Dolby Atmos For Headphones – Is It Worth It?

Dolby Atmos is a technology created by one of the leading companies in the field of surround sound technology, Dolby Laboratories. It can simulate the feeling of realistic sound coming from multiple sources, thus creating a remarkable audio experience.

While first being implemented in movies, Dolby Atmos has expanded its range as a company to be a pioneer in the surround sound field. In fact, since its first installation for the release of Pixar’s Brave, Dolby Atmos has increased the number of movie theaters using its technology.

In 2012, only a mere 25 locations had Dolby Atmos speaker setups. This figure has ballooned to an impressive 6,000 locations by the middle of 2020. Dolby Atmos has gradually transformed itself from the underdog to the major player in the surround sound technology space. 

How Does Dolby Atmos Separate Itself From the Competition?

When looking at Dolby Atmos’ technology, it is important to distinguish it from other forms of sound technology. The predominant forms of sound technology that exist currently are stereo sound and surround sound.

Stereo sound is the older, more conventional form of audio, which only has left and right audio channels. Surround sound is more complex because it can handle up to 10 channels. Mixing audio through these two forms involves using channels. One problem with this type of mixing is that it doesn’t allow for much flexibility.

Dolby Atmos in Movie Theaters & Home Theaters

Many movie theaters and home theaters are different and conventional methods may not be the best choice for audiophiles. However, Dolby Atmos differentiates itself from both of these forms due to its use of a proprietary, spatial audio software.

This software allows Dolby Atmos to give sound a three dimensional nature. By placing speakers in specific regions of a movie theater, Dolby Atmos is able to replicate accurate sound that is almost indistinguishable from reality. 

From Dolby

In a standard Dolby Atmos equipped movie theater, there are 64 speakers. Each of these speakers is providing a unique audio output in order to provide the most realistic audio experience for the audience. While this setup may seem complex, one advantage of it is that this speaker setup can be adjusted based on the size of each cinema, either scaled up or down.

This is important due to the discrepancies between cinemas in terms of size and technical capacity. This is also why Dolby Atmos can be implemented in home theaters. 

How Far Has Dolby Atmos Come?

Dolby Atmos, while initially being implemented only in movie theaters, has worked to expand its reach in the entertainment sector. Companies such as Yamaha and Onkyo have released products which are compatible with Dolby Atmos technology in the past few years.

Apple even announced in 2018 that Apple TV 4K would support Dolby Atmos. In 2019, Tidal and Amazon Music worked to be compatible with Dolby Atmos, but exclusively for audio streaming. Additionally, video games such as Overwatch and Gears of War 4 provide support for Dolby Atmos audio. This may indicate that PC and console games are looking to provide gamers with the next level of immersion, with the help of Dolby Atmos.

How Did the Surround Sound Industry Evolve to Get to Dolby Atmos?

Believe it or not, using sound to immerse an audience into a performance isn’t such a recent idea. In fact, this idea has been known and implemented for decades now. As soon as motion pictures could be shown on a large screen, people lined up by the thousands to see this revolutionary technology.

Although called silent films, these early forms of cinema were not simply images moving across a screen. The films were often accompanied by live music, by a professional musician playing music according to the actions in the movie.

The musical aspect was an important part of the cinematic experience. How else could emotions be conveyed by merely looking at a screen? 

The first known iteration of a surround sound system for a film was done by the Walt Disney Company. It was constructed for the release of its animated picture Fantasia which came out in the 1940s. The Walt Disney Company was a little too optimistic, however.

From Unsplashed

Their setup involved multiple channels requiring a total of 54 speakers. This amount of speakers, which even today might be difficult for some movie theaters, was not easy to procure for most cinemas. The system was certainly a technological marvel for its time, but it was unrealistic for most theaters to receive such a costly upgrade, especially since very few movies would have the ability to utilize the technology.

Perhaps this is why only two movie theaters had this system in place at the time. To make matters worse for surround sound technology, the use of immersive audio experience declined by the mid-twentieth century. 

Dolby Laboratories’ Influence

This was not the end of surround sound progress, however. In 1977, the incredibly popular Stars Wars was released and it supported none other than Dolby Stereo. Dolby Laboratories created Dolby Stereo just the year prior and they couldn’t have timed it better.

Star Wars was a huge success and the audio experience played a large role in that. With this victory, Dolby Laboratories was able to encourage movie theaters to install their surround sound systems. And the main difference from 1940 was that the theaters listened.

Throughout the late twentieth century, thousands of movie theaters adopted Dolby surround sound technology, in the hope that their viewers would have a more immersive experience. But with any success, there will always be others trying to emulate that success.

In the same time Dolby began ramping up its installation numbers, Sony and Digital Theater Systems both emerged as competitors. While they didn’t have much experience in the industry, they devoted time and effort to improve their technology and differentiate themselves from Dolby Laboratories.

From there, Dolby pushed to break into the home theater consumer market. In the 1970s until the end of the 1980s, Dolby continued to upgrade its technology. This culminated in the release of Dolby Pro Logic. This system beat the previous Dolby technology by allowing up to four channels for audio streaming. Later on in the 1990s, surround sound systems in home theaters transitioned to entirely digital. Over the years, Dolby has expanded its reach from movie theaters to home theaters, and more recently into headphones.

How Do Surround Sound Headphones Work?

This may seem like a simple question, but since headphones only use two audio channels to project sound, wouldn’t it be impractical to setup Dolby Atmos in them?

After all, Dolby Atmos setups in cinemas and home theaters require numerous speakers arranged in a manner that allows for sound to take the form of three dimensional objects. But if we look at our own anatomy, the answer becomes clear. Our bodies only have two ears, but we can still distinguish whether a sound is coming from in front of us, from the side of us, or from the top of up.

In other words, our brains can perceive sounds in three dimensions even though audio only enters the body through two channels. Well, if that’s the case, how are we able to detect sounds in real life that come from all around us?

Can I Buy a Surround Sound Processor for Headphones? | Sound & Vision
From Soundandvision

In addition to our two ears, our brains use a tool known as head-related transfer function (known as HRTF) to differentiate the sounds we hear. This function takes into account how the shoulders, head, and pinna (or outer ear) affect sound waves while they travel to our ears. The way the sound waves interact with these bodily structures impact the frequency and output of the audio signal.

We have evolved to have a brain that receives audio inputs from the ears and interprets them in a way that allows us to know where the original sound came from. 

Binaural sound source localization using the frequency diversity of the head -related transfer function: The Journal of the Acoustical Society of  America: Vol 135, No 3
From Acoustical Society

HTRF alone is able to go quite far in terms of audio immersion. By putting two microphones in the place of your ears and allowing them to receive input, you would be able to generate a recording that is quite close to what you would experience normally.

While Dolby Atmos systems have dozens of speakers each of which is outputting a unique signal, headphone designers are not so fortunate. They must be able to capture all of the information required to have realistic three dimensional sound objects using only two audio channels or binaural audio. 

Differences Between True and Virtual Headphones

There are two versions of surround sound headphones: true and virtual. These versions deal with how the sound is sent to the ear. True surround sound headphones utilize multiple speakers within the actual headphone headset in order to surround the ears with multiple drivers that will be able to deliver audio in a manner that reflects where it is coming from.

One example is the Razer Tiamat 7.1. This headphone setup has a total of 10 drivers arranged on each side of the ear. On the other hand, virtual surround sound headphones use a conventional two audio channel setup but have a HRTF algorithm to construct an audio experience for the listener. This requires some audio processing, but it has a number of benefits that separate itself from true surround sound headphones.

From Soundguys

First of all, true surround sound requires a number of audio drivers and this results in headphones that are costly and bulky, not to mention headphones with a large number of moving parts. Meanwhile, virtual surround sound can be played on any pair of headphones. The only requirement is the audio processing needed to create sound in virtual space around the ears.

Another benefit to virtual surround sound is the ability to stabilize audio channels in virtual space in order to maintain a consistent audio experience. This means that users will be able to move around without compromising any aspects of the surround sound experience.

Headphones using virtual surround sound will therefore be able to recreate audio that is closer to a Dolby Atmos movie theater or home theater setup, which is impressive for how early this technology is in its development. 

Is Dolby Atmos for Headphones Worth It?

One of the main concerns that consumers have with accessing Dolby Atmos is whether they will have to go out and buy a new pair of Dolby Atmos headphones. The short answer is no — any normal pair of headphones is able to provide the Dolby Atmos experience. However, it isn’t that simple.

When using normal headphones, the Dolby Access app must be used in order to actually hear three dimensional audio. While normal headphones may be fine for most people, audiophiles who are able to tell the difference between minute sound differences may not be suited best for conventional headphones.

Instead, by using Dolby Atmos headphones, users will be able to take advantage of features such as numerous audio drivers and trackers that make sure that the audio experience is stable. While these features may sound irrelevant, to an audiophile, these features will allow them to almost fully immerse themselves into the content they are listening to.

Best Surround Sound Headphones (7.1 and 5.1 headsets) with Mic - Skybuds
From Skybuds

Furthermore, Dolby Atmos is becoming supported on many content and music streaming platforms such as Apple TV, which was mentioned previously. However, there are some downsides to Dolby Atmos. While Dolby is gracious enough to provide a seven day free trial, there is a fee of $14.99 in order to procure the license. This isn’t the best deal for the most parsimonious of us, but if you really wish to explore the best of what Dolby Atmos is providing, then $15 is well worth the cost.

Now, the answer to whether Dolby Atmos is worth it for you is based upon the type of audio you will be listening to. 

Is Dolby Atmos Worth it for Movies/TV Shows?

When it comes to movies and TV shows, Dolby Atmos is without a doubt worth it because of the large selection of streaming platforms and movies that support this technology. Nevertheless, not every movie will comply with Dolby Atmos so it is important to adjust expectations especially because non-Dolby-supported content will revert audio back to stereo, 5.1 or 7.1 audio. This all depends on what kind of setup you have. 

Is Dolby Atmos Worth it for Gaming?

The same can be said for gaming. Every year, more and more consoles and titles are compatible with Dolby Atmos. Popular titles such as Assassin’s Creed, Call of Duty, and Cyberpunk 2077 all fully support Dolby Atmos.

While Xbox and PC gaming seem to be leading the way for surround sound so far, it is only a matter of time before PlayStation and other consoles venture into this field. For gaming, the use of surround sound by Dolby Atmos can not only improve the listening experience, but also give gamers a competitive advantage over those who only have binaural audio.

Gamers are already used to opening their wallets to purchase accessories that will improve their gameplay experience so buying Dolby Atmos appears to be a worthwhile investment. 

Is Dolby Atmos Worth it for Music Streaming?

When it comes to music streaming, the switch to Dolby Atmos might depend on personal preference. As mentioned before, the way Dolby creates three dimensional sound is extraordinary, but some individuals are likely to appreciate it more.

If you’re fine with paying for Dolby Access in addition to the cost of a music streaming platform, then Dolby Atmos will be worth the cost, assuming you can appreciate the subtle differences between Dolby surround sound and normal stereo sound.

One more factor to consider is the number of music streaming services that are compatible with Dolby Atmos. So far, only Apple Music, Tidal, and Amazon Music are compatible with Dolby. This creates a problem for people who listen to music on Spotify or YouTube Music.

While it is likely that more music streaming platforms will accommodate Dolby Atmos in the coming years, it is not a feature as of now, which may be an inconvenience for some people. 

Final Thoughts About Dolby Atmos

Is Dolby Atmos an absolute must buy for every single person who watches TV shows, games, or listens to music? No. Is Dolby Atmos merely a fad that will be surpassed by another technology. No, Dolby Laboratories has made its impact on the world of audio immersion.

When it failed to be widespread all the way back in the 1940s, Dolby strived to make their technology the best in the world. Now they are at the forefront of their industry and don’t look to be slowing down. There are alternatives such as DTS and Sony headphones, but they have issues such as being more expensive and not being supported on as many content streaming platforms. 

Dolby Atmos is one of the best options to experience surround sound audio at the moment. It is inevitable that surround sound will continue to improve over time. However, the technology that exists today is a major improvement from the attempts of surround sound early in its existence. 

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