Dolby Atmos Continues to Impress

Custom Theater and Audio's Atmos-equipped demo room.

A lot has been written over the past few months about Dolby’s new home theater surround format, Atmos. Virtually every receiver manufacturer and many speaker companies have embraced Atmos-capable systems, both with in-ceiling and Atmos-enabled module speakers.

One of the perks of working at a custom installation firm with a showroom is having a playground to install and experience the latest technologies firsthand before installing them into someone’s home. Our showroom’s main demo theater offered the perfect Atmos test bed with dimensions of roughly 17 x 24 feet, with a 10-foot-high drop tile ceiling that allowed for positioning of all the speakers perfectly to Dolby’s recommendations.

We made the Atmos upgrade this last Fall to include Marantz’s new AV7702 Atmos-equipped preamp along with adding a new five-channel Marantz amplifier to go along with our existing seven-channel amp. (Having 12 total amp channels means we still have one free channel available if Auro—the competing 3D sound format that includes a Voice of God channel placed directly over the listeners—catches on.) Completing the Atmos install were four new Definitive Technology DI-series in-ceiling speakers voiced to match our existing 7.1-channel Definitive Technology floorstanding speakers and bringing the demo room to a full 7.1.4 Atmos system.

Over the past several months, I’ve had many opportunities to demonstrate and listen to Dolby Atmos material, and I’ve watched virtually every Blu-ray Disc released with Atmos audio so far. While hundreds of Atmos-encoded films have been released theatrically, the Blu-ray rollout has been…slow. Available titles include Transformers: Age of Extinction, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Step Up All In, The Expendables 3, John Wick, On Any Sunday: The Next Chapter, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay—Part 1, Unbroken, and Gravity.

The Atmos renderer also does a terrific job creating ambience from non-Atmos-encoded titles without impacting dialogue clarity or sounding gimmicky.

Beyond Atmos Blu-rays, I’ve also watched a good bit of TV and movies, as well as listened to music with the Marantz’s Atmos renderer “upsampling” non-encoded content to the in-ceiling speakers. What continues to impress me is the precise localization of sounds—called audio objects in Atmos-speak—as they travel around the room. The Atmos renderer seems to do a far better job of moving sounds around the room, letting you precisely track and locate sounds as they relate to the onscreen action.

While audio mixers are showing some restraint with what is mixed up to the ceiling speakers—mainly reserving them for big action scenes or subtle atmospherics to create ambient space—those overhead speakers do a terrific job of immersing you in the audio and are used aggressively with a film’s music score. The Atmos renderer also does a terrific job creating ambience from non-Atmos-encoded titles without impacting dialogue clarity or sounding gimmicky. I imagine most people will leave the processing on for much of their listening as they do with Dolby Pro Logic II now on stereo content.

The best, most innovative and immersive Atmos mix I’ve heard to date is from Warner Brothers’ re-released Diamond Luxe Blu-ray edition of Gravity. For a movie that spends most of its time in the noiseless vacuum of space, Gravity shows off the full potential of Atmos and is a reference home theater demo disc in every way. The creative and aggressive mix uses the ceiling speakers extensively, doing a terrific job of floating and moving voices around the listener and shifting music and effects through all four in-ceiling speakers, matching the disorienting effect of floating out in space.

Much like the slow roll-out of Dolby Digital-encoded Laserdiscs back in the ’90s, Atmos is coming, and it is the future of home theater surround. And the future sounds awesome.

Triad Steve's picture

Like John, we at Triad Speakers have been very impressed with Atmos renderer's ability to present a natural and organic height element for most non-Atmos mixes. With only a dozen or so Atmos movies available at this time, Atmos' biggest value currently lies in how it improves the sound of most non-Atmos material.

On the other hand, the beginning of Unbroken in Atmos is pretty remarkable. You feel like you're on the bombing run (WWII Pacific), dodging bullets & flak.

Atmos defining characteristic is its ability to suck you into the movie. It makes it hard to will yourself out of "the suspension of disbelief". It's easy to see why filmmakers love it.

Steve Colburn
Triad Speakers

Peeter Berry's picture

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