Are New Speakers Needed for Dolby Atmos?

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Q I was recently in Best Buy asking about speakers for Dolby Atmos. I was told that to get Atmos I would have to change out my current setup and buy a new set of Atmos Speakers. Is that true? —Wendell Blue

A No, it’s not true that you need to buy a new “Atmos speaker” system for playback of Dolby Atmos soundtracks. What you probably will need is to add speakers to your existing setup, however.

If you already listen with a 5.1- or 7.1-channel speaker system, upgrading for Atmos can be as simple as adding an extra speaker pair to convey the overhead sound in Atmos soundtracks. There are two ways to go about this. The first is to install in-ceiling speakers slightly in front of the main listening position. Dolby suggests using two sets of overhead speakers for an enhanced Atmos experience, however, so you should also consider installing a second pair. In this case, the front overhead speakers would be installed in the ceiling in front of the main listening seat, and the rear pair behind it. Read Dolby’s Atmos Home Theater Installation Guidelines document for more precise details on installation.

If you don’t want to carve up your ceiling (or pay someone to do it for you), Atmos-enabled speaker modules provide a less messy alternative. These are add-on speakers with angled, up-firing drivers that you place on top of your existing speakers. Same as with in-ceiling solutions, you could place one Atmos-enabled pair on the main left/right speakers at the front of the room, or add them to both the main left/right and surround left/right speakers. Atmos-enabled modules — available from Onkyo, ELAC, Definitive Technology, Klipsch, PSB, and others — will run you from around $150 to $500 per pair.

dommyluc's picture

This is the second article I have read on S&V which states there are only two ways to add Dolby Atmos to a room: in-ceiling speakers and Atmos-Enabled speakers. But you can also mount good quality and good sounding bookshelf speakers directly above the main front L+R speakers (and directly above the surrounds in the rear for a 5.4 Atmos system), secured on the wall as close to the ceiling as possible and angled downward towards the listening position. And I have a feeling that speakers mounted on the high wall and radiating towards the listening position will sound much better than up-firing Atmos-Enabled speakers, and probably cost a lot less, and - like the Atmos-Enabled speakers - are a lot easier and less messy and less time consuming than installing speakers in your ceiling. And just about every manual to every Atmos A/V receiver I have read discusses this option, which makes me wonder why S&V doesn't mention it.

walt0291's picture

I have a 7.4.1 Atmos setup with in-ceiling speakers and while doing my research into Atmos implementations to design the room I never came across this suggestion. Dolby has very specific setup specifications for how the height speakers are to be positioned and this would not meet their spec.

The height speakers are lined up with the front L & R speakers, but they need to be positioned on the ceiling within certain angles of the targeted listening position. Positioning the height speakers above the front and surround channels would be better than nothing in an Atmos setup, but could technically be used in a DTS-X configuration since it doesn't prescribe exact speaker locations. When checking out demo rooms the sound being reflected off of the ceiling was surprisingly convincing. This suggestion sounds like a meld of a Dolby Pro-Logic iiz and PL iix configuration and kind of reminds me of Yamaha's front height speaker setup that was intended to raise the center channel image to account for center channels positioned below displays.

SVS does offer ceiling mounted speakers that are similar to what you're describing, but I would think that they would be too visually obtrusive to meet the WAF requirements. Between proper audio imaging and visual aesthetics, in-ceiling or height modules are the way to go in my opinion.

dommyluc's picture

Unfortunately I, at the moment, cannot afford to upgrade to an Atmos system, although I would love to. I am just going by what I have read in the manuals for the receivers that I download and read while trying to keep abreast of the newest A/V innovations and technology. And it seems the majority of the companies that most people would buy their receivers from - Yamaha, Pioneer, Onkyo, Marantz, Denon, etc. - include the speaker configuration I have talked about in their user manuals - speakers mounted as high as possible near the ceiling on the wall above the front L+R main speakers, and/or on the wall above the surround speakers, with the wall-mounted height speakers angled toward the listening position. I am not only talking about Yamaha's famed "presence" configuration, or the Dolby PLiix or iiz configuration. The high-wall configuration is an option in all of the manuals I have read, along with the in-ceiling and Atmos-Enabled speaker options. As a matter of fact, four of the most acclaimed of the "Top Picks" of receivers by S&V magazine- Yamaha RX-A3060, Onkyo TX-RZ1100, Marantz SR7011, Denon AVR-X7200W - all include this speaker configuration option in their user manuals.
Hey, if these companies are wrong, then perhaps Dolby should point that out to them and tell them to cease telling people this is an option. And perhaps, if this is wrong, S&V should point it out in their reviews of said products. Oh, and here is a quote from the user manual of the aforementioned Denon receiver about the Front Presence speakers:

"Place the FRONT HEIGHT left and right speakers
directly above the front speakers. Mount them as
close to the ceiling as possible and aim them
towards the main listening position."

dommyluc's picture

I did not mean to write "Front Presence" in the last sentence before the quote from the Denon receiver user manual. I meant to say "Front Height".
Saying "Front Presence" gives the impression I am talking about a Yamaha receiver. Sorry.

walt0291's picture

Sorry if my first message came off sounding like a jerk, I'm a pretty black/white person.

I have the Anthem 1120 (truthfully more than I wanted to spend, but it was the only 7.4.1 receiver available when I finished my basement) and it only included the in-ceiling and height module setups. I checked the manuals for Denon, Marantz, and Onkyo and saw the possible setups in there and was surprised since it didn't match what Dolby recommends. The interesting tidbit that I found in the Onkyo manual about the height speakers being directly above front/rear channels vs. in-ceiling was that next to the in-ceiling setup they indicated that Dolby recommends the in-ceiling installation for "best Dolby Atmos effect."

All that said, I can completely understand people not wanting to install in-ceiling speakers and that every room requires compromises. I had to bring my height speakers a few feet in from my front channels due to a soffit for the ventilation ductwork so my room isn't technically an Atmos setup but still sounds great. Mounting bookshelves next to the ceiling will definitely be better than no height channels but I would advise going in-ceiling if you can when you upgrade. Either way, it'll sound fantastic in the end!

dommyluc's picture

Oh, no! I didn't think you sounded like a jerk at all. I am sorry if my response gave you that impression. You were just stating your case from your personal experience. I'm really glad you were able to get the Anthem, even though you had to spend more money than you wanted to, but I'll bet the enjoyment alleviates the financial pain a little, doesn't it? LOL!
And you are absolutely right about installing in-ceiling speakers as the best way to go. But, we both live in the real world, and it seems sometimes that a lot of electronics companies, and Dolby Labs, live in a fantasy world where everyone can have the optimum room for the recommended home theater experience. Home theater nuts (let's face it - we ARE nuts!) who live in an apartment can't start cutting holes in the landlord's ceiling so they can hear spaceship flyovers in Atmos surround, and many homeowners who can install ceiling speakers do not have the knowledge to install them - or the money to hire someone to do it for them. So the option of speakers mounted on the walls as close to the ceiling as possible makes sense for them and, as you said, having front or front and rear Atmos speakers mounted close to the ceiling on the walls is better than no Atmos sound at all. You would think Dolby would have an option for that, wouldn't you? Oh, well. Maybe some kind of firmware update in the future. Who knows?
Personally, I can't have a system with 4 Atmos height speakers because of the kind of living room I have, in which I have to mount my side surrounds up fairly high, and have a side entry door and a closet in the back of the room, so I would be limited to a 5.2.1 system - which I would gladly be satisfied with if I had the money. LOL!
One more thing: I have always enjoyed listening to my music (which I ripped to my hard drive in WAV format and stream to my Onkyo receiver via wired Ethernet connection) using Dolby Pro-Logic IIx Music Mode, which I think is one of the few really good surround processes for music which sounds natural on all types of music. How does Atmos up-conversion sound with music? It would seem that recordings from great halls with a lot of ambience would sound incredible (like many of the classic RCA Living Stereo recordings), and live rock concerts would be enveloping. I was just curious if you ever use that mode. Thanks.

walt0291's picture

So, previous to today all of my listening in the atmos setup had consisted of movies or TV shows and I hadn't busted out any concert blurays. I watched he'd part of Led Zeppelin's Celebration Day and the overheads with the crowd noise was just fantastic!

I don't usually listen to music in surround sound can't comment on that, my wife and I really enjoy listening to music in 2 channels for the most part.

Atmos receivers that can handle 5.1.2 have really come down in price lately so the upgrade isn't as cost prohibitive as it was a few years ago. The Sony DN1080 is $600 and reviews are overwhelmingly positive.

Agreed that we are all nuts with how much time we put into this, but worth it. And cutting into a landlord's ceiling really is only limited by how good you are at patching drywall ;)

Tommy Lee's picture

Surface-mounting bookshelf speakers on the ceiling will certainly work, but I think the visual distraction factor would be a problem in many installations...according to my wife! You would also need to mount them very, very securely.

utopianemo's picture

The other "duh" thing to consider is that you need to start with an Atmos-capable receiver. I would think it not worth mentioning, but Wendell sounds like he's just finding out about the format.

As to the idea of mounting bookshelf speakers high, I have heard a from a sizeable number of people who've done just that and had very good results. I went the in-ceiling route, but the bookshelf idea is worth researching.

Joey Digital's picture

An Atmos AV receiver IS NOT necessary, if you have one of the new OLED TVs that have onboard Dolby Atmos decoders. You can connect one of these type OLED TVs to ANY existing 5.1 or 7.1 home surround theater system (with the addition of the ceiling or upward firing speakers, to make them a x.x.4 configuration), and you have a ground root Dolby Atmos system!