I still remember my first time… hearing Dolby Atmos that is. It was at Dolby’s headquarters in San Francisco more than ten years ago. The company had just announced the new surround sound format at CinemaCon and they invited a number of journalists to northern California to hear it in person. One of the first clips we heard was a scene from “Planet of the Apes” remixed in Dolby Atmos. Helicopters flew directly overhead, bullets whizzed around in literally all directions and multitudes of modified monkeys made multi-dimensional mayhem on the streets of San Francisco. It was an ear-opening experience and it ushered in the era of truly immersive surround sound.
Immersive surround sound formats Dolby Atmos, DTS:X and Aura-3D differ from other surround sound formats in that they include a height element. No longer are sounds limited to coming from all around you, now they can come from above you as well – just like in real life. This height element adds a level of realism to movies and music that you simply can’t get from a standard stereo system or traditional surround sound. But when it first came out, Dolby Atmos was strictly a cinematic thing – you could only hear it in movie theaters, and usually only in premium showings.
It would be nearly two years before the top A/V receiver makers – Denon, Marantz, Yamaha, Onkyo and Pioneer – would announce that their receivers would support Dolby Atmos at home. Blu-ray Discs started coming out with Dolby Atmos and DTS:X encoding. Streaming services like Netflix, Amazon, HBO Max, Apple TV+ and Disney+ began building up a library of Dolby Atmos titles. The format was originally reserved for blockbuster Hollywood movies but it expanded out to smaller films and even TV series. A couple of HBO’s most popular series, “Westworld” and “Game of Thrones” are now both available on HBO Max in 4K HDR with Dolby Atmos surround.
Music Gets an Immersive Upgrade
More recently, Dolby Atmos has expanded beyond movies and TV series into music. On streaming services like Apple Music, TIDAL and Amazon Music you can now stream a number of music titles in high quality with full Dolby Atmos encoding. So now the music can surround you in much the same way a movie does. Depending on the title and artistic intent, you can become a part of the music, with sounds and instruments all around and above you, or you can get a more realistic presentation of a live performance with an immersive reproduction of the acoustics of a concert hall.
Today, you can find Dolby Atmos (and DTS:X) processing in many different receivers and preamp/processors, at all different price points. Dolby Atmos is even built into some soundbars and TV speakers. But not all Dolby Atmos systems are created equal. Some are definitely more immersive than others. And it usually comes down to how many speakers you have, and where they’re located in the room.
Real > Virtual
Although soundbars and single-cabinet wireless speakers can simulate sound coming from multiple directions using a process called “channel virtualization,” this virtual immersive surround really isn’t as convincing as dedicated height speakers and rear surround speakers. As far as placement of those height speakers, they can be physically mounted on the ceiling, mounted high on the wall or even mounted at or near ear height reflecting sound off the ceiling. The reflective speaker option, also known as Dolby Atmos elevation speakers, works best in rooms with a flat ceiling that can properly reflect sound back down toward the listener.
While there are some soundbar options out there today that do have upward firing height channels and discrete rear channel speakers, these tend to be fairly expensive and they don’t always offer the highest performance.
They do have the advantage of being more discreet and decor-friendly than a component system, but they typically don’t offer the flexibility or expandability of receivers and component-based sound systems. But component-based immersive surround sounds systems are expensive, right? Actually, they don’t have to be.
Today you can find a few A/V receivers in the $500-$700 range that support a true discrete immersive surround set-up. The bare minimum number of channels (and speakers) you need for such a system is eight: front left, center and right speakers, left and right surround speakers, left and right height channel speakers and a subwoofer. This is called a 5.1.2-channel system: 5 speakers at or near the height of your ears, 1 subwoofer for low bass reproduction and 2 speakers for height effects.
In some cases, the front speakers of a surround sound system include upward firing Dolby elevation speakers (the “.2” in a 5.1.2 channel system) so you can get by with just 5 speakers plus a subwoofer. There are more robust and elaborate system choices available which you can read about in our guide to surround sound options, but a 5.1.2 channel system does a very good job of reproducing immersive surround sound in most rooms.
And Now for that Dolby Atmos System Under $1000
Our pick for a solid foundation for a budget immersive surround sound system is the Denon AVR-S760H A/V receiver. The list price is $599, but you can find it online for about $500-$550, or even occasionally on sale for $450 at Costco (or Costco.com) if you are a member. The AVR-S760H is a good-sounding receiver with all of the options a budding audio hobbyist, music-lover or movie-lover would need.
The AVR-S760H offers 75 watts/channel which can drive most speaker systems in small to average sized rooms. It includes six HDMI inputs, with HDCP 2.3, 4K and 8K source and display compatibility. It supports both ARC (Audio Return Channel) and eARC (Enhanced Audio Return Channel), so you can connect it to your TV or projector with just a single HDMI cable and still get Dolby Atmos sound on the receiver from compatible streaming apps on your TV.
For audio inputs, the receiver includes multiple analog, optical and coax digital audio inputs. It even includes a phono input for you vinyl lovers. It can be configured for 5.1, 7.1 or 5.1.2 surround sound. If you’re on a really tight budget, you can even just start out with two speakers in plain old stereo mode and add more channels (more speakers) over time.
Receiver Upgrade Option – Yamaha
If you need more power or a slightly more refined design, the Yamaha RX-V6A receiver also makes an excellent choice. It offers features quite similar to the Denon (even the turntable input), but with a little more power (100 watts/channel) and a more elegant look and feel. It still comes in at a fairly affordable $699 so it won’t leave you destitute or hitting up some unsavory character who may or may not be named Guido for a high interest personal loan.
Like the Denon, the Yamaha RX-V6A gets top marks for sound quality at its price point as well as solid recommendations from our friends Dennis Burger and Chris Heinonen at Wirecutter as well as Ty Pendlebury at CNET.
- Yahama RX-V6A Receiver – $699 at Amazon
Speakers of the House
Getting back to speakers, if you want to hit the ground running with full immersive surround, your simplest choice is a 5.1.2 speaker bundle that provides all of the speakers you need right out of the box. There are a few bundles that pack a nice sonic punch for not a lot of money. One solid entry-level choice is the 5.1.2 speaker bundle from Monoprice (Amazon, Monoprice).
Monoprice made their name in electronics by offering high quality accessories like HDMI cables at bargain basement prices. They’ve been building up their brand with high quality affordable speakers and this low budget system can keep up with much more expensive systems from the bigger brands. The Monoprice 5.1.2 system comes with 5 small satellite speakers and a powered subwoofer. The front left and right speakers include built-in upward-firing drivers so the height channel sounds will come from above, without needing to mount separate speakers on or in the ceiling.
The ridiculous part is the price: the full Monoprice 5.1.2 bundle sells for $249 and even sometimes goes on sale at monoprice.com for $199. Combine this bundle with the Denon receiver and you’ll have a discrete 5.1.2 channel immersive surround sound system for somewhere between $650-$800. That’s less than the cost of a high end sound bar. With the Yamaha receiver, you’d still come in under budget at about $950.
Go For The Gusto – Speaker Upgrade Option #1
If you prefer to mount your height speakers on the ceiling for better height effects, but still want to stay under $1,000, you can go with a 5.1 channel bundle like this one from Klipsch and then add a pair of Klipsch bookshelf speakers. All-in pricing at current online discount prices is around $440 which still keeps the system price under $1,000 with the Denon receiver:
If you go this route, you’ll get more dynamic sound as well as more realistic height effects, thanks to ceiling mounted speakers. For this system, you would use the Klipsch Synergy Black Label B-200 Bookshelf Speakers as the main left and right speakers. Most sound from music and movies comes from the front three speakers, so it makes sense for these to be as good as they can be. Then you would use two of the satellite speakers that come in the bundle as height speakers mounted high on the front wall, or on the ceiling, pointing toward the primary listening position. Any discrepancies in sound level among the seven speakers can be compensated for in the receiver’s speaker calibration set-up.
A Serious Speaker Upgrade for Serious Music Lovers
High-end speaker maker Focal also makes a 5.1.2 channel speaker bundle with up-firing drivers for the Dolby Atmos height channels. At 10″ x 6.4″ x 6.4″ the Focal satellite speakers are a bit larger than the Monoprice or Klipsch options, but still compact enough to be wall-mounted. The system is a bit pricier at $1699, but music lovers will appreciate the upgrade.
The Focal system, with its custom-designed 3/4″ silk tweeter and 5″ polyflex midrange/woofer is optimized for music reproduction but also has the punch and dynamics required for home theater. The included cub subwoofer features an 8″ driver powered by a 200 Watt amp. It extends all the way down to 30 Hz (down 3 dB at 35 Hz) for solid tight bass that will rattle your core. The Focal system will perform much better than the budget systems with music and will offer higher performance with movies and TV shows as well.
- Focal SIB Evo 5.1.2 Channel Speaker System – $1,690 at Amazon
The Endless Path to Immersive Movies and Musical Nirvana
The nice thing about a component surround sound system is also the worst thing about a component system: upgradeability. Once you see how great a budget home theater system can sound, you may find yourself curious about how much better it could sound with just a few little upgrades. You can start with a smaller system and add more speakers over time. Or you can start with an inexpensive speaker bundle and replace it with a higher performance speaker system as budget allows.
It is true that some sound bars allow you to add components like subwoofers and dedicated rear channel speakers. But if you care about sound quality, future-proofing or simply have multiple source components, an A/V receiver with separate speakers is a better choice on your path to immersive audio and video nirvana.
Components Recommended in this Guide
Receivers (pick one):
Speakers (pick one):
- Monoprice 5.1.2 Speaker Bundle – $249 at Amazon, Monoprice
- Klipsch 5.1 System plus 2 bookshelf speakers – $440 at Amazon
- Focal 5.1.2 Sib evo Speaker Bundle – $1,690 at Amazon
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