Skip to main content

What is Dolby Atmos and How It Compares to Surround Sound

Last updated: 6 months ago
8 min read

Dolby Atmos is a surround sound format (true & virtual) that utilizes object-based audio and additional height speakers to provide a more realistic 3D listening experience.

The object-based audio encoding also helps Dolby Atmos to work with almost all headphones and audio sources, not just Dolby-supported.

Learn:

  • How Dolby Atmos works in general and in headphones
  • How it compares to 5.1 or 7.1 home theater systems
Dolby Atmos surround sound illustration transformed
CONTENTS (show more)

    KEY TAKEAWAY

    • Dolby Atmos is a spatial audio format that adds a height dimension and treats each sound as individual audio objects in virtual 3D space.
    • Dolby Atmos is mainly supported in movies and series on Blu-Ray and most video streaming services.
    • Compared to traditional surround sound format, which only places the sounds around you from left to right, Dolby Atmos also adds sounds above you.
    • Dolby Audio only boosts dialog and effects, but not nearly as precise as Dolby Atmos (given that you’re watching supported content).
    • Dolby Atmos designates the location of each sound in 3D space using metadata, which ensures a similar surround effect regardless of the number of speakers in your system.
    • Using Dolby Atmos for movies provides a genuinely theater-like experience with boosted dialogs, loud effects, and a better sense of space. However, it’s a bit lackluster for gaming and music.

    What is Dolby Atmos?

    Dolby Atmos is a spatial audio format (or software) developed by Dolby Laboratories. It offers a more immersive audio experience over standard surround systems by adding additional height speakers.

    It can utilize a maximum of 64 channels for movie theaters or 34 channels for home theater setups. The key feature Dolby Atmos brings to the table is height speakers and object-based audio. More on that later.

    Technology is divided into 2 versions:

    • Real Dolby Atmos is designed to work with multiple physical speakers in a room, overhead speakers included.
    • Virtual Dolby Atmos is designed to work with headphones and other devices that don’t have physical Atmos height speakers.

    Dolby Atmos comes encoded in different codecs depending on its purpose:

    • Dolby Digital Plus: Lossy and compressed codec suitable for streaming services that require storing files in smaller sizes.
    • Dolby TrueHD: Lossless, possibly uncompressed, primarily found in movies on Blu-Ray discs.
    • Dolby MAT (or metadata-enhanced audio transmission): Codec that integrates Atmos metadata into regular stereo audio on supported devices to provide Atmos effects, primarily works between Xbox consoles and Apple TV 4k and supported TVs and soundbars.
    Man watching TV with soundbar
    Atmos-certified soundbars can give you a taste of what the technology is capable of. Credit: Matoo Studio

    There are other virtual surround sounds: Read about Dolby Atmos alternatives:

    Where to get Dolby Atmos?

    You can get Dolby Atmos mixed in movies and music that comply with the Atmos standard.

    Regarding video content, you can either purchase Blu-Ray discs that support Atmos or use the following video streaming platforms:

    On the other hand, you can find Dolby Atmos music support on the following streaming platforms:

    Note that the (current) selection of supported music is scarce.

    Dolby Atmos is also used in some popular video games. To enjoy the Atmos experience, you must use the Dolby Access app on your computer device.

    It offers a 7-day trial period, after which you need to pay $18 to continue using it.

    Dolby Access app
    You get different sound presets for gaming, movies, and music.

    How does Dolby Atmos compare to traditional surround sound?

    Dolby Atmos is different from traditional surround systems by:

    • Adding height dimension (speakers or sounds that come from above), whereas traditional surround sound technology only plays sound around you in a circle.
    • Utilizing object-based audio rather than channel-based from traditional setups.
    • Because sound is object-based, it can easily scale from 2-speaker setups to 64-speaker setups, whereas 5.1 or 7.1 mixes require that exact number of speakers to work.

    Dolby Audio vs. Dolby Atmos

    Dolby Atmos technology utilizes advanced processing and multiple channels to create a more realistic listening experience.

    In contrast, Dolby Audio is more of an audio processing tech that takes any audio signal and boosts specific parts to amplify the cinematic experience, like dialog and quieter details.

    Dolby Audio is usually found in AVR (audio-visual receivers) or TV soundbars, but it doesn’t equal Dolby Atmos.

    Here’s a quick overview table of the differences between Dolby Audio and Dolby Atmos:

    Dolby AudioDolby Atmos
    What is it?Audio processing
    software
    Surround sound
    audio format
    What kind of
    audio system
    it needs?
    Runs on stereo
    speaker layouts
    Runs on up to
    64 speakers
    (or 2, if used
    in headphones)
    What is does?It boosts audio
    clarity, not quality
    It boosts audio
    clarity, not quality
    Are improvements
    noticeable?
    It slightly boosts
    immersion
    It noticeably
    boosts immersion

    Dolby Audio

    • An audio processing software that boosts dialog and effects in movies and music.
    • Runs primarily on stereo speaker layouts like TV soundbars.
    • It boosts audio clarity but not quality.
    • It boosts immersion slightly, but not much.

    Dolby Atmos

    • A surround sound audio format (but it can also process non-Atmos content) that boosts dialog and effects in movies and music.
    • Runs on up to 64 speakers down to 2 speakers (in the case of headphones).
    • It boosts audio clarity but not quality.
    • It noticeably boosts immersion when watching video content.

    Dolby Atmos vs. 5.1 & 7.1 Surround Sound

    True surround sound home theater systems like 5.1 & 7.1 are nothing new. All you need is 5 or 7 speakers and a subwoofer, and an AV receiver to connect to.

    However, ever since the introduction of Dolby Atmos in 2012, the industry has shifted towards the new standard, which adds at least 2 new speakers for down-firing audio.

    Here are the main differences between Dolby Atmos and a 7.1 surround sound system.

    Dolby Atmos7.1 surround
    sound system
    Uses up to 34 channels
    (10 are height speakers)
    + subwoofer
    Uses 7 speakers
    + subwoofer
    arrangement
    Object-basedChannel-based
    Pans the sound around
    and above you
    Pans the sound
    around you in
    a circle
    (Currently) the most
    immersive listening
    experience
    Provides great
    immersion

    7.1 surround sound system

    • Uses a standard surround sound speaker layout around you
    • Is channel-based
    • Up to 7 channels + subwoofer
    • Can pan the sound around you in a circle
    • It offers excellent immersion but not as good as Atmos

    Dolby Atmos

    • Uses a standard surround sound speaker layout around you but adds extra speakers (at least 2) to the ceiling (or to reflect the sound from the ceiling)
    • Is object-based
    • Up to 34 channels (10 are height speakers) + subwoofer
    • Can pan the sound around and above you
    • It’s currently the most immersive and widely used surround sound (rivaling DTS-X)

    What about Dolby Atmos and virtual surround sound for headphones?

    When it comes to headphones, Dolby Atmos is slightly more limited because it can’t rely on height directional sound. That said, you can still expect an excellent cinematic sound when enabling it with Dolby Access.

    However, the main difference between Dolby Atmos for headphones and virtual surround sound is in overall sound quality.

    • Virtual surround sound takes a stereo track and tries to amplify the size of the soundstage. However, in most cases, the result is a muted sound with blurry details.
    • Dolby Atmos for headphones instead boosts dialog and effects and make for a more immersive sound while retaining the overall audio quality. The soundstage is only marginally improved, and only with content that supports Dolby Atmos format.
    CORSAIR HS80 RGB WIRELESS with Atmos
    Some gaming headsets like Corsair HS80 RGB Wireless support Dolby Atmos content via PC.

    What Does Dolby Atmos Do?

    Dolby Atmos audio helps to create a truly cinematic, theater-like experience. In headphones, the dialog gets louder and clearer, and specific sounds that are otherwise quiet become more apparent.

    Two significant features come with Atmos. First is the object-based audio, and second is adding the height dimension to the sound.

    Let’s first discuss the difference between channel-based and object-based audio.

    Channel-based audio

    Standard channel-based audio determines what sounds are played in which channels. As a result, different audio mixes are needed for different audio systems if you want the best experience.

    Object-based audio

    In contrast, with object-based audio, each sound stores audio data (metadata) about its location (provided by the audio engineer when mixing).

    Dolby Presents: "Universe" | Trailer | Dolby

    Your AVR receiver takes that info and the number of speakers you have in your Dolby Atmos system and determines which channels need to play that sound. That happens in the OAR (object audio renderer).

    Therefore, Dolby Atmos can easily scale depending on the number of speakers in your system, from 34 channels to only 2 (like in headphones). Of course, you still get the best experience with multichannel setups.

    For headphones, the object-based audio can also feel more immersive when combined with head-tracking technology.

    Using Dolby Atmos, a sound designer can determine the location of 118 different sounds or tracks.

    Height channels

    Height channels add another dimension to whatever you’re watching or listening to. Instead of only hearing sounds from the center and left to right, you also get an overhead sound.

    For that, you need a dedicated set of Dolby Atmos-enabled speakers that fire from the ceiling or into it, which later reflects back to you. You can learn more about speaker configurations in the official installation guidelines.

    Unfortunately, headphones can’t take advantage of that, even if they’re Dolby Atmos certified.

    Dolby Atmos speaker arrangement
    The left image shows the 5.1.4 Dolby Atmos installation, while the right image shows the 24.1.10 configuration.

    How does Dolby Atmos for headphones work?

    Since headphones only have 2 channels, left and right, Dolby Atmos has to resort to virtual surround sound territory of signal processing.

    It still uses metadata from sounds to know their location but also tweaks the overall sound to artificially boost the soundstage a bit.

    However, the effect is less noticeable than with a proper room speaker setup.

    Is Dolby Atmos Good?

    For headphones, Dolby Atmos works well compared to other surround software. And the best thing is that you don’t need any special headphones for it to do its thing.

    Here we made a comparison of Windows Sonic, DTS Headphone:X, and Dolby Atmos.

    Dolby Atmos for movies

    Watching Atmos-supported content:

    For example, in Netflix’s “Fubar” opening scene, Arnold Schwarzenegger walks through a sewer with water droplets falling from the ceiling.

    While those droplets are normally quiet, enabling Dolby Atmos made them more audible, amplifying the echo in the sewer, which provides the sense of how big the sewer is.

    Netflix content
    Netflix has had Dolby Atmos support since 2017.

    Watching non-Atmos content:

    Viewing Christopher Nolan’s “Tenet” and enabling Dolby Atmos mainly boosts the dialog. However, effects and sounds that would typically be piercingly loud, like explosions and gunshots, were as loud as without Atmos.

    When it comes to room speakers, though, the more you have them, the better the effect will be. However, if you already have a 7.1 system at home, upgrading doesn’t make that much sense.

    Overall, we recommend purchasing a Dolby Atmos license for watching movies and shows.

    Spatial audio movie watching
    Dolby Atmos truly immerses you in onscreen action.

    Dolby Atmos for gaming

    Videogames are another example where Dolby Atmos can shine, especially if you’re a fan of big, bass-heavy explosions. In short:

    • Explosions sound bigger and more impactful, with more bass rumble.
    • Gunshots also feel more impactful, maybe even too bassy for some people.
    • Imaging or directionality is more accurate than without Atmos enabled, so you can hear more accurately where the sounds are coming from (conversations, opponents, etc.)
    • The soundstage gets bigger but not so much it would sound like people are speaking in a hall.
    • Tiny details are amplified, so you can hear pretty much any noise (crushing dynamics in favor of enjoyment).

    Overall, we recommend purchasing a Dolby Atmos license for gaming.

    Spatial Audio Dolby Atmos recommended

    Dolby Atmos for music

    Atmos-mixed music is a mixed bag. There might be some benefits, but we haven’t noticed them.

    We tested Dolby Atmos for headphones with a song found on Dolby’s website (that should showcase the capabilities of Atmos). There was a night/day difference when switching between Atmos OFF and ON.

    However, listening to the same song on YouTube without Atmos sounded just like or even better than on Dolby’s website with Atmos.

    Consequently, we can’t recommend purchasing a Dolby Atmos license just for music.

    Is Dolby Atmos good for VR?

    Dolby Atmos is definitely good for VR. The idea of using VR goggles is to immerse yourself in whatever you’re watching. Enabling Atmos additionally amplifies the immersion of sounds floating around you.

    Is Dolby Atmos good for video games?

    This, on the other hand, is a debatable topic. If the game is mixed for Dolby Atmos, you might experience some sound benefits. However, only a few offer an Atmos mix.

    Forcing Atmos to non-supported titles was met with mixed reception, especially in games where accurate directional sound is essential. In that case, using regular stereo offers better results.

    Is Dolby Atmos good for music?

    Atmos-mixed music was also met with mixed reception, with many stating that it’s a gimmick. But that doesn’t mean there’s no potential. Some sound designers have big ideas on how to wrap a listener in a song.

    Apple Music Dolby Atmos mix
    Some songs and albums on Apple Music are mixed in Dolby Atmos. Image credit: James Yarema

    However, the biggest issue is the compatibility. Few have Atmos-compatible home theater systems, and the effect is different with headphones, where most people listen to their music.

    Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)

    Does Dolby Atmos sound better?

    Whether Dolby Atmos sound better is a personal preference, but for supported movies, it does boost immersion. On the flip side, it can make games and music sound worse by masking details.

    Is Dolby Atmos better than 7.1 surround sound?

    Dolby Atmos is better than 7.1 surround sound, as it provides better immersion and directional sound. You can hook up to 34 channels (for home theater) and additional height or ceiling speakers, letting you hear sounds from above.

    How many speakers are needed for Dolby Atmos?

    You need at least 8 Dolby Atmos speakers to experience Dolby Atmos: 5 around you, 2 above, and one subwoofer.

    Do I need Dolby Atmos?

    Unless you’re a serious movie lover who wants complete immersion, you don’t need Dolby Atmos. You can try the Dolby Access app for 7 days and see if Atmos effects are worth pursuing.

    Conclusion

    Hopefully, we provided the answers you were looking for. Dolby Atmos can significantly enhance your movie-watching experience, increasing dynamics and creating a sense of sonic space around you—however, not so much for games and music.

    Furthermore, investing in an Atmos-compatible speaker system is costly, even if you only plan to buy Dolby Atmos soundbars. You can use headphones with the Dolby Access app, but the effect isn’t the same.

    Leave a comment

    Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *