Story by Ryan Waniata, via HRAC partner site Digital Trends
With CES 2017 fading in the rearview like the last rays of a dying sunset, we’re left with countless new tech trends to ponder. One of the most interesting in the home theater landscape is the explosion of the Dolby Atmos soundbar, debut models of which have begun to pop up from virtually every major brand.
If you’ve shopped for audio at all in recent years, you’ve likely heard the name Atmos, but what exactly are Atmos soundbars? How do they compare to the cinema version of Atmos or regular surround systems for that matter? Most importantly, should you buy one? Follow us below as we delve into the rise of the Dolby Atmos soundbar.
What is Dolby Atmos?
Before we get into the nuts and bolts of Atmos soundbars, a little background for those of you new to the world of HRAC. (If you’re already familiar with the basics of Atmos, please skip ahead.) Dolby Atmos (and its counterpart DTS:X) is an end-to-end surround sound technology allowing audio mixers to control every bit of cinematic sound — from a buzzing bee to a fighter jet — as an individual sound object which can be traced throughout a collection of surround speakers. In a movie theater, this allows engineers to move “sound objects” independently across dozens of speakers, including those mounted overhead, to immerse the moviegoer in a hemispheric globe of sound.
In a home theater, Atmos and DTS:X are scaled down to match the tools at hand, topping out at 11 individual speaker channels, and two bass channels. The most basic configuration (and the most common in Atmos soundbars) is 5.1.2, which involves a typical 5.1 setup (left, center, right, and two surrounds), along with two height speakers, which can be mounted overhead, or angled up from ground level to bounce sound down from the ceiling.
What makes Atmos soundbars different?
Just like standard surround soundbars, Atmos soundbars come in many flavors, including varying sizes, styles, and available channels. The first Atmos bar to market came from Yamaha.
Yamaha’s $1,600 YSP-5600 5.1.2 sound projector was first unveiled in the summer of 2015. The unit harbors more than 40 of Yamaha’s “beam” drivers inside, including 12 upward-firing drivers. The system bounces sound off the walls and ceiling from the front of the room for a virtual 7.1.2 Atmos surround experience. Frankly, when we first heard about the bar we were a little dubious, but the YSP-5600 taught us two things: One, a thrilling Atmos/DTS:X home theater experience can be achieved in a singular unit (with an additional purchase of an outboard subwoofer in this case), and two, Atmos bars are aimed at replacing your receiver and speaker setup entirely — and they’re priced that way.
Samsung’s HW-K950 Dolby Atmos bar came next in April of 2016, introducing a different kind of Atmos solution. At $1,500, the HW-K950 is priced similarly to the Yamaha, but instead of relying strictly on the room itself for sonic immersion, the system totes two separate wireless surround speakers, each with an up-firing driver built in. Adding two more upfiring drivers loaded into the bar itself creates a 5.1.4 Atmos setup that offers impressive immersion. And, unlike the Yamaha, the K950 includes a wireless subwoofer. In addition to the HK-950 is the HK-850, which drops the wireless surrounds for a lower $1,000 price point. Unfortunately, neither bar includes DTS decoding, meaning any DTS:X surround sound content must essentially be digitally faked.
3 hot new Atmos soundbars at CES 2017
For CES 2017, the floodgates have opened to let loose a slew of new upstarts in the Atmos soundbar genre, so let’s go down the list.
(Note: release dates and pricing have yet to be announced for the systems below, but if the past is any indication, they’ll run $1,000 SRP and up.)
Sony’s new HT-ST5000 (shown above at the very outset of this story) offers impressive fidelity to win our favor as the best new Atmos bar we heard at the show. That’s likely thanks to the bar’s 12 individually powered drivers, which pull from 800 watts of power. The bar’s up-firing Atmos speakers can also accommodate a 17-foot ceiling thanks to a calibration setting, and the sub was also impressive, though a lack of satellite surrounds means the bar will rely entirely on the room’s walls to disperse sound, and may thusly have encounter interference from furniture, etc. A DTS:X update will be added later this year.
LG’s SJ9 offered another impressive display of Atmos dispersion at the show, though the fidelity wasn’t quite on par with Sony’s soundbar (at least in our short demonstration), regardless of the bar’s support for hi-res audio at 192kHz/24-bit. The system uses virtual DSP for surround immersion, while dual up-firing drivers bounce sound of the ceiling for impressive overhead coverage. The bar is powered by 500 watts of sound, and includes a separate wireless sub in the package, along with Wi-Fi connection for LG’s Music Flow multiroom speaker system. No word yet on any future plans for DTS:X support.
In addition to the SJ9, LG packages a specialized Dolby Atmos soundbar with its new W-series “Wallpaper” OLED TV. Along with Atmos sound, the bar also takes on the processing guts for the new TV, which is priced at a cool $8,000.
Supporting both Atmos and DTS:X, Onkyo’s SBT-A500 Network Surround bar is well equipped for the future of object-based audio. Like most of the bars on our list, the A500 offers only a single bar and sub setup with dual upward firing drivers at the sides of the bar for 5.1.2 Atmos surround. Interestingly, Onkyo also includes a separate network hub for the system. Dual-band Wi-Fi via DTS Play-fi offers multiroom connection to a plethora of speakers, alongside Airplay support. We’ve yet to hear the system to compare its performance to the crowd.
Other Atmos soundbars we heard about, but didn’t encounter at the show, include Pioneer’s new Elite FS-EB70, and Klipsch’s new Theater bar, and you can bet that many more Atmos bars will be making their way to market in the coming year.
So. . . Should You Buy an Atmos Soundbar?
Atmos and DTS:X surround soundbars are here to stay, and their effective employment of virtual (and in some cases physical) surround sound dispersion can make for a powerful cinematic experience. Even traditional multi-piece Atmos setups often rely on upward-firing add-on speakers to save the hassle of drilling into your ceiling. And though they’re pricey, Atmos bars are still more affordable than most traditional Atmos setups.
That said, Atmos and DTS:X soundbars are not for the casual listener, and their average price point of well over $1,000 doesn’t always come with the fidelity you expect when you spend that kind of green — especially when it comes to music playback. For casual movie fans, a $300-400 soundbar can often do the trick, and may well be a better choice for music streaming. Still, the growing variety of concise and powerful Atmos soundbars may help drive down the price, and if you crave the full immersion of Atmos, they may be well worth a look in the coming months.