From Movies To Music, 2021 Was The Year Of Dolby Atmos

We’ve seen our fair share of trends in the audio industry over the years, such as high-resolution audio, active noise cancellation, and whole-home wireless multi-room speakers. In 2021, all of those trends took a backseat to the Dolby Atmos earthquake. What started as a seismic shift in sound systems used in commercial movie theaters is now sending reverberations through all aspects of home and mobile entertainment, from streaming services to sound bars and even tunes. you listen to during your daily commute. New to Dolby Atmos? Here’s a guided tour of the ways it shaped 2021 and will continue to evolve for years to come.

From cinema to home theater

Diagram of a Dolby Atmos commercial theater installation.
Image courtesy of Dolby Labs Dolby Labs

What is Dolby Atmos? For a deep dive into the technology, I recommend that you take a walk through our Dolby Atmos explainer without stones and without stirring, but here is the short version: it is an advanced form of surround sound with two distinct features. First, it uses “height channels”, usually in the form of overhead speakers or fired-up speakers, which allow sounds to appear to be coming from above. Standard 5.1, 7.1 or even 9.1 surround sound systems only place their speakers around you, not on top of you.

Second, Dolby Atmos enables audio engineers to treat sounds as freely movable objects in 3D space, independent of any other sounds. The classic example is the sound of a helicopter that can start deep in the front of your TV room, then soar, fly overhead, and gradually disappear behind you, all while the movie score continues to play from all your speakers at the same time.

Together these qualities make Dolby Atmos a much more immersive sound experience than traditional stereo or even previous surround sound formats. Thanks to Dolby Atmos-compatible A / V receivers, sound bars, and even speakers built into televisions, there are now plenty of versions of Dolby Atmos for the home, with prices starting at just $ 150.

Transmission support

Screens showing Dolby Atmos movies on Apple TV +.

One of the keys to having Dolby Atmos at home is having access to movies or TV shows produced with Dolby Atmos soundtracks. For years this was the exclusive domain of 4K UHD Blu-ray discs, but by 2021, nearly every major on-demand streaming media service offered titles in Dolby Atmos. Some, like Netflix, charge a premium price for this surround sound on steroids, but others, like Disney +, Apple TV +, and Amazon Prime Video, include it in their standard levels.

Unfortunately, Dolby Atmos has yet to make its way onto traditional TV platforms like cable, satellite, or over the air, or their live TV streaming equivalents like YouTube TV, Sling TV, or Hulu + Live TV, but this could change. . in the near future.

NextGen TV (aka ATSC 3.0), the latest evolution of over-the-air digital television, was created to accommodate Dolby Atmos, but we are not yet aware of any television stations that are broadcasting content in Dolby Atmos. Most cable companies offer set-top boxes that support Dolby Atmos, but this is generally only used to support streaming service applications, not cable TV channels.

Hardware support: streaming devices

Chromecast with Google TV.
Phil Nickinson / Tips Clear

Streaming devices that support Dolby Atmos used to be pricey, like Apple TV 4K or Nvidia Shield TV, but by 2021, we saw Atmos listed on each model’s feature list in our best streaming device roundup.

This does not mean that all streaming devices offer the same Atmos experience. Some provide native hardware-based decoding of Dolby Atmos, while others simply pass the Atmos signal through to a downstream device like a TV or soundbar. But either way, you can buy a streaming device with Atmos support for as little as $ 30.

Hardware support: audio devices

Vizio Elevate Dolby Atmos sound bar.
Riley Young / Tips Clear

Audio devices like sound bars are following a similar trend, with a growing number of products offering Dolby Atmos processing and incredibly affordable prices. This year it brought together nearly every major brand under the Dolby Atmos soundbar umbrella, with a variety of models from Vizio, LG, Sony, Sonos, Samsung, JBL, Bose, Bang & Olufsen, Monoprice, TCL, and more.

Like streaming devices, there are differences in the way these soundbars are compatible with Atmos. Some use a full complement of dedicated speakers with power-on drivers for a true 5.1.2 or better surround sound experience. These are usually the most expensive units. But others can produce what is known as “virtualized” Dolby Atmos sound from just two channels. These soundbars won’t be as immersive as a discrete system, but they’re still better than non-Atmos speakers and cost a lot less than their fancier Atmos cousins.

Hardware support: televisions

An LG C1 OLED 4K TV displaying the Dolby Vision and Dolby Atmos logos.
Dan Baker / Tips Clear

If you value simplicity and therefore use your TV’s built-in software and streaming apps for all your media needs, having a TV that supports Dolby Atmos is vital. You don’t necessarily have to be able to play Dolby Atmos through your own speakers (a scenario that rarely produces exciting results), but you do need to be able to receive and pass Dolby Atmos to a compatible soundbar or A / V receiver via HDMI ARC. or eARC.

The good news is that 2021 was the year that Atmos support became universal across all but the least expensive TVs.

Made for music

Tidal interface showing the blinding lights of The Weeknd in Dolby Atmos.

As much as Dolby Atmos has reshaped the home movie landscape through new speakers and streaming devices, 2021 was also the year Atmos began to change the way we listen to music, and on a device that most of us we already own, the smartphone.

Record labels and indie artists have started recording songs to Dolby Atmos Music, the same immersive 3D experience for home theater systems, but instead of being used to move a helicopter around your room, artists use it to place to listeners “inside” your songs, taking advantage of the extra height and depth that Dolby Atmos can create.

A wide variety of artists, from The Weeknd to Billie Eilish, Olivia Rodrigo and John Williams, have produced music using the Dolby Atmos toolkit.

A is for Atmos, Apple and Amazon

Apple Music spatial audio playlists.

Dolby Atmos Music made its streaming debut on Amazon Music HD in 2019, but was limited to Amazon’s $ 199 Echo Studio smart speaker. No other device, whether from Amazon or third parties, was compatible with the new music format.

Tidal soon followed up with its own Dolby Atmos Music offering, but it was also severely limited – it needed an Atmos-compatible streaming device that was also compatible with the Tidal app, and a Dolby Atmos sound system.

But in 2021, Apple decided to jump into spatial audio to stream music and added its own Dolby Atmos Music catalog to Apple Music. At the same time, he announced that anyone with an iPhone 7 or newer (or multiple iPad models) could listen to Dolby Atmos Music with any set of wired or wireless headphones. And if you had one of Apple’s AirPods family of headphones, you’d hear Atmos Music covers of songs automatically.

Super spatial audio

Person listening to Apple Airpods Max.
Apple

Apple’s move to Dolby Atmos Music created a massive marquee for the 3D format almost overnight. After getting started with iOS / iPadOS, it then added Dolby Atmos Music to its Apple Music apps for select Android devices, further increasing Atmos audience.

But Apple also wanted to do something unique with spatial audio, and in 2021 it began leveraging the built-in sensors found in AirPods Pro, AirPods Max, and eventually third-gen AirPods) to enable tracking of space audio. head.

If normal Dolby Atmos and Dolby Atmos Music are used to create a greater sense of immersion through a 3D sound field, head-tracking spatial audio levels that experience by adjusting that sound field in real time in response to movement. of the head.

For movies, create a virtual cinema environment, using just your headphones and an iPhone or iPad to mimic what it’s like to sit in a home theater with Dolby Atmos 5.1.2 or higher. For music, it keeps key elements of the song like lead vocal or guitar temporarily anchored in a position that is “in front” of you, which can simulate what it’s like to sit front and center while a band plays in the center. stage or in a studio.

Amazon brings Atmos Music everywhere

Screen showing Atmos Music in Dolby Atmos.

Not to be outdone, Amazon also made 2021 the year it massively expanded its Dolby Atmos Music footprint. Now you can stream Dolby Atmos Music tracks from Amazon Music on any mobile device thanks to Amazon’s inclusion of Dolby audio technology directly in the Amazon Music app.

In late 2021, Sonos announced that it can stream Dolby Atmos Music tracks from Amazon Music directly to Sonos Atmos-compatible soundbars, marking the first time that these speakers can play Atmos Music without the help of a recording device. third party transmission.

Automagic

Dolby Atmos sound system in a Mercedes.
Mercedes Benz

If Dolby Atmos Music is so good, why should it limit itself to sound bars and headphones? In 2021, Dolby Atmos took its first steps in the automotive realm, first with the Lucid Air EV, then an announcement that Mercedes Benz will add Dolby Atmos sound systems to many of its ultra-high-end touring sedans like the Maybach.

We’ve seen a number of collaborations between vehicle manufacturers and audio companies, such as Audi / Sonos and Jeep / McIntosh, but since Dolby Atmos isn’t tied to any audio company, it’s a good bet that the immersive surround sound format will. will do. makes its way into many more cars in 2022 and beyond.

Massive boost

It’s fair to say that in 2021, Dolby Atmos had a great time as support grew among major manufacturers of video and music streaming devices and services. And even though there are still roadblocks Spotify is the 800 pound gorilla that can’t be ignored, I suspect we’ll look back on 2021 as the year Dolby Atmos became a genuinely mainstream audio technology, accessible to anyone who want it. experience comfortably and at a reasonable price.

With that kind of audience boost, it’s likely not long before it becomes ubiquitous among film and television productions and throughout the music industry.

If you haven’t had your first experience with Dolby Atmos yet, 2022 will almost certainly be the year you do.

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