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Dolby Atmos for Headphones – Is It Worth It?

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We examine the pros and cons of Dolby Atmos for headphones and see if this virtual surround sound format is worth spending for.

Virtual surround sound is a great way to get better sound performance from your favorite games, movies, and music. It heightens the audio-visual experience, making you feel totally immersed in the onscreen action.

Nowadays, there are many surround sound technologies available. Some even make immersive sound quality possible on a much smaller set-up, such as your headphones. And while having options is always a good thing, the process of choosing may be complicated for those unfamiliar with the technology.

No worries — we’re here to simplify things as best we can. For this article, we’ll be focusing on Dolby Atmos for headphones. We’ll discuss what it is, how it works, and if it’s worth spending your money on. So, let’s begin!

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What Is Dolby Atmos?

Dolby Atmos logo (From:Wikimedia Commons).
Dolby Atmos logo (From: Wikimedia Commons).

Dolby Atmos is a virtual surround sound technology created by Dolby Laboratories. It uses software to simulate having multiple audio sources, thus giving you a realistic, three-dimensional audio experience.

Dolby Atmos was first used in cinemas in 2012, with the premiere of Pixar’s Brave. Since then, its usage has expanded to include home theaters, headphones, and even smartphones.

If you’d like to know more about virtual surround sound, check out our in-depth article on how to add virtual surround sound to headphones.

To better understand the concept of Dolby Atmos and virtual surround sound, let’s first quickly look at stereo sound and surround sound.

Stereo sound vs. surround sound (From:Dolby).
Stereo sound vs. surround sound (From: Dolby).

Stereo sound is a conventional sound system wherein audio resonates from two fixed channels – left and right. On the other hand, surround sound can have as many as six to ten audio channels in 5.1, 7.1, or 9.1 horizontal configurations.

The surround sound nomenclature of “5.1”, “7.1”, and “9.1” refer to the different audio channels. The numbers “5”, “7”, “9” refer to the number of speakers, and “1” represents the subwoofer.
Dolby Atmos audio visualization.
Dolby Atmos audio visualization.

As a virtual surround sound format, Dolby Atmos manipulates sound to make it seem like it’s coming from multiple directions, even without the typical 5.1, 7.1, or 9.1 surround sound setup. It does this with the help of spatial audio software that turns audio into 3D objects (more on this later) that can be precisely “placed” anywhere within a 360-degree virtual bubble.

In other words, Dolby Atmos doesn’t rely on a set number of available audio channels or speakers because it can artificially recreate them in a virtual audio space.

Dolby Atmos for cinemas and home theaters

Speaker placement in Dolby Atmos cinema (From:Dolby).
Speaker placement in Dolby Atmos cinema (From: Dolby).

Dolby Atmos cinemas typically make use of a 64-speaker setup distributed to the front, behind the screen, at the back, along the sides, and overhead. Each speaker is independently assigned its own audio feed. This allows more accurate sound reproduction, thus giving the audience a more immersive audio experience.

Re-creating this 64-speaker setup at home is impractical for obvious reasons. But the great thing about Dolby Atmos technology is that it can be scaled up or down, depending on what equipment you already have.

5.1, 7.1, and 9.1 speaker setups for home theaters (From:Dolby).
5.1, 7.1, and 9.1 speaker setups for home theaters (From: Dolby).

As mentioned earlier, typical surround sound setups make use of 5.1, 7.1, or 9.1 configurations, as seen in the image above. In contrast, Dolby Atmos home theater setups go by a slightly different nomenclature, such as 5.1.2, 5.1.4, 7.1.2, 7.1.4, and so on.

The additional third number refers to “height” speakers. Overhead sound is what distinguishes Dolby Atmos from conventional surround sound, and installing ceiling or “height” speakers is one of the ways you can achieve that true Atmos audio experience.

However, if you aren’t keen on installing extra ceiling speakers, you can also opt for Dolby-enabled speakers instead. There are two types of Dolby-enabled speakers – integrated units and add-on modules.

Integrated speakers (left) and add-on modules (right) (From:Dolby).
Integrated speakers (left) and add-on modules (right) (From: Dolby).

Integrated units include both forward-firing and upward-firing drivers. Upward-firing drivers are angled towards the ceiling, allowing sound to bounce off and back to the listener. This makes up for the absence of ceiling speakers.

On the other hand, add-on modules consist only of upward-firing components and can simply be placed on top of your existing primary speakers.

Dolby-enabled integrated unit (From:Dolby).
Dolby-enabled integrated unit (From: Dolby).

What do you need to run Dolby Atmos at home?

Dolby Atmos streaming setup guide (From:Dolby).
Dolby Atmos streaming setup guide (From: Dolby).

You don’t need to buy special speakers to run Dolby Atmos on your home theater setup. But you will at least need a Dolby-enabled audio visual receiver (AVR) to decode Atmos sound, and “height” speakers to recreate the overhead sound.

As mentioned before, if you aren’t keen on getting ceiling speakers, you can also opt for add-on modules or an Atmos-enabled soundbar.

In addition to that, you’ll also need to make sure that your content player, streaming service, and the actual content you’re watching all support Dolby Atmos.

You can check out which TVs, AVRs, and soundbars are Atmos-enabled on the Dolby website.

Dolby Atmos for headphones

Dolby Access on Windows.
Dolby Access on Windows.

With the help of the Dolby Access app, you can experience the magic of Dolby Atmos on a smaller setup, such as your headphones.

Dolby Access is a standalone app that can be downloaded from the Microsoft Store. It’s designed to bring the Atmos experience to gaming consoles, PCs, and mobile devices. And the best part is that it’ll work on any existing pair of headphones you own.

How Does Dolby Atmos Work?

Earlier, we discussed how Dolby Atmos for cinemas use multiple speakers to give you a 360-degree audio experience. So, how does this translate to single-driver headphones? Well, this is where object-based audio comes into play.

Channel-based audio vs. object-based audio (From:Dolby Developer).
Channel-based audio vs. object-based audio (From: Dolby Developer).

In a regular surround sound setup, audio is assigned to specific channels or speakers. This is called channel-based audio.

To illustrate, imagine a movie scene with a speeding motorbike. The motorbike audio might be mixed to originate from the right rear speaker, then pan through the right, center, and left speakers. It might then continue to the left rear speaker and fade off as the motorbike speeds out of frame. To better visualize this, you can check out this video.

With channel-based mixing, the source of each sound is absolute. This isn’t always ideal because every home theater setup is different. For instance, if you don’t have rear speakers you may miss out on aspects of the audio experience.

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With object-based audio, sounds aren’t assigned to speakers but ‘locations’ or coordinates within a virtual bubble that surrounds you. So, instead of ‘panning from the right to the left speaker’, audio is mapped out to ‘move from the right side of the room to the left.’

Dolby Atmos does this by turning individual sounds into 3D objects with accompanying metadata. This metadata, which is created by a sound engineer, maps out where each sound goes within that virtual audio bubble.

All audio objects can move freely within that bubble and are no longer limited to the number of available speakers. It also means that your audio can be easily scaled up or down to suit whatever setup you have, whether it’s multiple speakers or just headphones.

All in all, object-based audio combined with height virtualization, gives you highly immersive, three-dimensional sound.

DTS:X is another virtual surround sound format that’s often compared to Dolby Atmos. Like Atmos, DTS:X also uses object-based audio to create life-like sound in a virtual audio bubble. The difference, however, is that Dolby Atmos requires overhead or upward-firing speakers, while DTS:X does not.

If you’d like to know more, we’ve got an article about DTS:X and DTS Headphone: X that you can check out.

What Headphones Do You Need for Dolby Atmos?

Man wearing gaming headphones (From:Pexels).
Man wearing gaming headphones (From: Pexels).

You might be asking, “Will any headphones work with Dolby Atmos?” Technically, yes.

Since Dolby Atmos doesn’t require a particular number of speakers, it can work just as seamlessly on a pair of headphones with only two drivers.

Your headphones don’t strictly need to be Atmos-enabled either because it’s the Dolby Access software and the processor within your computer or game console that does the heavy-lifting of creating the virtual surround sound.

But naturally, better-quality headphones will yield better quality sound. And if that’s what you’re after, you should keep the following in mind:

Multi-driver vs. single-driver headphones

Razer Tiamat 7.1 headphones (From:Razer).
Razer Tiamat 7.1 headphones (From: Razer).

Multi-driver headphones, as the name suggests, contain more than one driver in each headphone. For example, the Razer Tiamat 7.1 has a total of 10 discrete drivers distributed to the sides, rear, front, and center of each ear cup.

With multiple drivers, these headphones can deliver more expansive sound. Audio quality is also better because each driver is specifically tuned to certain frequencies, giving them a wider frequency range that’s ideal for true surround sound.

On the other hand, having more drivers doesn’t always mean better performance. In some cases, having multiple drivers can diminish the overall sound quality because of all the extra hardware in the ear cups. This mostly happens if the drivers aren’t tuned properly by the manufacturer.

Ultimately, this is a choice based on what sounds good to you, so it’s best to give both a try for a more definitive answer.

Wired vs. wireless headphones

Sony MDR-HW700DS Wireless Headphones (From:Sony).
Sony MDR-HW700DS Wireless Headphones (From: Sony).

We know that Dolby Atmos can work on any pair of headphones, and this includes standard stereo headphones and wireless Bluetooth headphones.

However, it’s important to keep in mind that you may not get the same expansive sound quality on a regular pair of Bluetooth headphones.

Similar to how Bluetooth codecs reduce the sound quality of lossless music files, some Bluetooth headphones may not render 3D audio as effectively as a pair of wired or Dolby-enabled headphones can.

As such, you aren’t going to get that true Atmos experience, but something ‘’Atmos-like” instead. This isn’t necessarily bad because your audio will still sound good.

To be fair, some wired headphones have been known to perform underwhelmingly when it comes to rendering 3D spatial audio.

In one interesting review, Dolby Atmos was tested on a selection of wired and wireless headphones. The experiment yielded mixed results with both types of headphones yielding good and mediocre performances.

Essentially, it’s a hit-or-miss situation that hinges on the make and model of the headphones.

Dolby Atmos vs. regular headphones

Dolby Dimnesion Headphones (From:Dolby).
Dolby Dimnesion Headphones (From: Dolby).

A common question among those interested in Dolby Atmos is whether they need to buy special Atmos-enabled headphones, or if regular headphones will suffice.

Keep in mind, the key to enjoying Dolby Atmos on any headphones is the Dolby Access app, which pretty much does most of the work. So, if you’re using a decent pair of regular headphones, as long as it’s properly connected and set up on the app, you should still get Atmos sound quality.

On the other hand, Dolby Atmos headphones are designed specifically to work with Dolby Atmos. They come with built-in Atmos support and are sometimes equipped with additional features like multiple drivers or head motion trackers that you typically won’t find on regular headphones.

All these things combined help deliver even better 3D audio quality. So, naturally, you can expect that Dolby Atmos headphones will do a better job.

Dolby Atmos for Headphones: Features and Drawbacks

Razer gaming headphones (From:Unsplash).
Razer gaming headphones (From: Unsplash).

Now that you’re armed with some knowledge as to how Dolby Atmos works, let’s talk about whether Dolby Atmos for headphones is worth buying.

Compatible with any headphones

Though Dolby Atmos has a set of recommended Atmos-enabled headphones, you can still experience it on any headphones you currently own with the help of the Dolby Access app.

You won’t have to worry about using it with slightly older devices either, because Dolby Atmos technology is a backwards-compatible format. According to the Dolby Developer website, Dolby Atmos can also be used on “millions of devices in consumer homes”.

More immersive sound quality

Dolby Atmos expands conventional surround sound audio to include sound effects originating from above and below you. And when combined with the precise positioning of object-based audio, you get a seriously immersive sound simulation that sounds more realistic than other surround sound software.

Available on more devices and platforms

With the Dolby Access app, you can experience Dolby Atmos on many popular movie and music streaming platforms, like Netflix, Apple TV, Disney+, Apple Music, to name a few. Many mobile devices such as laptops, headphones, gaming consoles, and smartphones are also Atmos-ready.

To see the full list of compatible devices for games, movies, and music, you can check out the Dolby website.

Intelligent Equalizer adjusts to your content

The Dolby Access app comes with a built-in equalizer that further enhances your audio. There are three settings to choose from – “Detailed”, “Balanced”, and “Warm”. Each audio setting can be applied to games, movies, or music to give you a more tailored experience.

It’s perfect if, for example, you prefer a more detailed sound while gaming, and something more balanced when listening to music.

Dolby Atmos for Headphones: Drawbacks

While primarily a good option, Dolby Atmos isn’t without its downsides. Here are some you should know about before purchasing the app.

Dolby Access app is a little less accessible

Unlike another similar software called Windows Sonic, the Dolby Access app isn’t built into Windows PCs or gaming consoles. You’ll need to go through the process of downloading and installing Dolby Access separately.

The setup and installing process is somewhat lengthy, and you’ll be required to restart the app and your PC, but the steps are relatively easy to follow.

Dolby Access can be downloaded from the Microsoft Store.

Requires payment after the free trial

Dolby Access comes with a 7-day free trial. The downside is once that ends you’ll need to pay a one-time fee of $14.99 for the license. This may not be ideal for those on a budget, especially since you can get Windows Sonic for free. It is, however, cheaper than DTS Headphone: X by $5.

Requires Atmos-supported hardware for the best sound

Like we mentioned before, you can use any headphones with Dolby Atmos and the Dolby Access app. But depending on the quality of your headphones, you might not get the true Atmos experience. If you want to be sure you’re getting the absolute best of what Dolby Atmos has to offer, you’ll need to invest in headphones with built-in Atmos support.

Dolby Atmos for Headphones: Is It Worth It?

Dolby Atmos undoubtedly sounds amazing and effortlessly brings a whole new level of life to audio. But is it worth having? Well, that depends mostly on what you intend to use it for.

Here’s a quick rundown on how Dolby Atmos fares for movies, games, and music:

For movies

Worth it? Yes!

Movie streaming platforms with Dolby Atmos (From:Dolby).
Movie streaming platforms with Dolby Atmos (From: Dolby).

The quality that Dolby Atmos lends to movies is pretty unreal, even without a massive home theater setup. So if you’re a movie buff and really into immersive audio, it’ll be worth the investment.

What makes it even better is that Dolby Atmos is available on many popular movie streaming services, such as Netflix, Apple TV, VUDU, Disney+, Microsoft Movies & TV, Amazon Prime Video, iQiyi, and Maxdome.

As such, you’ll have a wide selection of movies and TV shows to choose from. For instance, on Netflix, hit TV shows like Stranger Things, The Crown, and The Umbrella Academy are all available in Dolby Atmos.

There are a few things to keep in mind, though. First, not all movies and TV shows will support Atmos sound. Second, if you do try watching non-natural Dolby-supporting movies with Atmos, your audio will simply revert to stereo, 5.1, or 7.1 audio, depending on what your setup is.

For gaming

Worth it? Absolutely!

Video games in Dolby Atmos (From:Dolby).
Video games in Dolby Atmos (From: Dolby).

To be honest, this is probably the best reason to get Dolby Atmos. If you’re a heavy gamer and want an enhanced gaming experience, particularly for stealth games, multiplayer shooting games, or games that require quick reaction time, Atmos will certainly be worth opening up your wallet for.

The only thing is that it’s best to have a pair of really good headphones or even Dolby Atmos-enabled headphones to match it with.

Dolby Atmos-enabled headphones are geared for more accurate sound reproduction, allowing you to pick up subtle audio cues that could enhance your overall gaming performance. But then again, if you’re already a heavy gamer, you likely already have a pair of good headphones to use.

Again, the key to enjoying video games with Atmos is the Dolby Access app, which is supported on the Xbox Series X, Xbox Series S, Xbox One X, and the Xbox One S. You can also check the Dolby website to see which specific headphone and laptop models are Atmos-enabled if you’re interested in upgrading your gear.

As for games, here’s a current list (August 2021) of available titles that run on Dolby Atmos:

  • Assassin’s Creed Origins (Xbox)
  • Borderlands 3 (Xbox, PC)
  • Battlefield 1 (PC)
  • Call of Duty: Modern Warfare, Cold War, and Warzone (Xbox, PC)
  • Crackdown 3 (Xbox)
  • Cyberpunk 2077 (Xbox, PC)
  • Devil May Cry 5 Special Edition (Xbox, PC)
  • Dirt 5 (Xbox, PC)
  • F1 2020 (Xbox, PC)
  • Final Fantasy XV (Xbox)
  • For Honor (Xbox)
  • Forza Horizon 4 (Xbox, PC)
  • Gears of War 4 (Xbox, PC)
  • Gears 5 (Xbox, PC)
  • Grounded (Xbox, PC)
  • GRID (PC)
  • Immortals Fenyx Rising (Xbox, PC)
  • Inertial Drift (Xbox, PC)
  • Mass Effect: Andromeda (PC)
  • Metro Exodus (Xbox, PC)
  • Microsoft Flight Simulator (PC)
  • Need for Speed Heat (Xbox, PC)
  • Overwatch (PC)
  • Ori and the Will of the Wisps (Xbox, PC)
  • Project Cars 3 (Xbox, PC)
  • Resident Evil 2 and 3 (Xbox, PC)
  • Rise Of The Tomb Raider (Xbox)
  • Shadow of the Tomb Raider (Xbox)
  • Star Wars: Battlefront and Battlefront II (PC)
  • Super Lucky’s Tale (Xbox, PC)
  • Tom Clancy’s The Division 2 (Xbox, PC)
  • The Division 2
  • Werewolf: The Apocalypse – Earthblood (Xbox, PC)
  • Zone of the Enders: The 2nd Runner (PC)

For casual music listening

Worth it? It depends.

Artists available in Dolby Atmos (From:Dolby).
Artists available in Dolby Atmos (From: Dolby).

Music lovers or audiophiles looking for a way to upgrade their music listening experience even further can do so on Apple Music, Tidal, and Amazon Music. These three are currently the only music streaming services that support Dolby Atmos audio.

As expected, Atmos-enhanced sound is quite extraordinary. The soundstage feels enormous, and the depth and clarity it lends are exceptional. The accuracy with which sound moves makes it easy to pinpoint where it’s coming from. Needless to say, your favorite music rendered in pristine 3D quality is a treat that could convert any staunch music fan.

On the other hand, if you’re more of a casual music listener, it’s a bit difficult to justify the additional cost of Dolby Access on top of a monthly subscription fee to a music streaming plan. Especially since all of these platforms already offer ultra HD and lossless audio quality that is more than good enough for casual music listening.

Dolby Atmos isn’t supported on other music streaming services like Spotify, Deezer, and Pandora. On the other hand, Youtube TV is reported to begin rolling out 5.1 surround sound soon, alongside a new “4K Plus” subscription tier.

Conclusion

Ultimately, if you want a more immersive listening experience, Dolby Atmos is not a bad option. It’s cheaper than its closest rival (DTS Headphone: X) and is widely supported on many streaming platforms, entertainment devices, movies, and games. If you’re still undecided, you can always go for the free trial to see how you like it.

Hopefully, this article has given you a better idea of what Dolby Atmos is capable of and helped you decide if it’s for you or not. Do you have any thoughts, questions, or experiences with the format? If so, we’d love to hear about them, so feel free to drop us a line in the comments section.

3 comments

    1. There are lots of great headphones out there, depending on what you’re looking for. I prefer stereo headphones, since I think they have overall better sound than headphones with multiple drivers, and I prefer open headphones for the wider soundstage and so that I can hear things going on around me if needed (kids, spouse, phone call, door bell, etc).

      I’m currently using a pair of Philips Fidelio X2 headphones which suit me very well – comfortable, wide open soundstage, detailed, a good amount of bass (particularly for open headphones), and velour pads to keep my ears cool. They’re a versatile, fun sounding pair that works great for everything from music to movies, immersive games to competitive games. I don’t have any issue with sound leakage when using them at home (you’d have to be right next to me to hear anything at all), but they’re not ideal for a noisy bus.

      But there are other options too, if you’re looking for something different. If you’re looking for something with sound isolation for a noisy environment, or with the most bass, you may want a closed pair of headphones such as the Audio Technica MX40/50. If you want something for mixing, you may want something more neutral like the Sony MDR-7506. If you want something with less bass, for competitive gaming or folk music or whatever, you may want the Sennheiser HD 598/600/6XX or Beyerdynamic DT 990 or AKG K702 or Philips SHP9500s.

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