Recently, at WWDC 2018, Apple announced the Apple TV 4K is gaining support for Dolby Atmos surround sound in tvOS 12. Other devices, including the Roku UltraAmazon Fire TV with 4KXbox One, and even Windows 10 PCs support Dolby Atmos. But the real question is, what is Atmos?

While other devices support Dolby Atmos sound, the Apple TV 4K will be the only streaming player with support for both Dolby Atmos surround sound and Dolby Vision HDR video (Yes, they are different).

How does a Traditional Surround Sound work?

As many of y’all know, traditional 7.1 surround sound involves seven speakers plus a subwoofer. The speakers are placed around your room: front left, front centre, front right, subwoofer, left, right, rear left, and rear right. 5.1 surround sound is similar, but omits the left and right side speakers and just uses front and rear speakers.

So, when you’re playing a video or any other content source that supports 7.1 surround sound audio, there are actually eight channels of audio being sent to your sound system. These channels are each played through a different speaker. The different sounds coming from different speakers around you produces the surround sound experience. That’s pretty cool, isn’t it?

To better understand how the speakers are placed, just take a look at this picture.

Surround Sound
Speaker placement for a Traditional 7.1 Surround Sound

How does Dolby Atmos do it?

The important thing that everyone needs to understand is that Dolby Atmos is NOT a speaker or a set of speakers. But, it is in fact the name of an advanced surround sound technology, which was announced by Dolby Laboratories in June 2012.

Dolby Atmos-enabled audio sources don’t just contain six or eight channels of sound that are sent to your speakers. Instead, sounds are mapped to virtual locations in 3D space. For example, a sound might be mapped above you. Damn, ain’t that cool?

The spatial data is sent to a Dolby Atmos-enabled receiver, which uses specially calibrated speakers to position these sounds in your listening area. For example, that sound positioned above your head can be bounced off your ceiling by upwards-facing speakers. Some Dolby Atmos systems may use ceiling-mounted speakers, instead.

In other words, Dolby Atmos sound doesn’t involve just playing several channels of audio. It uses a special receiver with special speakers, and the audio played is positioned in 3D space and carefully calibrated according to your speakers and the acoustics in your room. This results in a more immersive and surreal surround sound experience. This isn’t just for home use. Dolby has also announced the Dolby Atmos for movie theatres!

Dolby Atmos requires Special Hardware and Content

Good things don’t come for free! In order to enable and use Dolby Atmos, you need a Dolby Atmos-enabled content and hardware to take advantage of it. First, you need a content source that has Dolby Atmos-enabled audio.

After you find the content, you need a playback device that can pass Dolby Atmos audio to your audio system, like the Apple TV 4K, an Xbox One, a 4K-enabled Roku, or Fire TV 4K device.

Your audio system needs a Dolby Atmos-enabled receiver to do the hard work, and it needs Dolby Atmos-enabled speakers that the receiver can use. Not all your speakers need to be Dolby Atmos-enabled, but you need either upward-firing speakers or ceiling mounted speakers to complete the package.

This upward facing or ceiling-mounted speakers are the key. In a Dolby Atmos system, a 5.1.2 system is an audio system with five normal speakers, a subwoofer, and two upward-facing speakers. A 7.1.4 system is one with seven normal speakers, a subwoofer, and four upward-facing speakers.

To better understand how the speakers are placed, just take a look at this picture.

Dolby Atmos 2
Speaker placement for a 5.1 Dolby Atmos System.

You don’t necessarily need a surround sound system to take advantage of Dolby Atmos, however. You can buy a Dolby Atmos-enabled sound bar, which will bounce sounds off your ceiling. This won’t produce the same experience as a full surround sound speaker setup, but it uses some of the Dolby Atmos tricks.

Dolby Atmos 3
Dolby Atmos Sound Bar

Apart from all these cool features, Dolby has also announced a Dolby Atmos like feature for headphones. Unlike standard Dolby Atmos audio, Dolby Atmos for Headphones works with any pair of stereo headphones. Dolby Atmos for Headphones is a form of virtual surround sound for headphones.

So folks, that’s it about the recent Dolby Atmos hype, especially after Apple‘s announcement of tvOS supporting this cool technology! The world of home theatres is ever changing. And I feel, Dolby Atmos is just one of the latest and greatest ways to improve your audio experience—if you want to invest the money.