How to build your own Atmos surround-sound system
Our expert Chris Haslam explains how to create your own Atmos surround-sound system
The Metropolis Studios in West London has built a Dolby-Certified 3D audio recording facility – with results that have left me in audio nirvana.
Cinephiles are well used to the all-encompassing effect of 360-degree Dolby Atmos surround-sound, but experiencing it with musical recordings was a revelation – one which, with Dolby, Apple and Amazon Music now offering Dolby Atmos-compatible surround-sound audio mixes, I’m keen to replicate at home.
What is Dolby Atmos?
Dolby Atmos is surround-sound technology designed for cinema that envelops the viewer with audio from every angle, thanks to up- and/or down-firing, in-ceiling and traditional surround-sound speakers. The effect can be eerily realistic; if it rains on screen, it sounds like you’re getting wet.
How do you build your own Atmos surround-sound system?
To build your own Atmos surround-sound system, you need an Atmos-compatible TV or AV receiver (Sony and Denon make these) and then, depending on space (and budget), surround-sound speakers or a compatible soundbar. Having HDMI ports is essential, and if you’re using a soundbar, your TV needs an eARC (enhanced audio return channel) port.
If you’re after a seamless look or dedicated cinema room, flush-fitting designs like the Lithe Audio Pro Series Wi-Fi Ceiling Speakers (from £599) perform brilliantly, but most Atmos speaker packages incorporate upward-firing drivers into their front speakers, bouncing sound off the ceiling and towards your listening position to trick your ears into thinking sound is coming from overhead. You can also upgrade existing surround-sound speaker bundles with add-on Atmos speakers for brands including Monitor Audio and KEF (richersounds.com).
The Lithe Audio Pro Series Ceiling Speakers are able to be connected via AirPlay 2 and Google Chromecast and can be bought in singles or pairs – as well as bathroom alternatives. You can connect via wireless or cable, with additional bolt-on options for home cinema.
More speakers usually mean more convincing surround-sound, but in recent years soundbar technology has come a long way, and designs such as the Sennheiser Ambeo (£2,199) have revolutionised what is possible from one box.
That said, at £499, Denon’s Home Sound Bar 550 sounds impressive too. Engineered for immersive 3D audio, it's designed to be used as a compact sound bar for watching television and listening to music. Amazon's Alexa function has been built into the soundbar, meaning that you can direct its volume, input and audio levels with your voice. You can listen to internet radio, stream through music subscription services and listen to downloaded tracks and via your USB drive.
More like this
Atmos-compatible streaming is still new, but more content is being remastered. Subscribers to Apple Music may hear selected songs in spatial audio with Dolby Atmos using Apple TV 4K, MacBook and HomePod speakers. Amazon Music HD subscribers can stream directly to an Echo Studio speaker ( £159, amazon.co.uk), while Tidal subscribers (tidal.com) can stream to an A/V receiver and speakers for the full Atmos experience.
Best surround-sound speakers and compatible soundbars
Amazon Echo Studio
While it can’t match the immersive audio of a room full of speakers, this voice-controlled smart speaker has five speakers that fire sound in all directions. It’s the most affordable way to experience Atmos music at home.
Its five in-built speakers allow for clarity across the bass, midrange and upper range. As is the case for all Alexa devices, you're able to sync up with all your other Alexa devices so you can operate it like an intercom. If you're nervous about privacy and security, you can switch off these microphone settings and disconnect the voice-operated options.
The Sonos Arc uses 11 drivers, including upward-firing ones that bounce sound off your walls and ceiling and give you a surprisingly realistic Dolby Atmos effect. Dynamic, balanced and brilliant for both movies and music.
Its sleek, slimline finish makes it a beautiful object for the home. It can be used as an entirely separate device to the TV, so you can stream music, radio and podcasts with the Sonos app or via Apple AirPlay. It's also voice controlled, thanks to the inbuilt Google Assistant and Amazon Alexa options.
Focal Chora 826-D
With upward-firing drivers mounted on top of the floor-standing speakers, this luxury design from French brand Focal offers one of the best ways to experience the room-filling, multi-directional performance of Dolby Atmos.
It's been created for ultra-realistic 3D sounds and total immersion for the listener. The midrange and bass speakers are catered for with the Slatefiber cone, and the Aluminum/Magnesium TNF tweeter for greater clarity in the treble range. This is a great option for home cinema lovers.
Chris Haslam is a freelance consumer technology journalist, specialising in tech, audio, lifestyle, health and interiors. He is the monthly audio columnist for BBC Music Magazine, rounding up the best audio equipment on the market for classical music lovers. He is also a contributing editor for Wired UK.