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Dolby's Quest to Make Atmos the New Stereo Sound

Dolby wants to make Atmos, its immersive audio technology, as widely available (and as popular) as stereo sound. Here's how they're doing it.

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Sonos

Earlier this year, Sonos released its first flagship soundbar in eight years. The Arc ($799) had a beautiful industrial design, smart speaker capabilities, and a simple setup process thanks to signal HDMI connection. But its standout feature? It's Sonos's first soundbar to support Dolby Atmos.

You're undoubtedly familiar with the brand at this point, but in point of fact, Dolby Atmos is an immersive surround sound technology. It allows a speaker to create virtual height and side channels that fool your ears into thinking that that sounds are coming from all around you. For instance, if you're watching a movie and a plane flies overhead, you'll hear that plane above you. Or if motorcycle is coming towards you, you'll hear it scream pass your left or right side.

Despite it being so popular today, Atmos is still a relatively new technology. Dolby first brought it to cinemas in 2012, then the first home theater system in 2014, and then the first soundbar in 2015. Fast forward to 2020 and Dolby Atmos is essentially much-have feature for most soundbars or home theater systems. But if you have the impression that Dolby Atmos is a cinema technology that's only meant for premium and expensive soundbars and home theater systems, Dolby would like to have a word. "We want Atmos to be the new stereo," said Brett Crockett, Vice President of Sound Technology and R&D at Dolby. "We want [Atmos] to fit in as wide of products as people can afford. So you can get a Dolby Atmos soundbar for as little as $300."

Where cinemas have many speakers positioned all around you, Atmos can create a similar immersive effect on as little as a two-channel speaker -- anything but mono. Dolby licenses its technologies — including Atmos — to the various manufacturers like Apple, Samsung and Sonos. This licensing agreement includes the software package that does the decoding and the rendering of the Atmos stream, as well as technical support from Dolby.

That software package is enough to give the impression of vertical height without surround sound or ceiling speakers, or even upward-firing drivers. Atmos allows soundbars that don't have upward-firing speakers to still make use of height virtualization technology. Atmos is smart enough to figure out what kind of system you have, whether that's a 2.0, 5.1.2 or a 7.1.2, and then render the audio so that it's accurate and immersive.

When a speaker that uses Dolby's Atmos tech is finished, Dolby's team of expert listeners test it, using an array of fundamental signals such as dime sweeps and pink noise, to make sure it's up to snuff. Other times, Dolby gives manufacturers self tests so they can run on their own and submit the results of in order to speed the process of Dolby Atmos certification.

And that speed is important for Dolby's quest to make its Atmos tech as ubiquitous as stereo. Today, already, there are hundreds of millions of Dolby Atmos enabled devices in market. And it's not just home theater systems and soundbars. It's built into PCs and tablets, game consoles and streaming sticks, smartphones, smart speakers, headphones and TVs. "I don't think people realize that there are a number of television sets that come with Atmos support built into them," said Crocket. Dolby Atmos is available on many of the latest Televisions from LG, Sony, TCL and Hisense. "You can put your HD TV on your wall, stream an Atmos soundtrack to it and get this fantastic Atmos experience from your TV. You don't have to buy a soundbar."

Dolby's next goal is to make sure as many streaming services support Atmos as possible — and it's doing just that. "We wanted to democratize the playback capabilities of Atmos," said Crockett. "We started with movies, then went to television, went to games and now we've moved into music." Streaming services like Netflix, Disney+, Apple TV+ and Amazon Prime Video are gaining more Dolby Atmos movies and shows every day. Music streaming services, such as Amazon Music HD and TIDAL Hifi, have a growing library of music that support Atmos, too.

One of the main hurdles for Dolby is that if any one link in the audio chain, whether it be the soundbar, television or the movie or show that's being watching does not support Dolby Atmos, then you won't get the audio experience. For example, when I reviewed the Sonos Arc earlier year, I wasn't originally able to watch Atmos content because even though the soundbar worked with Atmos, the TV that I had the soundbar hooked up to didn't.

Fortunately, if one of those audio links don't support Atmos, you're not completely fucked. That's because Dolby made Atmos backwards compatible, meaning you'll still hear sound — you just won't get the ideal immersive experience. If you don't have an Atmos capability, the audio will playback the multi-channel or stereo sound from that Atmos bitstream.

When it comes to music, there's a good percentage of people who stream music using their smartphone and headphones — so it makes sense that Atmos is supported by more and more smartphones and headphones. The latest iPhones support Atmos audio (2018's iPhone Xs was the first iPhone to support it), for example, while the recently-released iOS 14 gave Apple's AirPods Atmos support as well. Pretty soon, no matter what or how you're listening to something, or how you're doing it, you're going to be able to experience Atmos's surround sound experience. And that's exactly how Dolby wants it.

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