Taking Atmos to the Max

Taking Atmos to the Max

This home theater from MoreCinema in the Netherlands features a 48-channel Dolby Atmos surround system driven by a Trinnov Altitude processor

One of the biggest evolutions to hit both commercial and home movie watching is Dolby Atmos. It’s a term and technology you should certainly be aware of and have on your radar as it would be difficult to consider a modern luxury entertainment system truly complete without embracing and supporting Atmos. Because it was introduced back in 2012 (with Pixars Brave), its tough to refer to it as new” any longer, but it’s still new-ish and is one of those buzzword terms that’s starting to gain a lot of traction on mainstream and enthusiast sites.


Weve certainly talked extensively about Atmos here at Cineluxe. Besides mentioning it along with the sound performance in nearly every movie review, we also have a few nice starter posts, including Why You Have to Have Dolby Atmos” “Gaming is

Way Better with Atmos” and Atmos Music: A World Beyond Movies.


Audio formats like Dolby Atmos add another layer and dimension to the content, drawing you more fully into moment of what you’re watching or listening to. An Atmos audio track listened to on a luxury system can transform your room into a wide open, wind-swept field; a creaking and eerie house; the vastness of space; or can place you on a race track with the roar of engines streaking past you—all of which immerses you in the moment and heightens the experience. This is especially true when you’re talking about the experience in a larger movie room with multiple seats, to make sure that the audio signal passes seamlessly around the room.


In a nutshell, Atmos completely reinvented the way audio mixes were created at the studio level. In the past, surround sound mixes—like Dolby Digital or DTS—were all channel based, meaning sounds were mixed for a specific number of channels, typically seven plus a subwoofer, called 7.1. Even though a commercial cinema might have the entire side and rear walls lined with speakers, there were essentially just four channels (left and right surround, left and right rear) designed to provide fill across a large seating area.


With Atmos, Dolby transitioned away from channel-based to object-based mixes, supporting up to 128 sound objects in the mix at any moment. Information embedded in each object tells the Atmos renderer about the object (such as how much weight or presence it should have) along with where to move it around the room. And where the channel-based mixes were limited to 7.1, full theatrical mixes can include up to 64 discrete locations plus the subwoofer.


One of the aspects of Atmos that people are most familiar with is the new height element. Whereas in the past sounds were limited to just being placed around the listener, these height speakers positioned overhead can literally place sounds above listeners, and can include up to 18 speakers in a commercial cinema.


With Atmos, a surround mix can be truly immersive, placing sounds virtually anywhere in a 360° space all around and overhead, letting you distinctly pinpoint precisely where a sound is originating from. Helicopters can hover and move all about overhead, voices can emanate from any specific location, and a rain storm can sound like a deluge, all of which heightens the emotional experience.


One of Atmos’ brilliant features is its ability to scale and 

translate the full suite of 128 audio objects and 64 speakers in the theatrical mix to the audio mix you hear at home. But just because all the information is carried over from the theatrical mix doesnt mean all Atmos systems are the same. In fact, far from it. And this is another area where a luxury system can greatly distance itself in the experience, and where a premium system distinguishes itself especially in larger rooms.


When reading about Atmos, youll likely see figures like 5.1.2 or 7.1.4, which refer to the speaker layout and configuration. The first number refers to the number of listener-level speakers—those speakers at ear level, such as the front left, center, and right—the second is the subwoofer channel, which carries low-frequency information like explosions; and the third is the

Taking Atmos to the Max

An Atmos system with five speakers at
ear level and four positioned overhead

A system with 24 speakers at
ear level and 10 overhead

number of height speakers used to place sounds up overhead. While those more modest configurations can certainly provide an exciting and immersive experience in a small to mid-sized room, they are a far cry from the 64 speakers in the full theatrical implementation.


A truly luxury home theater system driven by a processor from the likes of Trinnov, JBL Synthesis, Steinway Lyngdorf, or Storm Audio can support a full home Atmos implementation of up to 35 speakers in a 24.1.10 array, allowing you to get as close as possible to the theatrical experience and what the filmmakers intended.


While having 34 speakers plus subwoofers might seem extreme, as the room gets larger with multiple seating positions it’s the surest way of guaranteeing that every seat is the best seat in the house, with the smoothest transition of sound from one speaker to the next, and that you and your guests have an unforgettable experience every time. 


What does this mean for a luxury install? Do that many additional speakers make that much of a difference? What is required to pull off this kind of system and get the most from it? And how can your theater designer keep the room from looking like an equipment bazaar with that many speakers in the room?


In future posts, well have industry experts discuss and explore these topics so you can understand exactly what is involved in this aspect of designing and implementing a truly state-of-the-art home cinema space. 

John Sciacca

Probably the most experienced writer on custom installation in the industry, John Sciacca is co-owner of Custom Theater & Audio in Murrells Inlet, South Carolina, & is known for his writing for such publications as Residential Systems and Sound & Vision. Follow him on Twitter at @SciaccaTweets and at johnsciacca.com.

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