Science & Tech

How to Upgrade Your Home Theater System for Dolby Atmos

A step-by-step guide to upgrading your home theater audio with Dolby Atmos.

There has been a profound change over the past several years in what it means to be surrounded by sound.

Helicopters circling overhead can chop through the air just above you. A flock of birds can encircle you in front, in back and above. Flying missiles, leaping cars, magic spells, alien spaceships — all may pass over and around you to completely immerse you in a film’s sound effects.

Traditionally, “surround sound” has referred to TV or film sound that plays from different parts of the living room. When you pull your TV right out of the box, generally it comes with stereo or two-channel audio. That means some sound comes from the right and some sound comes from the left. That’s it.

When you add surround sound — either 5.1 or 7.1, from an array of five or seven speakers, respectively, plus a subwoofer — sound comes from different directions. So dialogue or special effects project at you from the same direction they’re generated in the movie or TV show.

But with Dolby AtmosⓇ, the sound moves fully throughout the three-dimensional space around you, including from above.

More than 200 home releases have been mixed in Dolby Atmos so far, and with major streaming players like Netflix and Vudu supporting audio in Atmos, now may be prime time to upgrade your sound system.

But how?

The hookup

The best way to hook up your Dolby Atmos system — in fact, the only way — is through HDMI.

Unlike other stereo or surround sound systems that transmit over optical cables or Bluetooth, your Dolby Atmos setup will necessitate an HDMI cable, which is the modern standard, universal cable for lossless audiovisual data. “Lossless” means the sound transfers without any compression or distortion — that full, rich, complete sound can pass from your TV right into your Dolby Atmos speaker setup, uncompromised.

As for what exactly that speaker setup entails, you’ve got a couple of options.

Option 1: Dolby Atmos-ready soundbar

A soundbar “throws” sound around the room to simulate the effect of a full surround sound setup. Because it’s only simulating multiple speakers throughout the room, it doesn’t have the same flexibility and control as a full setup but makes up for it with ease.

Most soundbars are only one or two pieces of equipment (a soundbar and a subwoofer, though some come with additional speakers), so setup is quick and relatively painless. Your existing devices — set-top boxes, video game consoles, Blu-ray player, etc. — can stay plugged in to your TV, and one HDMI port can feed out to the soundbar. Or you can do the inverse: hook all your devices into HDMI ports in the soundbar, and use one HDMI cable to connect the soundbar to your TV.

Home entertainment soundbars come at a variety of price points for a variety of reasons. The first is the kind of setup the soundbar is simulating, which is indicated by three numbers separated with periods. The first number is the number of surround speakers, the second is the number of subwoofers, and the third is the number of speakers bouncing sound off your ceiling to create overhead effects.

For example, a 7.1.2 soundbar simulates seven speaker surround, has one subwoofer for bass, and includes two speakers that reflect sound off the ceiling. With this arrangement, a minimal amount of equipment is able to fill your room with sound and simulate an entire in-home theater with just a couple pieces of equipment.

Other features that affect price include connection capabilities, like Bluetooth or Wi-Fi, speaker quality, additional equipment, and other bonuses. The biggest items that should factor in what soundbar to buy are the configuration of your room and the connections that work with your existing TV setup.

Take a look at this list of Dolby Atmos-ready soundbars to compare styles and specs.

Option 2: Full home theater setup

While a soundbar uses modern technology to make it seem like there are speakers all over the room, a home theater system has actual speakers all around the room, just like they would be in a movie theater.

If you already have some form of surround sound in your home, this may be the way to go since your setup could be as simple as upgrading your receiver and adding a couple speakers. And even if you don’t, this may be the way to go as it provides great flexibility and control in terms of speaker quantity and placement.

Flexibility does mean there are more speakers to set up and more wires to run — unless you’re using modern wireless speakers, which are increasingly popular — but it’s worth it in terms of what you can do with them. You can have recessed speakers built into your walls and ceiling. Or you can get stands to hold your speakers, with upfiring speakers bouncing sound off the ceiling. There can be five surround, one subwoofer and four upfiring (a 5.1.4 configuration) or seven surround, one subwoofer and two in the ceiling (a 7.1.2 configuration). It really comes down to what makes sense for you and your home.

5.1.4 configuration
5.1.4 configuration
7.1.2 configuration
7.1.2 configuration

Getting it up and running

Once you’ve aligned on the right option, soundbar or full theater setup, it’s time to unbox your new hardware and get it fired up.

First, make sure you have the right cables and available ports in your TV. Dolby Atmos transmits over HDMI, so that means having a spare HDMI port on your TV and an HDMI cable to complete the connection.

To get started, you’ll need to run an HDMI cable from your TV to your soundbar or to an audio/video receiver (AVR) or a preprocessor that can decode Dolby Atmos and send the signal to your speakers. Some existing AVRs can be upgraded to support Atmos, or you can take a look at some examples of Dolby Atmos-enabled AVRs and preprocessors.

Another option with some soundbars and AVRs is to reroute your existing devices through them. That is, you can disconnect your set-top boxes or your video game consoles from your TV and instead connect them to the soundbar or AVR. Then there’s only one cable connecting your soundbar or AVR to the TV, and you switch between devices from the soundbar or AVR directly.

No matter what you’re working with, the devices you’ve purchased should ship with detailed instructions from the manufacturer that go into greater detail for your specific setup. Once everything’s hooked in, the next step is the same for everyone.

Go into your TV device settings and adjust the output to optimize for Dolby Atmos content. Even for legacy content — TV shows and movies mixed in stereo or 5.1 surround sound — Dolby Atmos-enabled AVRs and preprocessors include what’s called an “upmixer” to enhance the content for your new Atmos system.

With your devices plugged in and your setting adjusted, there is just one especially crucial step left: enjoy. You now have the power of Dolby Atmos in your living room.

Take a look at the streaming services and home entertainment that you can take advantage of now that you’re up-to-date with the new frontier of in-home audio.