I first encountered Dolby Atmos when I watched Spectre in 2015 at one of the first AMC locations in the country to feature a Dolby Cinema theater.
My primary intention was to see the much-touted Dolby Vision HDR dual laser projection in person, and a big glossy blockbuster seemed the perfect type of movie to experience it. But the sound was what left the biggest impression on me.
Bond movies aren’t known to skimp on production value, and their commitment to sound design is no exception. Nonetheless, I was blown away by how detailed the Dolby Atmos speaker system in that theater managed to add an extra bit of punch to every explosion while maintaining clarity in subtler effects. Even though Spectre itself was a disappointment, the presentation of the film was impressive enough that the Dolby Cinema experience quickly became my favorite way to watch blockbuster movies over IMAX digital.
Atmos has come a long way since then. A few years later, Atmos made its way to a handful of expensive consumer soundbars like the Sonos Arc, custom-installed AV receiver systems, and streaming devices to make home theater viewing just a bit closer to a traditional movie theater. This growth continued year after year with prices progressively dropping as quickly as new soundbars became available.
Today, Atmos is more table stakes than an elusive premium feature, with basically every mid-range soundbar on the market supporting the feature, and nearly every streaming service offering Atmos mixes for large portions of their libraries. It’s not an exaggeration to say you can easily build a home theater at any budget and still have Atmos as a part of your setup when Atmos soundbar systems sell for $330 or less now.
Input recently spoke with John Couling, SVP of Entertainment at Dolby, who oversees Dolby Vision and Atmos, about Dolby Atmos’ past, present, and future. According to Couling, Dolby doesn’t see an end to the mediums they can bring Atmos to as they test the limits of where the channel-free format can go. “We’re constantly trying to push the boundary of the innovation,” Couling tells me. As Dolby sees it, there’s yet to be a limit to where Atmos can go.
The accessible home theater
If you pay attention to the home theater space, you probably have noticed that soundbars that claim to offer “Dolby Atmos” despite having no physical height drivers to bounce sound off your ceiling have gained a lot of ground on store shelves recently. As someone who’s used a number of these “virtual Atmos” systems and also owns a Sonos Arc setup personally, what’s most impressed me is how quickly virtual Atmos has evolved from a gimmick to something I can actually recommend to people.
At the start, the Atmos soundbar decoder was intended for products with some way to physically bounce sound off the ceiling, either through speakers embedded in the ceiling, or dedicated drivers built into soundbars. “We were working on ways to expand the decoder, and a lot of that work came from working with partners who wanted to hit lower price points in new form factors.”
This approach does lead to the most accurate Atmos experience but it is also quite limited. Physical height drivers in a soundbar perform best in a room with flat ceilings that aren’t too high up, and the overall experience is best in closed-off rooms as opposed to a more open living room. Requiring dedicated height drivers also increases the cost of hardware, which is why Atmos was a premium feature for so long.
A guitar solo can be placed right down the center of the auditorium or dynamically flying around the room.
As manufacturers pushed to find ways to make Atmos soundbars cheaper and cheaper, Dolby worked to increase the scope of devices the soundbar decoder they license out can account for. Today, the decoder Dolby licensees can use in soundbars takes more configurations into account than ever, and, Couling says, Dolby is always working to tweak it for licensees with product goals in mind the decoder doesn’t currently account for.
The results speak for themselves. In my review of the Sonos Beam (Gen 2), a mid-range priced soundbar that relies entirely on virtualization to create Atmos effects, I found the soundbar to be highly capable of creating a convincing soundstage even compared to my Sonos Arc system. Products like the Beam (Gen 2) and even more affordable systems like TCL’s Alto 9+ and Vizio’s M-series soundbars are helping bring an Atmos experience to a broader audience while still delivering a relatively high-quality experience in the process. This isn’t to say that systems costing $800 or more don’t have a place anymore, they certainly do, but great experiences being available to more people is always a good thing.
Beyond the cinema
With Atmos firmly established in the film and TV space, Dolby has expanded efforts to more spaces where it feels the technology would be well suited.
Something Couling was excited about was Atmos’ push into live entertainment, both broadcast and in-person events.
Currently, the Premier League in the UK is broadcasting select games in Atmos and Dolby is working with other professional leagues and broadcasters around the world to increase the number of live Atmos broadcasts. Some parts of the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics were also broadcast in Atmos; you needed a provider capable of delivering it, though. If you’re watching these games live, the broadcaster can mix in the real crowd noise from the stadium much more realistically to add to the excitement of viewing a live game from home. While American broadcasters and leagues are always slow to adopt new technology (only one of the last four Super Bowls was broadcast in 4K for instance), it’s hard to not be eager to one day watch a Super Bowl or NBA Finals like this.
Dolby is also pushing to produce live concert events in Dolby Atmos as well, with the first such event to take place in June at the Dolby Live at Park MGM in Las Vegas with Aerosmith. Couling says the venue has been equipped with new speakers around the hall as well as an upgraded soundboard for the technician's booth.
“With most live events, the sound engineer is trying to create an even, mono experience in the space so everyone hears about the same thing no matter where they’re seated. With an Atmos concert venue, we’re giving the engineer much more control to play around with [instruments] in the space.”
Couling says that it’s possible now, for instance, for the sound of a guitar to move around the Dolby Live at Park MGM on the fly as the engineer needs it. A guitar solo can be placed right down the center of the auditorium or dynamically flying around the room with each chord shift if that’s what the band and sound team want. While Couling wouldn’t hint as to which venues are next to receive an Atmos upgrade, he seemed more than certain that the Dolby Live at Park MGM would not be the last.
Gaming is an area where Dolby Atmos makes a lot of sense but for various reasons, hasn’t quite established the same dominance it holds in traditional entertainment. Any spatial surround format, be it DTS:X, Sony’s Tempest 3D audio, or Dolby Atmos, is going to provide an improved gaming experience for headphones over traditional stereo, in the same way surround sound systems offered a better TV gaming experience with surround sound on consoles compared to stereo TV speakers. Games really do feel more alive when sound sources are placed more accurately around the player, from a flying missile to a rustling tree branch. It’s something best experienced than described, but once you hear a game with proper spatial audio, you never want to go back.
Couling says that competitive shooters are enhanced by spatial audio as well, which also makes sense. Instead of hearing enemy footsteps or firefights to your left or right, spatial audio lets you pinpoint exactly where a nearby competitor is around you in a game like Call of Duty.
The issue is that Dolby doesn’t have a monopoly on cool, spatial audio game experiences, and this space has yet to and may never establish a clear winner. Despite launching on Xbox One and Windows 10 in 2016, Dolby still hasn’t established itself as the leader in immersive gaming audio on these two platforms.
Sony has spurned Atmos completely on the PlayStation 5, even for streaming apps (it can pass through Atmos from a 4K Blu-ray disc to your AV system but that’s it). Sony’s reasoning is that it believes Atmos is too limited, in both capability and accessibility.
Mark Cerny, the lead architect for the PS5, criticized Atmos’ limit to 32 sound sources, and the need for special licensed hardware like a soundbar to use it.
“It would have been wonderful if a simpler strategy such as using Dolby Atmos peripherals could have achieved our goals,” Cerny said in his 2020 “Road to PS5” keynote. “We wanted 3D audio for all, not just those with licensed soundbars or the like.” Sony instead chose to design a custom audio processing chip for the PS5 called the Tempest Engine, which the company claims is capable of producing and placing hundreds of sound sources around the player at once.
Whether or not 3D audio is actually better than Atmos for gamers is a moot point, because the beauty of 3D audio is that it works by default any time headphones are connected to the PS5, and it works very well. The only drawback to Sony’s approach is that, at least for now, 3D audio only works for headphones and some built-in TV speakers, the latter to much more mixed results. If you invested in a nice sound system for your PS5, you’re only going to get a 5.1 surround experience from the console — still a huge improvement from stereo.
Using Atmos on Xbox Series X and S or PC is also not as clear-cut as you’d think. To start, it is not on by default. Xbox owners need to download Dolby’s Dolby Access app separately to enable Dolby Atmos in games and media apps. Once Access is installed, you’ll start getting the Atmos mix from supported games on any Atmos-enabled sound system. However, if you want that same level of immersion for your headphones, you need to pay $15 for “Dolby Atmos for Headphones” as an in-app purchase within Access. Some headphones, like the Xbox Wireless Headset also include a free trial for Dolby Access, and others from Corsair come with a full Atmos license ready to go, but if you already have a favorite headset, you need to pay the $15 yourself to get Atmos on every audio peripheral connected to your Xbox.
The list of games that support Atmos does include some notable titles like Cyberpunk 2077, Resident Evil Village, and Halo Infinite, but that list has a lot of parity with the third-party games that support 3D audio on PlayStation. Basically, every game comes from large studios able to dedicate time to a special audio mix that many players may never experience.
Right now Dolby and Microsoft are squandering a massive lead they have over Sony on the immersive audio front. The Xbox is today the only console capable of delivering a spatial audio experience to both headphone and speaker system users. Atmos-capable systems are far more accessible than they were when the feature debuted on Xbox One, yet many Xbox owners who own these cheaper systems may not even know they have to download a special app to unlock the full audio horsepower of their brand new console.
Dolby would not disclose how many installs of Access there are except to say it is “widely deployed in gaming today.” A representative for the company also confirmed that Dolby Access installs on Xbox have “doubled” since the launch of Halo Infinite in November, presumably as players searched for a new edge with their squads in multiplayer.
While Sony is currently unable to deliver 3D audio to owners of surround setups, when they do, it will be ready for every supported game for free on most if not all sound systems. If Dolby is serious about making Atmos gaming dominant, it needs to seize this lead and work out a deal with Microsoft to have Atmos be both pre-installed by default on Xbox and remove the need to pay extra for “Atmos for Headphones.”
An exclusivity deal with Microsoft likely won’t happen. Dolby shared the following with us: “Dolby Vision and Dolby Atmos are not console exclusive and we look forward to working with Microsoft and all our partners to make Dolby Vision and Dolby Atmos widely available to gamers.”
We’re ending on music because it is perhaps the area where Atmos is still trying to prove its mettle. Dolby’s push to win over record labels, artists, and producers to mix in Dolby Atmos began in earnest six years ago, but gallons of fuel were poured on that fire when Apple Music brought the format to the service for free in June of last year.
While more and more new albums are being released with Dolby Atmos thanks to the Apple Music boost, the feature is being ignored by a large portion of Apple Music subscribers. VP of Apple Music and Beats Oliver Schusser, told Billboard that “more than half” of the Apple Music subscriber base is using Atmos. While that sounds impressive, it’s worth noting that Dolby Atmos is turned on by default on every iPhone. That means that almost half of Apple Music users have gone in and turned the feature off.
The launch of Atmos on Apple Music was also rocky. The limited library of songs at launch were hugely inconsistent, with critics trudging through a lot of rough to find the few diamonds. Even songs from the same artist had wildly different outcomes. As an example, just listen to the intimate Atmos mix of Weezer’s “Say It Ain’t So” compared to the hollow and lifeless Atmos mix of “Buddy Holly,” two songs from the same album that sound like they were mastered in different universes.
With that steep a curve to overcome, it’s fair to say that Atmos music may be Dolby’s biggest adoption challenge to date, even with a behemoth like Apple in its corner turning it on by default. To overcome it, Dolby needs to convince more artists and producers to dedicate real time to their Atmos mixes on top of the work that’s already needed to master an album for stereo. Even if the industry gets in lockstep there, Dolby has to win back listeners turned off by the initial rollout of Atmos on Apple Music to show artists that all that work is worth it. Oh, and it needs to get every major streamer and platform owner on board.
Couling acknowledges that there’s work to be done with Music but is still optimistic.
“There’s a learning curve in any new technology and any new soundscape,” Couling tells me when I press him on the issues with Atmos music’s big rollout. “Producers need to figure out the soundscape they’re trying to create. There’s much more space and more clarity and you have to work your way through all that.”
Since the Apple Music launch last year, I would say the ratio of good to bad Atmos mixes has improved greatly. Artists like Lorde and The Weeknd have gone back and remastered their catalog albums in addition to releasing new albums in Atmos, and these mixes are much more considerate of the format than older mixes. I’d say many of these Atmos remasters have the goal of “enhancing” the original intended experience of the stereo track rather than totally reinventing a song, which is probably what most people would want to see when they’re trying out a whole new format.
The number of studios equipped with Atmos capable gear has also grown thanks to a grant program funded by Apple and Dolby. To date, Dolby says the program has helped equip more than 450 studios around the world with new gear for Atmos mixing from Dolby directly, with 200 more committed to make upgrades. Dolby also says many have made the switch without the company’s help. Couling also cites Apple’s update to its Logic Pro audio software to include spatial audio mixing as a major driver of Atmos adoption on the artist side.
“Producers need to figure out the soundscape they’re trying to create.”
The biggest issue for Atmos music as I see it is the variance in experience between listening devices. Listening to Atmos songs on AirPods (or any pair of third-party stereo headphones) often isn’t as impactful as the same tracks in stereo. This is how many people exclusively listen to music, with maybe the addition of a Bluetooth speaker that’s not suited for spatial audio in any form. This is why I prefer to listen to Atmos music on my Sonos Arc system (playing from a connected Apple TV 4K), where I have the aid of rear speakers and a dedicated subwoofer to make sure every effect in a song is represented. While Atmos songs sound great here, I’m more than aware that very few people will ever listen to Atmos music like this.
“You have to create a mix that will work in lots of different places,” Couling says when asked about this disparity. “A lot of that is making sure the mixer has access to lots of different environments. The more reference points they have... that’s what gives them the information to figure out what mix they want to create.”
Bluetooth LE Audio may improve the experience for headphone usage on mobile in the long run. Couling confirmed that, due to Bluetooth’s current limitations, all of the processing for Atmos playback needs to be done on the phone before being sent to the listening device as a single data stream. This is the case for listening to music or watching Netflix. LE Audio includes support for multiple data streams being sent to the listening device at once, a feature that has spatial audio in mind, but Dolby wouldn’t comment on any improvements it has in store for LE Audio’s launch this year.
There are some recent examples of Atmos songs that do work well across listening devices. Lil Nas X’s debut album Montero maintains a strongly pronounced center channel to anchor yourself to, as other instruments and vocals play and move around you. The Oh Hellos 10-year anniversary release of their song “Hello My Old Heart” has a campfire soundscape that adds a real sense of ambiance to the echoey and mellow guitar track. Couling spotlighted Ariana Grande and Billie Eilish as some of his favorite artists working with Atmos today, both of whom remastered their back catalogs for Atmos in addition to releasing new music in the format.
I think the onus falls on Apple to make Atmos more than an all-or-nothing experience for subscribers. If I listen to an album in both Atmos and stereo and prefer one mix to the other, I should be able to listen to my preferred version of that album without it affecting my entire listening experience. It would be nice to whitelist certain albums or songs as “stereo only” without turning off Atmos across the board. The closest solution available now is to have Atmos on for streaming, but to turn Atmos off for downloaded songs. This of course presents an issue for storage management and data limits if you still have those, but it’s the best Apple currently provides.
It’s hard not to view Dolby’s current efforts to expand Atmos beyond TV and film as a kingdom trying to conquer beyond its established lands. Dolby Atmos and Dolby Vision HDR were historic slam dunks in the streaming TV space, perfectly capitalizing on how quickly HDR TVs and Atmos-capable sound systems dropped in price at just the right moment. It’s the case of the perfect technology meeting the right moment in time.
We’re getting closer to the world where an album with a Dolby Atmos mix is as easy to discover as a new TV show.
I just don’t know if the picture for everywhere else Dolby is trying to push Atmos is as rosy. There’s work to be done to make the Atmos experience on Xbox better, but the size of the PlayStation platform means that Dolby will never be considered the leader in the gaming space, just another solid competitor. I think it’s fine for this to be a draw, however, as it should incentivize both Sony and Microsoft with Dolby to make the audio experience of their respective platforms as great as possible as quickly as possible, instead of both console platforms being subject to the whims of one company’s firmware release cycle.
Music is more of a paradox. Apple and Dolby are pouring massive amounts of money to get the industry on board alongside smaller streaming services like Amazon Music and Tidal, and to a degree, their efforts are paying off. It feels like we’re getting closer to the world where an album with a Dolby Atmos mix is as easy to discover as a new TV show with Atmos sound design and Dolby Vision HDR. The long-term fight will be convincing listeners that they’re no longer taking the risk of bumping into a worse version of their favorite song by leaving Atmos on when they stream their favorite playlist. So maybe someone at Dolby should give Weezer a call about that “Buddy Holly” mix.