Dolby Atmos is one of the most sought-after features for people shopping for a new soundbar or home theater system. The immersive audio technology enables the speaker or speaker system to create virtual height and side channels, which trick your ears into thinking that sound is coming from all around you — left, right and above — instead of just right in front of you. Essentially, Atmos makes it sound like you're in a movie or at a concert — and it's incredible.
However, Dolby makes a lot of digital technologies and that has the potential to confuse some consumers. For example, Dolby Audio, which a lot of new soundbars and home theater sound systems are advertised as having, is not Dolby Atmos. And it will not have the same effect.
Two prime examples of this are Vizio's 2020 V-Series soundbar and the new Roku Streambar. Both support Dolby Audio but not Dolby Atmos. The Streambar even lists Dolby Audio as its number one feature on its product page — "[it] upgrades any TV with powerful streaming and cinematic sound with Dolby Audio." See how this could be confusing?
So what exactly the difference between Dolby Audio and Dolby Atmos?
Dolby Audio is a 2D audio technology that makes subtle enhancements to whatever you're watching — be it a sporting event, streamed movie or even a DVD or Blu-ray — so that it sounds generally better. It automatically adds detail so that you can better hear dialogue, for example. It also adjusts the volume so when there's a quick cut scene or you're even switching between channels, you're not going from extreme highs to extreme lows (or vice versa).
Dolby Atmos, as stated before, is a 3D immersive technology that allows a speaker or speaker system to fool your brain into thinking that sound is coming from all around you. It essentially gives you the effect of feeling like you're watching a movie in the cinema, with speakers positioned all around you, even when you're not.
The thing to note about Dolby Atmos is that every think in the audio chain has to support it, or you won't get its immersive effect. So if you're watching a movie at home, the soundbar, television and the content source— be it a movie from a streaming service from Netflix or HBO Max, or a physical disc like a DVD or a Blu-ray — all have to support Dolby Atmos.
The good thing is that Dolby wants to make Atmos widespread and has licensed its technology into a lot home theater systems and soundbars, as well as headphones and TVs. A lot of streaming services, such as Netflix, Disney+, Apple TV+ and Amazon Prime Video, are supporting more and more Atmos content, too.