Dolby Atmos is the new hotness when it comes to home theater gear, but there are a lot of different ways you can incorporate Atmos into your setup. Let’s talk about the difference between “virtual” Atmos, up-firing drivers, and dedicated in-ceiling speakers.
I’ve tested a number of Atmos products over the past few years, and recently installed up a true in-ceiling Atmos setup in my house. And while every approach has its pros and cons in terms of practicality, it’s obvious that certain setups are going to sound better than others. It’s just not always obvious how. So I set up a few different options to test them side-by-side.
A lot of guides like this would start on the lower end and work their way up to the more expensive, complex stuff. But in this case, I think it’s important to first talk about what the ideal setup looks (and sounds) like, so I can more accurately explain how the compromises measure up.
Dolby details a few different ways you can set up your speakers, but I opted for a 5.1.4 setup using tower speakers in the front, a matching center channel, two bookshelves on the rear wall, and four speakers installed in my ceiling. I added on to an old Energy stereo setup I’ve had for years, but you could do something similar using four ELAC Debut bookshelves with a matching center channel and in-ceiling speakers. Or, for a more budget-friendly option, you could go Polk’s T-series with some of their cheaper in-ceiling models.
If you can get speakers that are all from the same series, that’s ideal, but not crucial. And if in-ceiling speakers are too complex or pricey, you can always put them on the wall for front or rear heights, as described in Dolby’s setup guide.
You’ll also need an Atmos-capable receiver for a setup like this. I’m using the Pioneer VSX-LX303, which is one of the less expensive 5.1.4-capable receivers on the market, but if you’re only going for a 5.1.2 setup, you could use the Sony STR-DH790 for a bit less money.
This configuration involves a lot of complexity, but it’s definitely the best-sounding Atmos setup you can get. Though I feel I need to qualify that statement: If you’ve heard people say it’s a “night and day” difference, or that “overhead effects are a total game-changer,” temper your expectations just a tad. I love my Atmos setup, but for different reasons than I originally thought I would.
Sure, there are occasional overhead effects that are really “wow”-worthy. When the car flies over your head in the opening scene of Mad Max: Fury Road, you hear it above you. When one of the characters respawns in Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, the “ding” sound is clearly audible above your head as they fall from the sky. It can be really, really cool, and I’ve jerked my head toward ceiling once or twice on instinct, wondering where that sound came from.
But the vast majority of the time, you aren’t going to be hearing distinct, jaw-dropping effects come from above, even with a true in-ceiling Atmos setup. Instead, those height channels are often playing similar ambient noises as your rear channels, taking you from a flat plane of surround sound to a more enveloping 3D bubble of sound—I know that sounds like marketing-speak, but that’s really what it feels like.
It’s subtle at first, but you’ll notice it in scenes like the sandstorm in Fury Road, where the wind is swirling above you, or when the elevator hits the ground and explodes after the lobby scene in The Matrix. Your front speakers still do most of the heavy lifting, but the ceiling speakers help to “fill out” the sound, and you can hear the difference when switching between the 5.1 and Atmos tracks in those scenes.
For movies that don’t have Atmos tracks, you can use the Dolby Surround or DTS Neural:X modes on your receiver to upmix the 5.1 or 7.1 track to use your ceiling speakers. It works better than I expected—Dolby’s processing seems to be more subtle, sending ambient sounds to the above channels, while DTS’ processing is more in-your-face with lots of distinct overhead effects (sometimes to its own detriment, when a sound isn’t supposed to be in that over-your-head space).
Let’s say you don’t have the budget for a full speaker setup, or you don’t have enough space to dedicate all the necessary gear. Dolby thought of this, and allows room in their spec for up-firing speakers that bounce sound off the ceiling for those overhead effects. A number of speaker companies have add-on modules for their tower speakers that do just this, including the aforementioned ELAC Debut series.
On the budget end of things, Pioneer’s Andrew Jones-designed series has add-on modules for its well-regarded tower and bookshelf speakers. And if you want to eschew the receiver entirely, you could go with a soundbar setup like Vizio’s beautifully-named SB46514-F6. (Rolls right off the tongue, doesn’t it?)
I tested my in-ceiling setup side-by-side with the Vizio system, and they both sounded great—Vizio has done a surprisingly good job of making rich audio come out of a large, but still-practical soundbar. The up-firing “Atmos-enabled” speakers (as Dolby calls them) also worked well, but they weren’t as great at producing the distinct, coming-from-high-above-you effects. Like I said above, those are fewer and further between, though, and the up-firing speakers were still able to produce that 3D bubble of ambient sound easily. For lack of a better description, though, I might say it felt like a slightly “shallower” bubble—I heard sounds coming from above ear level, but I don’t know they filled the room in quite in the same spacious way my ceiling speakers did. This can be highly dependent on your room, though—the size, type of ceiling, and where you place the speakers. That means you may have to fiddle to get things optimal, but it’s a great alternative if you don’t have the money or the space for a full Atmos setup—they can still reproduce a lot of what makes Atmos cool.
I do still recommend going with a 5.1.4 setup here, though. If you’re looking at a soundbar without matching surround speakers, you can find some with Atmos—usually labeled 3.1.2—but it’ll mostly add a bit of height to the soundstage in the front of your room. It’s nice, but it’s far less immersive than a setup with rear surrounds that also fire upwards.
Here’s where things get interesting. Some soundbars are starting to come with what they call “3D virtual surround,” often with a Dolby Atmos or DTS Virtual:X height processing. These are ... more hit or miss.
When I tried Yamaha’s YAS-209, for example—which can’t decode Dolby Atmos but does have DTS Virtual:X processing in it—I found the virtual surround feature to add some extra soundstage, along with a bit of sibilance to the soundtrack. It was fine, but not mind-blowing. Sony’s Z9F soundbar, which has its own vertical surround engine, isn’t much better when it comes to adding height to non-Atmos tracks.
It seems that upmixing works significantly better on an actual receiver than it does on a soundbar, even if a soundbar does true Atmos pretty well.
And that’s where Sony’s Z9F really excels, particularly when coupled with the sold-separately Z9R rear speakers. It may not upmix well, but it handles true Atmos tracks better than it has any right to. Even without up-firing drivers, it produced a noticeable difference between Atmos and non-Atmos tracks in the same movie, filling up that (slightly shallower) 3D bubble with sound for a noticeably better experience.
It’s rather impressive, and useful when you have a room with vaulted or textured ceilings, where up-firing speakers won’t work. Plus, while soundbars are great for space savings, their size can also be their Achilles’ heel—2.5-inch drivers can never compete with a real set of large speakers, and Sony’s bar doesn’t sound as good as larger Vizio or Samsung models (or true bookshelves and towers, for that matter).
More of these virtual Atmos soundbars are on the way, with companies like TCL, Klipsch, and Denon showing off their own virtual 3D soundbars that promise to be just as good. I’m often skeptical about things like this, but Sony has convinced me it’s possible—even if it doesn’t rival true 5.1.4 setups using in-ceiling speakers.
And ultimately, that’s okay. Compromise is not a bad thing—most home theaters have to compromise somewhere, unless you have a truly dedicated theater room with full reign to perfect the room’s acoustics. Do what you can with the space you have, and don’t fret about it being 100% ideal—it’s all about watching the movies as best you can in your space, and any of the setups above are capable of a good experience.
Just remember that Atmos is the last step in the growth of a home theater setup. You’ll get more mileage out of your system with high-quality front, center, and rear speakers rather than skimping just so you can add height channels. But if there’s room for it in your budget, it’s a great upgrade.