DTS:X vs. Dolby Atmos
Two ways to add overhead surround sound effects
Dolby Atmos and DTS:X are two of the most popular surround sound formats available. Both deliver immersive, realistically placed surround sound effects. Whether the scene has rain falling or jets flying, both sound like they're right above you. If there's a car driving across the screen, you can hear it transition from left to right. That's the beauty of object-based surround sound with overhead effects.
Immerse yourself in surround sound with overhead effects
What's that mean? Think of it this way: your surround sound system creates a three-dimensional sound bubble. Every sound is like an object that can then be “mapped” by a sound engineer to a specific location inside that three-dimensional bubble. The end result is sound that moves realistically around your room. It’s drastically different from the surround sound formats of old where the sound was limited to moving front-to-rear.
One example I like to give is the movie Battleship. Despite its faults, the soundtrack was put together very well. There’s a scene near the end where the protagonist and his crew are aboard their battleship when the big, bad alien ship comes out of the water and locks onto them.
At one point, the alien ship fires missiles (that funnily enough look like the pegs from the Battleship board game) and they go soaring from the right side of the screen to the left. As the pegs are flying towards our plot-armored heroes, they drop the anchor on their battleship and water sprays up all around the screen.
With an object-based surround sound format, all those sounds are mapped according to where they are in the scene. The missiles, for example, transition from the right front speaker over to the center, then to the left front. The water spraying up when their battleship drops anchor starts on the front right and rear right speakers and finishes out on the front left and rear left.
You can feel the missiles screaming as they get closer and closer. And you might swear you’re in the middle of the splash. That’s what an object-based format and proper mapping can do.
To take advantage of what Dolby Atmos and DTS:X offer, you’ll need a compatible receiver to decode them. But, more on that in just a few.
Sony's STR-ZA1100ES receiver and UBP-X800M2 Blu-ray player as part of an Atmos system.
Dolby Atmos got its start in cinemas across the globe in 2012 and found its way into households a little while after. It uses a proprietary system for mapping sound objects. That allows the mixers taking care of the soundtrack to be able to place objects at fixed distances, heights, and locations rather than assigning them to discrete channels like traditional surround sound systems.
At the very least, you’ll need a seven-speaker system that uses height speakers and a receiver that supports Atmos to take advantage of the format. You can add more speakers for even more realistic surround effects.
Dolby Atmos Speaker Layouts
It’s important to understand exactly what 5.1.2 and other variations (like 7.1.4) mean. The first number relates to the number of “ground” speakers that are in a system. The second number relates to how many subwoofers there are, and the third is how many overhead or Atmos enabled speakers are used.
A 7.1.4 Dolby Atmos speaker layout with four overhead speakers.
Speaking of 5.1.2, that’s the minimum you’ll need for overhead surround effects, though it’s not uncommon to see larger setups. 7.1.4 is what Dolby Atmos uses as a reference for their sound engineers. And some receivers can support Atmos configurations up to 9.1.4.
DTS:X got its start in home cinemas back in 2015. It was developed with the same aim as Atmos: to create a more immersive cinematic experience by moving smartly mapped sound across the room.
How DTS:X does it, though, is a bit different. The format uses the open-source MDA (multi-dimensional audio) platform as its base. Since it’s using an open-source base, anyone can use it. That allows manufacturers to create any component to be compatible with DTS:X.
Another cool benefit of it being open-source is that sound engineers aren’t restricted to mapping the sound to a specific speaker layout. They can place sound objects wherever they see fit in the sound bubble. That can be seen as somewhat of a double-edged sword, as the placement isn’t pinpoint accurate like Atmos.
You don’t necessarily need height speakers to take advantage of what DTS:X has to offer, but having them helps make things more immersive since it gives the sound more places to go.
When you’re setting your receiver up to play the format for the first time, it plays some pink noise that your receiver's microphone registers and then measures the distance and location of your speakers. After that’s done, DTS:X can then untangle the audio input signal (that is, the soundtrack of your movie) and send it to the corresponding speakers.
It also lets you do some tweaks yourself, primarily in the dialogue department. You can raise the level of voices in your center channel to keep the dialogue crisp and clear.
What do I need to get Dolby Atmos and DTS:X?
To take advantage of either format, you’ll need a receiver that can decode them. Luckily, most home theater receivers with seven or more channels nowadays can. On top of that, those receivers can typically upscale non-Atmos and non-DTS:X encoded content, meaning you can get overhead effects from almost any content you may be watching.
The 13-channel Denon AVR-X8500HA has enough height and surround channels to support a range of Atmos configurations, including 9.2.4 and 7.2.6.
Dolby Atmos receivers have dedicated height channels for reproducing overhead effects. You’ll need some height speakers in addition to a regular 5.1 or 7.1 speaker layout. There are two flavors: those that sit on top of your tower speakers (called Atmos enabled speakers) and those that get installed overhead in your ceiling.
Klipsch Reference Series speakers in a 5.1.2 Atmos setup with Atmos enabled upward-firing speakers.
The "toppers", as I like to call them, are angled and work by reflecting sound down from your ceiling onto your listening position. Their official title of "Atmos enabled speakers" is a bit of a misnomer, as they’ll work for both Atmos and DTS:X content alike. While they’re not as effective as true overhead speakers, they do a respectable job and keep you from having to cut holes in your ceiling.
In-ceiling speakers are a great space-saving way to add accurate overhead effects.
For the best overhead effects, in-ceiling speakers are worth considering. They’re more directional and do a better job at creating an immersive height channel. On top of that, some models have an aimable tweeter, increasing your placement options and helping out if your overheads need to be offset a little from your listening position.
Dolby Atmos and DTS:X content
Dolby Atmos content is far more readily available than DTS:X. It can be found everywhere from Disney+ and Amazon Prime to Blu-ray discs and Apple iTunes. There are even even video games and albums that have been encoded with the format.
DTS:X is primarily found on Blu-ray discs. If you plan on enjoying both formats or if you’ve got physical copies of movies encoded in either format, it’d be beneficial to pick up a Blu-ray player that supports both (most of them do). Or, if you prefer streaming, you can use a compatible device like an Apple TV 4K.
To stream Dolby Atmos content, your receiver and streamer will need to support eARC. You'll also need ultra high speed HDMI 2.1 cables to handle the eARC signal. The added bandwidth that eARC provides ensures clear, high-quality surround sound effects. If you'd like to learn more about HDMI 2.1, check out our handy HDMI cables buying guide.
Atmos and DTS:X Sound Bars
If the scale of an Atmos or DTS:X speaker system seems a bit much for your room, don’t fret — there are sound bars that support both formats. Granted, you'll be compromising a little since a sound bar can't reproduce the same level of immersion and detail that a full speaker system can.
Most Atmos and DTS:X sound bars use less than five channels and have upward-firing speakers built in for height effects. They decode the signal and process it to downmix the audio. After that, the amplifier assigns the sound to the speakers inside the sound bar. The result is modestly emulated surround sound.
This JBL sound bar system features four upward-firing speakers for a complete 5.1.4 Dolby Atmos system that also accurately reproduces DTS:X signals.
On the flipside of that, there are other sound bars that are more than capable of delivering a full Atmos sound. They have, at minimum, seven built-in speakers. In most cases, the speakers are all contained within the sound bar itself, but some models include a pair of wireless rear surrounds for more wraparound effects.
Crutchfield Advisor Marisa is a home theater and TV aficionado, and is happy to help folks get the Atmos or DTS:X system of their dreams.
If you’re just getting into the world of 3D sound, it can be a lot to take in. Thankfully, our advisors have done countless demo sessions and can help guide you along. For free one-on-one shopping advice, contact us and we’d be happy to help you get your system started.