Over the past few months, I've been gradually introduced to the world of Dolby Atmos. From seeing the trademark on my computer to hearing differences with music on Apple Music, my interest in the technology has been growing quite a bit. I'd like to share my thoughts on it, and what I make of it!
What is Dolby Atmos?
In short, Dolby Atmos is a spatial sound technology that aims to enhance sounds and places them in a phantom atmosphere; you'll be able to hear sounds from all around you, and sometimes make the sound better. Originally built for theatres and surround sound systems in mind, Atmos has since been adapted for stereo systems (like headphones!) by adding processing that aims to give you a more spatial experience.
In my experience of using Atmos, it performs pretty varyingly. Of course, Dolby Atmos is only meant to work with sources that are mixed in Atmos; while my computer tries to perform processing on non-Atmos sources (like YouTube videos), the changes are significant enough but aren't guaranteed to always sound good.
Granted, I only have the means to experience Dolby Atmos in its binaural form through headphones. I probably won't be experiencing the full power of Atmos unless I have access to a surround sound system, but I'm stoked anyway; if sounds can appear to sound around me (though most times quite unnoticeable) in Atmos's binaural form, what would it be like in a full system with physical speakers all around you? While Dolby claims that the experience of Atmos will more or less be the same across different channel systems, it's clear that there will be some differences. Atmos is capable of creating binaural sound, but that experience is, as many people say, different than the sound Atmos produces that comes from physical speakers located around you.
Experiencing Dolby Atmos
For me, I've managed to briefly experience some Atmos content in two ways:
- through Netflix on my computer; and
- through Apple Music on my phone.
As mentioned earlier, and I'd like to stress again, I've only had experience with the binaural version of Atmos. I'm curious as to what things may sound like with physical speakers, but I think that thus far it has still impressed!
Dolby Atmos for movies
Netflix has a growing collection of Atmos-enabled films and series, and I've managed to watch a few of them on my computer. Through Dolby Access and enabling the Movie profile, I then used Microsoft Edge to watch those films and series of Netflix. The Netflix web app seemingly gives a little acknowledgement with a DA badge on supported films, and that's how I mainly came to realise that Edge supported Atmos (before searching and validating that, of course).
I'm not one to binge-watch many series (unless it's really something of my interest), but here are a few movies and series on Netflix with Atmos that I've watched:
Listening to them, you can definitely tell that the audio's slightly different than plain stereo. Where objects and characters are offscreen, the sound tends to follow them; this isn't something that I really noticed much in stereo audio, though it's definitely implementable. I was particularly surprised with Locke & Key, where whisperings in some scenes evidently came from somewhere behind you (and they move about too with the scene!).
Dolby Atmos Music
Another aspect of Atmos is music, aptly named Dolby Atmos Music. Apple Music officially supported Spatial Audio with Dolby Atmos sometime ago, alongside providing lossless audio (how neat is that?). My experience with that has been mostly positive, but I'd like to talk in-depth too about certain aspects.
- For one, songs mastered with Atmos sound a little more spatial (duh); for most songs, this is fine, but for songs which are already spatial in stereo to begin with may sound a little too quiet and muffled.
- It's usually clear to tell which song is an Atmos song; I'd usually try to pay attention to the lead vocal in the song, and hear if the vocal's coming from within my head (stereo) or somewhere in front of me (Atmos).
In some songs, sounds in Atmos sound to be enhanced as well; they may be a little louder than their stereo counterparts, or maybe have more base or treble where appropriate. As I got used to the fact that Dolby Atmos Music is still technically an alternate mastering and mixing of a song, I suppose it makes sense that changes can be made here and there to make the song better in the Atmos format.
Here are some of my favourite songs to listen to in Dolby Atmos:
- Cuz I Love You by Lizzo — The song's explosive parts are more prominent and vibrant in the Atmos variant, and it surprised me the first time I listened to it.
- GOLDWING by Billie Eilish — The first half of the short song involves a choir-like sound, and Atmos definitely excels in making you feel encompassed in the layers of voices.
- We Don't Talk About Bruno of the movie Encanto — The song really took me by surprised, and you can hear the voices of the different characters singing move around you.
- As It Was by Harry Styles — The instrumentation in the song weirdly sounds more life-like, and slightly distanced to give the lead vocals a more prominent focus.
- mona lisa by mxmtoon — The vocals are nicely spaced apart and the song's unexplanably immersive with sounds encompassing you. That's the point of Atmos, but it weirdly feels more prominent in this song!
- The 30th by Billie Eilish — The bridge gives more prominence to the sharp increase in volume, making you feel overwhelmed by the many layers of vocals seemingly in your face. Takes my breath away!
Atmos really excels in songs where certain instruments or elements have to be moved around. You can generally hear them moving effortlessly around you, without breaking the illusion. It's seriously impressive!
With all the pros of Atmos Music mentioned, there is a main drawback that I've encountered, and that's the inconsistency of quality and volume.
Considering the fact that songs are produced by many records and are under the supervision of so many producers, mixing engineers, and artists, it's obvious that each and every song would be different. However, I'd still expect that Atmos, as a brand that is applied to tracks, uphold some kind of consistency in quality.
Volumes between Atmos and stereo tracks (and even different Atmos tracks in different albums) can sound wildly different, but I understand that Atmos has some kind of guideline regarding volume that mixing engineers have to obey. What Hi-Fi? wrote a pretty good article about Atmos inconsistency that I agreed with a lot.
The placebo effect
As I've spent more time listening to Atmos content here and there, I think it's fair enough to start asking the question if I'm starting to convince myself that Atmos is better than it actually is. I have thought of the question, and in some circumstances I guess my ears have deceived me into tricking myself that a non-Atmos track (particularly songs) is one.
For what it's worth, I think that Atmos doesn't take what stereo gives and runs off in a completely different direction. It aims to make experiences more immersive, not more wild. I feel like that's where Atmos does best at the moment; in places where sounds need to sound more life-like, or when sounds are moving around you, I believe that that's when Atmos performs the best. Otherwise, many of Atmos's enhancements are subtle; I believe that the normal listener (I'm a part of this group!) wouldn't necessarily pick up on a lot of these enhancements.
With that said, on Atmos with physical speakers, I think the discernment between stereo and Atmos will be much clearer. I still have yet to experiment with that, though, so I wouldn't be able to comment on anything just yet.
If you've read this far and are surprised at how much a person can talk so much about a spatial audio technology, I'm as surprised as you are.
Exploring audio is something that I have started to find interesting, and while I can't answer if Atmos is truly playing around with me through the placebo effect, for what it's worth, I think that the introduction of Atmos has caused many individuals (including me) to start giving their favourite songs a more in-depth listen. Through that, we can better appreciate the subtleties that the artists and mixing engineers have left behind (ooh, that sound in your right ear!) and other intentional acoustic decisions that they have made.
Thanks for reading!