Dolby Atmos – the leading immersive surround sound format – debuted in movie theaters back in 2012 with Disney/Pixar’s “Brave.” Atmos was the first sound format to include height speakers in the mix so the sound comes from not just all around, but above you as well. It didn’t take long before the format made it to the home in A/V receivers, A/V processors and speakers. And not long after that, Dolby Atmos processing started appearing in soundbars as well.
As the content library grew, the format also found purchase in the most popular video streaming services such as Netflix, HBO Max, Amazon Prime and Apple TV+. Now you can find Dolby Atmos sound in hundreds of movies and TV shows so you can enjoy that 3D immersive surround sound experience at home.
More recently, Dolby Atmos has found favor in the music industry. You can hear Dolby Atmos music mixes today not just on big budget new releases from major artists but also in back catalog releases, even as far back as albums from the 1940s and 1950s. Artists, producers and recording engineers are going back to original master tapes and remixing recent and classic studio recordings to take advantage of the new multidimensional capabilities of the format. Dolby Atmos can breathe new life into old recordings, making your favorite tunes even more enjoyable.
Is This Just Another Scam to Make Me Buy the Beatles’ White Album Again?
Some think immersive music is just the latest fad, designed to sell more records and more gear or to enrich Dolby’s license revenue coffers. “I tried that Quadrophonic Sound back in 1974, and I didn’t like it. Now get off my lawn!” And while those are clearly valid points, there does seem to be a significant amount of consumer interest in immersive sound for music today, and a great deal of artist and label support behind it.
As a point of reference, one intrepid soul (former Microsoft executive Robert Scoble) has been compiling Dolby Atmos playlists on Amazon Music and Apple Music. One of his lists is a comprehensive playlist of all Dolby Atmos encoded tracks on Apple Music: as of October 2022, it currently includes over 60,000 tracks. That’s a lot of material, across a wide selection of genres. So yeah, this is clearly a thing. And while you can get a hint of that immersive effect from headphones (to a certain extent), you’ll enjoy it much more through speakers and we’re here to tell you how to get there.
Here’s What You’re Gonna Need:
To take advantage of this new wave of multi-dimensional music at home you’ll need three things:
- A music streaming service (and subscription) that supports Dolby Atmos
- A playback device that supports Dolby Atmos in your chosen music service
- A receiver and speakers or a soundbar that supports Dolby Atmos
Streaming Services that Support Dolby Atmos
As of December 2022, three services support Dolby Atmos: Apple Music, TIDAL and Amazon Music. Apple Music supports Dolby Atmos immersive sound in its basic tier, which is currently $9.99/month for an individual subscription. TIDAL requires the Hi-Fi Plus tier for Dolby Atmos, which currently costs $19.99/month. Amazon Music requires the “Unlimited” tier which costs $8.99/month (or $89/year) for Amazon Prime members or $9.99/month for customers who don’t have Prime.
All of the services currently include thousands of tracks in Dolby Atmos, but they vary significantly in how easy or hard it is to play back these songs through home speaker systems. Some services play nicely with third party gear, and some definitely do not.
Dolby Atmos Music on Amazon Music
At the moment, Amazon’s implementation of Dolby Atmos is the most restrictive. If you want to play back songs in Dolby Atmos from Amazon Music over speakers, you either need to use the Amazon Echo Studio speaker (which is a one-piece speaker that bounces sound in all directions to simulate Dolby Atmos) or you can use the Sonos ARC, Sonos Arc XL or Sonos Beam (Gen 2) sound bars. That’s it.
There are no other options for Dolby Atmos on home speakers using Amazon Music. You can listen to Dolby Atmos music on headphones using the Android or iOS Amazon Music app, but not through speakers.
At some point we expect that Amazon’s own streaming devices, the Amazon FireTV Stick and Amazon FireTV Cube, will be updated to support Dolby Atmos in Amazon Music. These devices already support Dolby Atmos from the major video streaming services and from TIDAL, so we are hoping all that is needed is a software update to the Amazon Music app in FireTV that will support Dolby Atmos from Amazon Music. We also expect that the Amazon Music app for Android TV and for Apple TV will be updated to support Dolby Atmos on streaming devices like the Apple TV 4K or NVidia Shield, but as of December 2022, we’re not there yet.
Dolby Atmos Immersive Sound on Apple Music
Apple Music’s Dolby Atmos titles are included as part of the larger “spatial audio” umbrella. Apple Music is a little better than Amazon when it comes to support for Dolby Atmos over home speakers. And by better I mean there is one device that supports Dolby Atmos sound from Apple Music and allows you to play it over any compatible soundbar or speaker system: the Apple TV 4K streaming box. Both the 2021 and 2022 versions of the Apple TV 4K box support Dolby Atmos from multiple video streaming sources: Apple TV+, Netflix, HBO Max and Amazon Prime Video (to name a few). They also support Dolby Atmos music from both Apple Music and from TIDAL. We’ve tested this in-house and can confirm.
The setting to enable Dolby Atmos output is set automatically on the Apple TV 4K box based on its HDMI handshake with your TV or receiver. When I connected the box to my Denon AVR-S760H receiver via HDMI cable, I got the Dolby Atmos logo immediately when listening to Dolby Atmos tracks on Apple Music or in TIDAL. So the Apple TV is currently the best streaming box to buy if you’re interested in playing back Dolby Atmos music tracks over your home speaker system from both Apple Music and TIDAL.
Dolby Atmos Immersive Music in TIDAL
TIDAL currently offers the most options for Dolby Atmos playback to home speakers. TIDAL prides itself on being the “audiophile-friendly” music streaming service. So in addition to Dolby Atmos, TIDAL also supports the MQA (Master Quality Authenticated) high resolution audio format for true master tape quality music playback in two channels or in surround sound. TIDAL supports Dolby Atmos output in two ways: the native TIDAL App available on many streaming devices and platforms and TIDAL Connect.
TIDAL has native apps for the Android TV, WebOS (LG TVs), Apple TV and Amazon Fire TV platforms. All of these platforms support Dolby Atmos output from TIDAL on compatible devices. Not all devices on each platform support Dolby Atmos but we can confirm a few that do.
For Android TV we can confirm that the NVidia Shield can output Dolby Atmos on TIDAL. The TIDAL App on Amazon FireTV supports Dolby Atmos on the company’s FireTV Stick 4K, FireTV Stick 4K Max, FireTV Stick Gen 3, and FireTV Cube. If you’ve got an AppleTV 4K box, you can use the TIDAL app on that device to pass Dolby Atmos to a compatible soundbar or receiver and speakers. And if you have an LG Smart TV made in or after 2018, the TIDAL App on those TVs supports Dolby Atmos output. As of October 2022, Dolby Atmos content from TIDAL is not supported on any Roku stick, Roku streaming box or Roku TV.
Whichever device you use to play back TIDAL in Dolby Atmos, you may need to enable Dolby Atmos in the setup menu. Check the audio settings in your particular source device to make sure Dolby Atmos is enabled and that both HDMI CEC and HDMI ARC are both enabled (where necessary). This is normally only required if you are connecting your TV to a soundbar or receiver using HDMI ARC (Audio Return Channel) or eARC (enhanced Audio Return Channel).
TIDAL Connect is a little different. It’s a way to link the TIDAL app on your phone or tablet directly to an amplifier, streaming device or powered speakers. TIDAL Connect supports high end components from companies such as NAD, Bluesound, Lyngdorf and others. With TIDAL Connect, you use the TIDAL app on your phone to select music tracks, but then the music itself is delivered directly to that device from the TIDAL servers in the cloud. The music stream does not have to pass through your phone on the way down. Your phone is basically just the “remote control” which selects which TIDAL tracks or playlists are sent directly to the playback device. In some cases, the DTS “PlayFi” app is actually used to deliver the TIDAL content to the playback device. And yes, DTS PlayFi can deliver content in Dolby Atmos format (cats and dogs living together… it’s a strange, strange world).
For the curious, TIDAL maintains a page with details about device compatibility. Use the filters to see which devices are supported for Dolby Atmos playback, for TIDAL Connect or for both.
Where the Magic Happens: The Speakers
After you’ve selected your music streaming service, and confirmed that your source device supports TIDAL’s Dolby Atmos output, then you’ll need speakers to play back that sweet multi-channel music. The main options here are a powered soundbar or a component surround sound system comprised of a receiver and speakers or a preamp, amp and speakers.
For best results, we recommend going with a discrete speaker system that has at least 5.1.2 channels: five speakers at or near ear level for traditional surround sound, one or more powered subwoofers for low bass reproduction and two or more height channels. Some speakers and soundbars actually include the three front speakers (front left, center and front right) as well as up-firing Dolby Atmos height speakers in a single cabinet that sits below your TV. This can make things much simpler as far as set-up goes. Then you only need to add rear speakers and a powered subwoofer to complete the system. We do not recommend “virtual” soundbars that simulate all of the surround sound channels in a single small bar as these won’t give you the full immersive effect of Dolby Atmos.
Whichever speaker system or receiver you choose to use for Dolby Atmos absolutely requires an HDMI input. You can’t pass Dolby Atmos over a fiber optic cable or a regular stereo analog audio cable. Use the apps built into your TV or plug in a compatible streaming box like the Apple TV, FireTV Stick or NVidia Shield to one of your TV’s HDMI ports and attach the HDMI port labeled ARC or eARC on the TV into the corresponding HDMI port on your sound bar or receiver.
Again, be sure that the TV’s HDMI-CEC or HDMI Control functions are turned on in the TV’s settings menu and that HDMI ARC or eARC sound output is enabled in the TV’s audio settings menu. This is not always automatic.
There are quite a few soundbars on the market that support Dolby Atmos. Again, look for one that has a real (discrete) 5.1.2 channel configuration at a minimum. 5.1.4, 7.1.2 and 7.1.4 would be even better choices. One popular soundbar for Dolby Atmos is the Sonos ARC. It has upward-firing speakers built into the bar to handle those height channels for Dolby Atmos. For a 5.1.2-channel system using the Sonos ARC, you’ll need to add a Sonos Subwoofer and a pair of Sonos One SL speakers for the rear channels. Other Dolby Atmos capable sound bars are available from Samsung, Sony, VIZIO and others.
One benefit that the Sonos ARC currently has over any other option (as of October 2022) is that it and its cheaper little brother the Sonos Beam Gen 2 are the only soundbars that currently support Dolby Atmos Music from Amazon Music. But the Sonos Beam lacks upward-firing speakers, so we don’t recommend it for Dolby Atmos. Combine the Sonos Arc with an Apple TV 4K streaming box plugged into your TV and you can enjoy Dolby Atmos music from Amazon Music, Apple Music and TIDAL, all through the same soundbar system. That’s a lot of choices.
Crank Your Dolby Atmos Music to Eleven with a Receiver and Speakers
While a soundbar-based system can get the job done for Dolby Atmos, a receiver and separate speakers can provide higher performance and greater flexibility, sometimes for less money. An Audio/Video Receiver (AVR) offers more inputs, more speaker configuration options and more upgradeability than a soundbar. Also, if you’re a fan of vinyl records, many receivers have phono inputs which allow them to work with any turntable. They also have built-in tuners in case you want to listen to local radio stations. You don’t normally have these options with a soundbar.
Dolby Atmos-capable receivers are available from companies such as Denon, Marantz, Onkyo, Yamaha and Sony (among others). Starting prices for Dolby Atmos compatible receivers start at about $500. Just like with soundbars look for a receiver that supports at least 5.1.2 channels: five surround speakers, one powered subwoofer and two height channels. This speaker configuration can give you a fully immersive surround soundstage in small to medium-sized rooms. A Dolby Atmos receiver that supports 5.1.2 surround will frequently be labeled as “7.1” or “7.2” – this means it has seven on-board amplifiers, plus one or two subwoofer outputs.
If you’re planning to use the system in a larger room, or just want to get even more immersive surround, then consider going with a 5.1.4, or even 7.1.4 channel system. Yes, it really can go to 11: eleven speakers plus a subwoofer. OK, that’s actually twelve. Which is even better than eleven. Because it’s more.
As far as which speakers to buy, you can either buy a packaged 5.1.2 or 5.1.4 channel system that comes with all the speakers you need (just add wire) or you can build a component system by mixing and matching different speakers together. We always recommend staying with a single brand of speakers for your entire system. More specifically, stay within a particular line within that brand. You want to make sure the drivers and voicing of all speakers is similar throughout your system.
This is to maintain the same tonal balance all over your room. Otherwise, a motorcycle traveling around your room may transform from a Harley to a Honda to a Vespa scooter as it moves from side to center to the back of your room, through your various speakers. And no one wants that. Tonal consistency is even more important with music as you want the instruments to maintain their characteristic sound when they appear in or move to different areas of the room.
Things are Looking Up!
For Dolby Atmos immersive sound to work well, you do need sound to come from above, but this doesn’t necessarily mean you need to install physical speakers in your ceiling. As with soundbars, there are several speaker options which use up-firing drivers to bounce sound off the ceiling so the sound comes from above your head. For these so-called “elevation modules” or Dolby Atmos-enabled speakers to work, it’s best to have a flat reflective ceiling that isn’t too high. Sound reflects well off painted sheetrock or similar smooth construction, but not as well off textured or “popcorn” type ceilings.
Ceilings up to about 12 feet in height can work well with reflective speakers. If you’ve got vaulted ceilings, very high ceilings or textured ceilings then you’ll be better off with in-ceiling or on-ceiling speakers. If your ceilings are really high, then consider height speakers mounted on brackets high on the front and rear walls aimed down toward the listeners or even artistically designed pendant speakers that hang down from above.
Dolby Atmos 5.1.2 speaker packages are available from companies such as Klipsch, Polk, Monoprice, Focal, Monitor Audio and others. These bundles typically include upward-firing height modules which are either built into the front left and right speakers or come as separate small add-on speakers that sit on top of your front left and right speakers. 5.1.4-channel bundles are similar, with upward-firing height channels on both the front and rear speakers. If you want to do a 5.1.4 setup, make sure your receiver supports it. It will need to have nine built in amplifier channels in order to support a 5.1.4 channel Dolby Atmos configuration.
Upgrade Your Existing Rig
If you already own a 5.1 or 7.1 channel speaker set-up and want to add height channels, you can either do that with Dolby Atmos enabled height modules or with in-ceiling speakers. Again, if possible, use height speakers from the same brand, preferably using the same types of drivers, for sonic consistency. Also, before buying new speakers, make sure your existing receiver supports Dolby Atmos, with at least 7 amplifier channels. Or just buy a new receiver that does. After all, it’s only money. You can’t take it with you. Unless you get a really large coffin.
Sit Back, Relax and Enjoy the Magical Multi-Channel Musical Experience
Once you’ve got everything connected, get into your music streaming app and do a search for “Dolby Atmos.” You should find a number of artists, albums and playlists from which to choose. Hit play, look for that Dolby Atmos logo to appear, and rediscover your favorite music all over again.
Have you discovered a new or different way of playing Dolby Atmos music on home speakers? Let us know in the comments.
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