Dolby Atmos - is it for Audiophiles?

A friend asked me over to his house this morning to audition Dolby Atmos on his pretty good 2 channel system.

Apparently - Apple are going to convert their entire streaming library to Atmos (please don’t shoot the messenger) and another well known streaming service is going to adopt it also.

Since this is my first exposure to Dolby Atmos, I came away a little confused

From the brief audition I experienced...
  • some tracks presented very well - better clarity, separation and dynamics with larger more articulate image
  • other tracks were less impressive, especially the really old tracks
  • some classical tracks sounded quite shrill and harsh
  • and one of the more recently recorded tracks did not sound too much different from the regular stereo version - but then it was Taylor Swift - again, don’t shoot the messenger:-)
Is this really meant for two channel systems?
  • it seems it may be targeting Airpod users - as opposed to 2-channel systems that use speakers
  • from the description (i.e. diagrammatically ) it looks like surround sound for Airpods.
  • does it work with existing surround sound systems?
  • it seems it only works with Atmos enabled devices - how long before my Node 2i streamer becomes obsolete?
I must admit - when it worked well it was quite impressive, but that was not even 50% of the time, so it seems there is work to be done.
  • violins sometimes sound quite harsh
  • cellos sometimes sounded very "thin" - poor bottom end and poor timbre
  • some orchestras sounded very unnatural in the top end and less bottom end than normal

If you have first hand experience with Atmos, please share your thoughts/insights with the rest of us

Many Thanks - Steve


If you've not heard a good immersive system, you probably assume they aren't "hi fi". You's be wrong.

Thanks for an interesting discussion. I have been working with surround for many years, in large venues with live orchestra and 20+ channels surround systems, but for me the Dolby Atmos was a real game changer. Until that point music playback was a sound source playing in a room, regardless if it’s mono, stereo or multichannel. The room had to be taken into consideration, and the acoustics captured in the recording would be colored by the room you’re sitting in. Having spend my last year on Dolby Atmos tuning I really see the potential in the format for music production. In a acoustically treated room with proper tuning software (sorry, not aware of any off the shelf products) the result is astonishing. The possibility to actually create an environment where the music lives, not constrained by the listening environment, was for me is a totally new experience. Now the room captured in the recording is the you’re sitting in.

I agree that there is a lot of inconsistency regarding source material, and not everyone will have access to a properly tuned room/sound system, but I definitely believe there is potential in spartial music.

Post removed 
I have a 11.2 HT set up built around seven Snell speakers and a Marantz 8012 two Snell Basis 300 powered subs. My room is well treated with acoustic panels and bass traps. My 2 channel is digital played through classic Snell AIII's with Perfect Wave DAC, Mcintosh C2300 preamp and B&K 200.1 Class A Reference monoblocks.  Today I listened to Apple Dolby Atmos (Apple TV via HDMI) through the bonafide Atmos Marantz/Snell set up and with those was a lot of fun and great definition on every level. With sounders and headphones maybe a gimmick. In a real listening room with real rig...hmmm?

it’s interesting to read your perspective, as you have one of the best 2 Ch and likely best Atmos set ups in the worldI mean what makes anyone think the normal music enjoying person wants to add more and more speakers? Will there be more Atmos users than 2 CHaudiophiles? This is creating a need for $, corporate BS 101

thanks Brian.

i have always had a ’pretty good’ separate Home Theater system for "movies only" in my house. my over-the-top 2 channel system is in my barn. this Home Theater has a top level front projector but the sound there was always just an "ok" surround system. recently with the advances in surround sound to the object based dsp (Dolby Atmos) approach i decided to take the plunge to see how far i could go with it. my agenda was optimizing movies. the music benefit was a bonus. and i’m just starting to discover how music ’only’ can benefit with 15 surround channels and 3 subwoofers. i’m in the discovery phase of those investigations.

without the attraction of a better home movie experience i’m not sure i would have ventured down this road for music only. i have been a signal path and 2 channel purist in the past. 15 years ago i did install a 5.1 discrete surround sound set-up in my 2 channel room for 18 months to see where that might go but found that my 2 channel was more involving. i do think Dolby Atmos object based with high speaker count has much more music only potential. we will see how that goes.
As a stereo mastering specialist, using MM3+Exact, Allnic Audio A-6000 monos and Bricasti M1 SE DA, I am turned off by the corporate push for complexity that will lead to a $600 soundbar or headphones for most.
99.999% of the world has never heard great stereo. Stereo is not old, it’s an undiscovered country. 2 speakers in front of 2 ears makes sense on many levels.

@mikelavigne it’s interesting to read your perspective, as you have one of the best 2 Ch and likely best Atmos set ups in the world
I mean what makes anyone think the normal music enjoying person wants to add more and more speakers? Will there be more Atmos users than 2 CH audiophiles? This is creating a need for $, corporate BS 101

Dolby is actually telling professional mixers, just get the headphones and mix for those. Proving it’s all about the money. Some major labels are saying "50% more for an Atmos mix" ... not much money, they just want content. Other labels are hiring mixers to do everything of note in their back catalog, for legit money, so it’s a big moment for mixers, but the quality will be all over the place. The commitment has been made however.
Post removed 
Atmos Music is pretty cool, im not gonna lie. Atmos for movies is the bomb.

HT for me started in 1987. 34 years later i have a 7.1.4 system that make me crack up its so much fun to watch movies, the Atmos movies w/HDR (im still 1080p) are a dream compared to 480i of years ago.

fun is where its at, peace !
See Mike, even you think the theater folks are second class citizens :-)
Your 2 way system is not pure analog as I do believe you have described playing CDs and digital files.

not sure how you can make that case. having a digital source is a different thing than adding dsp to your signal path. heck, i have plenty of Lp’s that i like/love that were originally mastered digitally. i’m into music not dogma. sure; my pure analog media is my top of the heap......but i’m not limited to that. and have never claimed different.

and assuming your room is properly tuned, digital sources benefit as much from a pure analog signal path as analog sources. garbage in <-> garbage out. can some challenging rooms benefit from dsp with 2 channel? i would assume so but not experienced that personally.

if you look at my digital source, it’s bit perfect.....not upsampled or further manipulated. my guiding perspective is that i prefer to hear my music with media as close as possible to how it was the native format. whether digital, vinyl or tape.

as far as Home Theater and the concept of ’second class’, i think that is a bad term to use. it infers some sort of negative to movies. for me movies are simply a different passtime than 2 channel music. i just bought a $17k Home Theater surround processor (Trinnov Altitude 16). i assure you my wife thinks i like my Home Theater too much. :-) many people combine 2-channel and movies. and i have a separate place upstairs in my barn where i watch sports, a rec room/game room. but i don’t view that as second class either. i like all these places to enjoy media that are each optimized for the media i use there. obviously i am most involved with my 2-channel. but i’m not feeling ’second class’ watching movies or sports.

+1, mikelavigne

For me, it’s comes down to the implementation. When you do it right, be it 2-ch audio or home theater; the outcome can be other worldly. The biggest problem I’ve seen with most systems, the room. Most rooms are not even acoustically treated or optimized for 2-ch or home theater sound.
See Mike, even you think the theater folks are second class citizens :-)
Your 2 way system is not pure analog as I do believe you have described playing CDs and digital files. 
what is Dolby Atmos?

basically it’s object based reproduction, as opposed to discrete channels. which means it uses dsp to steer objects through the soundfield instead of discrete separate channels.

the benefit is that it scales really well to higher speaker counts really beyond 5.1 channel surround. i use 9.3.6 channels in my Home Theater room. but with 2 channels it’s benefit is marginal, to the point that it’s a negative. you are adding dsp to a 2 channel playback and the negatives of dsp are greater than the benefit in most cases. it is perceived as distortion.

so how good can Dolby Atmos be for music?

done all the way right (not trivial to execute) it can rival top level 2 channel music reproduction. i have a no holds bared 2 channel system, and a completely separate Home Theater system where i’ve just installed 15 surround speakers and 3 subwoofer (9.3.6). even not really tweaked it can do some wonderful things for music. and the room is not nearly as critical as what is needed for top level 2 channel. and until you have heard what the very top level software can do for multi-channel room optimization you cannot judge this approach to music reproduction. and i'm as committed to a pure 2 channel signal path as anyone on this forum.

Audiogon is not a good forum for this discussion. if you really want to learn about Dolby Atmos and what is possible here is where you need to go. this is a Trinnov thread on the AVS forum. Trinnov makes the best multi-channel processor by far; they are the object based dsp sound reproduction experts.....up to 64 channels.

these guys are as serious about object based music and movie sound as we are here with 2 channel.

i mostly stream 2 channel with Tidal and Quboz in my 2 channel room. so Apple streaming Dolby Atmos is not relevant for me. i know Tidal does stream some Dolby Atmos and so maybe at some point i will connect Roon in my Home Theater room and check out Dolby Atmos multi-chnanel streaming. but my own view is that i have zero interest in 2 channel Dolby Atmos for my 2 channel room. my pure analog signal path is not getting corrupted with dsp.
The Atmos demonstrations that I have heard left me underwhelmed.  It also left me wondering what the industry was up to.  After all, surround sound has failed spectacularly in the market place (like Willie, don’t shoot me-I have two 5.1 systems in the home).  Now they are asking people to place additional speakers angled at funky angles from the ceiling?  It’s like seeing Ford Motor Co. crank up the assembly line for a revival of an enhanced Edsel.
  At first I figured the multi channel industry was doubling down on the true believers in surround sound, asking us to empty our wallets for one last thrill before we shuffle off to the Nursing Home.  However, with Apple now trying to breathe life into the format, it makes me wonder.  We all may sneer at Apples pretensions of Audiophilia, but as has been noted up thread, they have enormous clout, can influence demand and taste, and can’t be ignored.  Will they breathe life back into Surround Sound?  After all, with digital technology it should be easy to eliminate one of the major obstacles, which is that people don’t want wires running all over the house.
  So I for one will cheer Apple on, hoping that they and their competitors resuscitate both the demand and the implementation of what has been a dying field
I have a simple solution, don't stream. Streaming is for Lazy people. I takes effort and risk to build up an excellent collection of music.
Dolby Atmos? Just a theater thing. Theater people will swallow anything that sounds cool. They want to argue about such worthless things as pixels, something you do not want to see. Amazon? Do I smell money changing hands, a little slap on he back? We'll force all those peons into getting new equipment with Atmos decoding? 

As Studebaker Hock, the new superhero of the current economic crisis would say, "Get the Picture?" 
Been to all the pro demos, heard in a few environments. It’s just simply not good for music. It’s a theatre effect at best and a gimmick at worst. 
Back in the day the sound track ran alongside the film, in the form of squiggles, literally the analog signal. It was the visual analog of magnetic tape, read by photo-cell instead of a tape head.

Movie sound tracks were then all analog, and to this day sound great.

But we didn’t know it, because most movies back then were watched in movie theaters with usually something like one or maybe two 15" speakers behind the screen. Crap amps too.

Hardly anyone remembers, but a big reason Star Wars was the huge hit it was, it was one of the first movies to be released with George Lucas sound quality, the results of experiments done with Tomlinson and Holman: THX.

Not ones to miss out on easy money they started adding speakers, and needed a new format for getting all those channels off the little bit of space running alongside the film. Probably a few old cinephiles will recall the wars between Dolby Digital and Sony, etc.

The public face of this was all sound quality. In reality it was all about the Benjamin’s. Always has been, always will be. The winner was the one with the best financial moves. Well, why not? Film is a visual format.

Yeah sure the Foley guys win Academy Awards, but let’s face it, they win them basically for making The Terminator sound menacing, not for anything really to do with sound quality.

Dolby might not be the furthest thing from audiophile. That is still reserved for the AVR. But man is it ever a close call.
A great example of how "sound effects", EFFECT US..

Nothing more.. You'll get a belly full pretty quick BECAUSE of the inconsistency alone. One is great the next is bad.. Heck I use a stereo for everything.

I've never used surround. Only 3 channel trinauraul (analog) SST or Mac with bass bins and subs. All the bass stuff is processed now.. For me anyway.. A lot easier to control..

ALL the rest is sound effects.. Puff Puff Pass!! :-)

My limited, (non) audition of Apple’s Spatial Audio left me (1) disappointed that the feature would seem to be wholly dependent upon one’s having access to Atmos equipment or a handful of non-audiophile-centric devices (I.e., AirPods, Beats, etc.) and (2) highly curious to hear said Spatial Audio on a full on Dolby Atmos setup.

in any case, I’m hearing VERY little difference, either in general SQ or any hint of any enhanced “immersive” effect on my recently purchased, 5.2 home theater system (which is not Atmos equipped) between Tidal (sourced from a Node 2i) and Apple Spatial Audio offerings (coming from an Apple TV 4K device) into the same 5.2 system.

I suspect that if Spatial Audio is all it’s cracked up to be, it’s going to be somewhat of a “mono to stereo” moment.  As in this earlier, watershed moment it doesn’t appear as though any of the new tech will be backward-compatible.