TV. Which upgrade do you think would provide the biggest wow factor?—Adam Head / via email

A Having experienced demos of both Atmos/DTS:X audio and high dynamic range video, it’s my opinion that HDR would provide the bigger bang for your buck. That’s not to belittle object-based audio, which provides an enhanced sense of immersion and is clearly the future of surround sound, but when it comes to pure wow factor, HDR has the edge.

Right now is also a good time to invest in HDR-capable gear. New AV receivers for 2016 are equipped with HDMI 2.0a jacks that fully support the format. Plus, the newest crop of “Ultra HD Premium” TVs are compatible with the HDR10 standard used for sources such as 4K Blu-ray and support features including 10-bit color with near-P3 (Digital Cinema) color space. They also satisfy a minimum set of dynamic range capabilities (1,000 nits peak brightness and less than 0.05 nits black level for LCD; 540 nits brightness and less than 0.0005 nits black level for OLED).

How do those specs translate into real-world viewing? HDR delivers a sense of depth that makes standard dynamic range TVs look flat in comparison and even does a better job than 3D in giving pictures a 3D quality. I think it’s a more important advance than 4K resolution, which primarily makes a difference when you’re watching on a very large screen (120 inches, anyone?). And remember: Any new high-end receiver you buy in 2016 should be outfitted with everything you need for Dolby Atmos and DTS:X audio. Just add height or elevation speakers at some point when you’re ready for them, and you can extend the wow factor into the audio realm.

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