My Real-World Dolby Atmos Installation

I'm convinced that Dolby Atmos will truly be the next renaissance for home theater surround and that it is something that needs to be experienced before a client will be willing to commit.
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If you haven't heard about newest theatrical surround format Dolby Atmos by this point, then you are either deliberately ignoring practically all industry news or have just returned from a long exile on an island, Arrow style. (And, seriously, I hope it’s the Arrow-thing, cause our industry could use something that is just that bad ass.)

I've been a huge fan of Dolby’s new surround format ever since I experienced it earlier this year at Dolby's facilities in New York. And then again, when I made it my goal to attempt to sit through every Atmos demo at this year's CEDIA EXPO. (You can read my post, "Dolby Atmos Surrounds CEDIA 2014" here.)

When I returned from CEDIA and described Atmos to my business partner (who was unable to attend the show) he wasn’t overly impressed and was apprehensive to invest in a system for our showroom. Not only would we need the four new speakers, but it would require a new pre-amp processor and multi-channel amplifier. But beyond the monetary outlay, he cited the very valid point that we have a hard enough time getting people to go beyond basic 5.1-channel systems let alone adding up to four additional channels into their ceiling.

I'm convinced, however, that Dolby Atmos will truly be the next renaissance for home theater surround and that it is something that needs to be experienced before a client will be willing to commit. Further, there aren't too many products out there we can demonstrate that separate ourselves from the competition. And at this point, demonstrating a killer Dolby Atmos install won't be something people see on every street corner or get a taste of at a Big Box store for a while.

Fortunately our showroom’s big demo theater is literally the ideal room for a 7.1.4-channel Atmos system, the real sweetspot for most Atmos installs at home. This layout consists of the usual 5.1-channel set up with a pair of surround back channels along with four overhead speakers.

Having a drop tile ceiling in our theater we were able to easily retro in the wiring needed for the four new speakers and cut them in at the ideal locations, in line with the front left and right mains and placed ahead and behind the main listening position based on Dolby's recommendation seen here:

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 Atmos speaker position
We had an existing Definitive Technology 7.1-channel system at floor level, consisting of BP-8080ST towers in the front, a CS-8080HD center, four Mythos Two handling side and rear channels, and a Super Cube 8000 subwoofer. For the overhead Atmos speakers we added four new Def Tech DI 8R in the ceiling.

With the grilles off (awaiting painting) the DI 8R speakers all but completely disappear in our theater's black ceiling. I've circled them in this image so you can see the placement. (Admittedly, taking a picture of black speakers on a black ceiling with lights on is not the iPhone 6’s camera’s wheelhouse.) Based on a suggestion from GoldenEar Technology's Sandy Gross at his demo at CEDIA, I directed the tweeters in toward the listening position.

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 Ceiling Atmos
We replaced our previous Marantz preamp with the company’s new AV7702, which is Atmos-enabled out of the box. We also have Marantz 7-channel MM8077 and 5-channel MM7055 amplifiers giving us a total of 12 channels in the theater. (That gives us one left over if Auro and the "voice of God" channel takes off.)

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Marantz Atmos
In the preamp's speaker set-up menu you tell the system how many overhead speakers you have and then the Audyssey set-up runs as usual. Following calibration, I bumped the levels on all the Atmos speakers by 1 dB so it would be a little more dramatic for demos.

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Atmos speakers
As soon as the install was up, I changed our store's marquee to this:

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CTA Atmos sign
I’d like to say this signage caused a rush of people, but in fact only two people have actually asked about it so far. I’m hoping that as Atmos gains more traction in advertising that people with make the name connection and be interested in coming in and experiencing a true 11-channel system. There is a real lack of awareness in our area, as the closest Atmos-enabled commercial theater is about two hours away.

Admittedly, there isn't much Atmos demo material currently available. (The Atmos renderer can upmix non-Atmos encoded material – ie: everything else – to take advantage of the ceiling channels, but I haven’t had an opportunity to really listen to that much at this point.) Beyond a Dolby demo disc given out at CEDIA, I believe I own every single Atmos Blu-ray currently available. All three of them… These are Transformers: Age of Extinction, Step Up: All In, and The Expendables 3.

The Dolby demo disc is actually missing my favorite demo cut from the demos given at CEDIA: a rain storm that really showed off the overhead channels and cycled Atmos processing on and off to really demonstrate the envelopment that the Atmos speakers and decoding add. As much as it pains me to say it, the Enrique Iglesias "Bailando" track is probably the most aurally exciting demo on the disc. ("Leaf" is also great, but has far more subtle use of the overhead channels, and the short film, Silent, is cute and makes good use of all channels.)

Fortunately, the movie Blu-rays do a terrific job of showing off what Atmos is truly capable of, and virtually every scene offers a feast for the ears. Surprisingly, instead of hard overhead pans, or hovering helicopters, or voices shouting from above, the majority of the mixes on these films have shown more restrained use of the ceiling channels, utilizing the overhead speakers more to create a wonderful hemispherical sense of ambience and envelopment. Further, the Atmos renderer does a really terrific job of moving and pinpointing objects sonically as they move around the room. Sonically, these discs are all very impressive to listen to. (Thank goodness, because Step Up is not going to win any acting or screenwriting awards.)

The opening scene in Transformers, for example, has a dinosaur on the right side of the room that roars, and the sound echoes and moves across the ceiling and into the left speakers, giving you a terrific sense of the outdoor space. Expendables 3 opens with an action-packed train rescue, with a helicopter gunship swooping in and flying around, producing swirling, sonic mayhem. And virtually every dance number in Step Up goes all in with the overhead channels getting a ton of music mixed into them.

After just three films, it's clear to me Atmos is a generational leap forward in surround technology, definitely making movie watching more engaging and exciting. Of course, it has me staring up at my ceiling at home and planning how I will integrate it and wondering which of the films in my collection I would upgrade for the improved soundtrack.

And my skeptical business partner? While he still isn’t convinced people will be lining up to add four more speakers, he commented on how immersive it sounds and said Atmos is the most impressive surround development he’s heard since Dolby Digital.

If you own a showroom, you owe it to yourself and your customers to add at least one Atmos system.

John Sciacca is principal of Custom Theater and Audio in Myrtle Beach, SC.

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