Can I Build a Dolby Atmos Theater Using All In-Ceiling Speakers?

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Q I am new to the world of home theater, but I’m building a house soon and want to plan for the possibility of a home theater setup. I like the idea of having in-ceiling speakers running the surround sound. Is it possible to set up a Dolby Atmos system that exclusively uses in-ceiling speakers?—Jonathan Huizingh / via e-mail

A Yes, but to be honest, that strategy is not recommended anywhere in Dolby’s literature for home Atmos installations. For Atmos, the height speakers (either in-ceiling or Dolby-enabled models) are meant to extend the sound coming from the main (ear-level) speakers, as well as convey vertical effects such as rain falling or helicopters flying overhead. Dolby has even created a naming system for Atmos layouts that specifies the number of main speakers plus subwoofers and height speakers: 5.1.4 (five main speakers, one subwoofer, four height speakers) or 7.1.2 (seven main speakers, one subwoofer, two height speakers).

Of course, home theater installations that use all in-ceiling speakers are fairly common; I’ve experienced a number of them that conveyed an effective surround-sound experience. If you do go that route, I’m sure you’ll probably be happy with what you get. Just don’t expect it to necessarily deliver the goods with Atmos-encoded soundtracks.

HomerTheater's picture

As mentioned in the reply, Atmos requires "ear level" and "height" speakers. So the right answer to the original question is NO, you cannot create an Atmos theater system with "exclusively uses in-ceiling speakers". It should also be pointed out that speakers aimed down mean all the sound you hear (except directly overhead) comes from very far off-axis and is among the worst sound you can get from speakers. Speakers aimed towards the listeners sound better (everything else being equal). In addition, speakers mounded on large surfaces like ceilings and walls don't (again, everything else being equal) sound as good as similar free-standing speakers. So speakers aimed strait down AND mounted in a large flat surface have 2 sonic "strikes" against them compared to conventional individual loudspeakers. But for some people the desire to have sound sources "hidden" sound will outweigh the sound not being as good as it could be. Then there's the issue of Dolby Atmos movie soundtracks (on Blu-ray) not really adding much to the movie experience (I have been using Atmos and Auro 3-D equipment for a year) and Dolby Surround, even though it converts conventional soundtracks so that there is some sound in the height speakers is so "low key" in it's action that it also barely adds to the movie experience. Dolby made a tactical error not having a Dolby Surround surround setting that allows users to add more (or remove more) sound from the height channels so that there is some adjustment for different rooms and systems. As it exists today in Atmos equipment I've used, there is no adjustment for Dolby Surround or Atmos so results of having height speakers is pretty underwhelming. Auro-3D movies on Blu-ray are almost non-existent so far, but AuroMatic produces a convincingly realistic effect when it adds height channels to conventional 5.1 and 7.1 soundtracks as well as converting stereo to surround + height very convincingly.

Brian_PDX's picture

Speakers should be at ear level when you are seated, excepting perhaps subwoofers. In a 5.1-7.2 system you can get away with in ceiling speakers on the side or rear channels but it is far from ideal. Unless it is "Apocalypse Now" you are enjoying with the chopper blades coming from above most will prefer the speakers set at seated ear levels. Also, some will disagree, but in-wall or in-ceiling speakers have not reached the quality of free standing speakers. Audio sales folks love in-wall or ceiling speakers because it is easier to sell to the wife especially. Another reason to stay single.

Brian_PDX's picture

I am not sold on this whole Atmos stuff either.