Skip to main content

How to know if you’re actually getting Dolby Atmos sound

With its object-based sound system, Dolby Atmos is now the benchmark for at-home surround sound. Though it took some time to catch on, the format is now supported by Ultra HD Blu-ray discs and streaming services like Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, Apple TV+, and Disney+. So, if you’ve got Dolby Atmos speakers, a Dolby Atmos-compatible AV receiver or soundbar, and access to Dolby Atmos content, you should be hearing Dolby Atmos sound, right?

Well, as it turns out, no, not necessarily. To understand if your Atmos system is delivering true Atmos sound — and not just really good surround sound — you need to understand how Dolby Atmos works with all of your media sources and components. It’s a bit technical, but we’re going to make it as simple as possible.

What exactly is Dolby Atmos?

Image showing Dolby Atmos 3D sound.

Dolby Atmos isn’t actually a soundtrack at all. It’s metadata that is used by compatible audio gear to control which speakers are reproducing certain sounds. A good example is when a helicopter flies overhead in a movie. Without Atmos information, the sound of the helicopter is embedded in one, or many, of the surround sound channels. But so are all of the other sounds you’re hearing.

How Dolby Atmos works and what it is Hanif Jackson / Digital Trends

With Dolby Atmos, the helicopter is treated as its own discrete object, and a Dolby Atmos receiver can use that information to separate the helicopter sound from the background sounds and move it independently from one speaker to another. The result is a very convincing 3D placement of sounds for a much more immersive movie experience.

And what about Dolby Atmos Music?

Though it’s still just getting a toehold on streaming music services, Dolby Atmos Music does for music what Dolby Atmos does for movies. It’s impressive when you hear it, but to get it you’ll need a specific combination of apps and Dolby Atmos-capable devices. Chances are good that if you’re equipped for Dolby Atmos movies, you’re ready for Dolby Atmos Music, but to be sure, check out our full Dolby Atmos Music explainer.

So if Dolby Atmos is just metadata, what am I listening to?

As we said, Dolby Atmos isn’t sound, it’s information about sound. That information piggybacks on top of existing surround sound signals. At the moment, Dolby Atmos can only do this with two types of surround sound signals:

  • Dolby TrueHD
  • Dolby Digital Plus

Dolby TrueHD is a lossless, very high-bandwidth format that is currently only available on Blu-ray and UHD Blu-ray discs. It’s transmitted over an HDMI cable, from a Blu-ray player to an AV receiver, TV, or a soundbar that can pass through the video portion of the signal to your TV. Atmos via TrueHD is also supported by some media player apps, like Plex, that run on the Nvidia Shield TV family of streaming devices.

The combination of Dolby Atmos and Dolby TrueHD is the best possible surround sound you can get at home.

More on Dolby Atmos

Dolby Digital Plus is a lossy, lower-bandwidth format that has been optimized for use with streaming services and features like B-D Live. It’s currently supported by a wide range of devices, including laptops, tablets, smartphones, and streaming boxes like Apple TV and Roku. Dolby Atmos over Dolby Digital Plus will be the way most people experience Atmos.

Not only is it the format used by Netflix, Amazon, and other streaming services, but it’s also the only version of Atmos that is compatible with HDMI ARC (more on this later).

Files, apps, and hardware

The tricky thing about Dolby Atmos is that, for it to work, every ingredient in your home theater setup has to support Atmos. In other words:

  • The movie you’re playing — whether it’s physical, downloaded, or streamed — has to be encoded with Dolby Atmos (via Dolby TrueHD or Dolby Digital Plus).
  • The hardware you’re playing it on has to be able to decode Dolby Atmos or pass it along to a Dolby Atmos-capable sound system without altering it. This is known as “pass-through.”
  • The app you’re using — e.g. Plex, Netflix, iTunes, Amazon Prime Video, etc. — must be capable of delivering Dolby Atmos data to your playback device.
  • And, of course, your TV, AV receiver, or soundbar must be Dolby Atmos compatible, if that’s the device you’re using to hear audio.

Another potential gotcha: Just because your app of choice supports Dolby Atmos on device X, that doesn’t mean it necessarily supports it on device Y. For instance, Plex running on an Nvidia Shield TV can pass through Atmos over Dolby TrueHD, and over Dolby Digital Plus, but Plex on an Apple TV 4K will only handle Atmos over Dolby Digital Plus, and Plex on a 4th-gen Apple TV can’t pass through Dolby Atmos at all.

Diagram showing how to get Dolby Atmos sound from your devices.
Simon Cohen/Digital Trends and Nate Barrett/Digital Trends

If you’re playing an Atmos-encoded Ultra HD Blu-ray on an Ultra HD Blu-ray player that’s connected to an Atmos-capable TV, soundbar, or AV receiver via HDMI, we can pretty much guarantee you’re getting the full Dolby Atmos experience. We can’t say the same about some other device combinations.

Here are a few examples where you will not get Dolby Atmos sound:

  • Playing an Atmos-encoded Netflix movie on an Apple TV HD (4th gen, non-4K) connected to an Atmos-capable AV receiver. In this scenario, the Apple TV is the weakest link: It doesn’t support Dolby Atmos. You’ll be limited to 5.1 Dolby Digital Plus surround sound.
  • Playing any Dolby Atmos-encoded content on a Roku Streaming Stick+ that’s attached to a Dolby Atmos capable TV, with an Atmos soundbar connected via optical cable. The obstacle here is the optical connection to the soundbar. You’ve got Atmos content on a device that can support Atmos, on a TV that can pass through Atmos, but because you’re using an optical cable instead of HDMI ARC, the TV has to down-convert the audio to Dolby Digital 5.1 (otherwise known as EAC), because optical connections cannot cope with the higher bandwidth requirements of Dolby Digital Plus.
  • Using the built-in Plex client on an LG OLED TV to play a movie encoded with Dolby TrueHD and Dolby Atmos, with an Atmos soundbar connected via HDMI ARC. This is a really frustrating one — all of the sources and components are Atmos-capable, but because the Plex client on the LG TV isn’t yet optimized to handle TrueHD/Atmos, it down-converts the audio to Dolby 5.1 — even though both the TV itself and the connected soundbar could have easily handled the TrueHD/Atmos track.

Perplexed by Netflix

A TV displaying the Netflix app.

We recently discovered an extremely vexing situation for Netflix users hoping to enjoy Dolby Atmos sound. The Netflix app currently requires that playback devices be capable of decoding Dolby Atmos natively, instead of simply being able to pass through Dolby Atmos to an Atmos-capable soundbar or AV receiver.

While several TVs meet this criterion, like 2018 or newer Sony Android TV models, 2017 or newer LG OLED TVs, 2019 or newer Toshiba TVs, and 2018 or newer Vizio TVs, only select streaming devices will work. So far, that’s a pretty limited list: Apple TV 4K, Nvidia Shield TV and Nvidia Shield TV Pro (2019), Amazon Fire TV Cube (first and second-gen), Fire TV Stick (third-gen), Fire TV Stick 4K Max, Chromecast Ultra, and Chromecast with Google TV.

Using the Netflix app on an Nvidia Shield TV (pre-2019) or select Roku and Amazon Fire TV devices — even though they can pass through Dolby Atmos — will still limit you to 5.1 surround sound.

There’s no real logic to Netflix’s insistence on Dolby Atmos decoding, as none of these devices can output audio without the help of a device with speakers, whether that’s a TV, soundbar, or AV receiver.

Plus, Netflix makes the task of identifying which devices natively decode Dolby Atmos very difficult, because it does not maintain a master list of these devices. The only way to know if the Netflix app for a particular device supports Atmos is to search for it within Netflix’s help pages.


A group of HDMI ports on the back of a TV.

Unless you are satisfied with your TV’s internal speakers, HDMI is a requirement for Dolby Atmos. Whether your Dolby Atmos content is coming from a Blu-ray disc, a streaming box, or even a built-in app on your TV, the only way to get that signal to your AV receiver or soundbar is via HDMI. Both Dolby TrueHD and Dolby Digital Plus contain more data than a digital optical connection (TOSlink) can handle.

If you want to transmit Dolby Atmos from your TV to your AV receiver or soundbar, your TV must be equipped with at least HDMI ARC. As we mentioned above, HDMI ARC works with Dolby Atmos/Dolby Digital Plus, but if your TV is equipped with the newer HDMI eARC standard, it will also work with Dolby Atmos/Dolby TrueHD. There aren’t many Dolby Atmos/Dolby TrueHD sources yet, but you’ll be ready as they become available.

One thing to keep in mind if you’re using your TV between your streaming media device and your soundbar or AV receiver is that not all TVs are equally adept at passing through Dolby Atmos content. For instance, the Apple TV 4K outputs a version of Dolby Atmos that, in its native format, is incompatible with HDMI ARC. Some TVs can transcode that Atmos signal into one that is compatible with HDMI ARC, while others can’t. If you have a TV that can’t do it, you may have trouble getting Atmos from the Apple TV 4K to the soundbar. TVs equipped with HDMI eARC, however, should have no trouble passing along that Atmos signal to connected equipment.

If this is your situation — and if your Atmos-capable soundbar has an HDMI input — one workaround is to connect the Apple TV 4K to the soundbar (which will have no trouble with the Atmos signal) and let the soundbar pass through the video portion of the signal to your TV. Check your soundbar’s specs to see what (if any) video pass through it supports. Some can handle up to 8K with Dolby Vision, while others are far more limited.

If you’re using an optical cable to connect your TV to your soundbar or your AV receiver, these signals will be converted into a simpler surround format, like Dolby Digital 5.1, before they get transmitted. The bottom line is that while the sound you hear will still be really good, it won’t be Atmos.

Do I need Dolby Atmos speakers?

Klipsch Reference Premiere Dolby Atmos Lifestyle 5 speaker.

Initially, Dolby Atmos at home required the use of “height” channel speakers (the “.2” or “.4” in the middle of the speaker configuration description), but that is no longer the case. In addition to the TV speaker-based Atmos available on some TVs, you can get Dolby Atmos soundbars, which include height channels.

However, there’s also something called “virtualized” Dolby Atmos, which uses digital signal processing (DSP) to create a simulation of a 5.1.2 Dolby Atmos mix from as few as two front-facing left and right channels. How good is this virtualized effect? It varies based on the number of channels that are being virtualized and the quality of the speakers themselves. On a product like the Sonos Beam Gen 2, which virtualizes height and surround sound channels, the effect is noticeable but mild.

It can, however, be awesome. Sennheiser’s superb Ambeo Soundbar possesses dedicated up-firing drivers for the height channels but uses its array of forward-facing drivers to virtualize the surround channels. It’s pricey, but it delivers a very convincing virtualized Atmos experience.

Though still not quite as good as a system with dedicated Atmos speakers, for many folks, the simplicity of a single soundbar plus a subwoofer will be worth it.

Virtualized Atmos is also showing up on new AV receivers. This means that if you have an existing 5.1, 7.1, or better surround system, but you lack height channel speakers (and don’t want to add them), the AV receiver will use your existing speakers to give you a very good approximation of the full Dolby Atmos experience.

What about headphones?

OK, so we’ve covered what you need to get Dolby Atmos sound from your TV speakers, a soundbar, or a home theater speaker system, but there’s one more option: Headphones.

It’s possible to get Dolby Atmos for both movies and music via any set of wired or wireless headphones, but you’ll need some specific equipment to make it happen

Dolby Atmos for movies via headphones

If you have an Apple TV 4K, you can connect any set of Bluetooth headphones, and the streaming device will create a virtualized Dolby Atmos experience as long as you’re watching a movie with a Dolby Atmos soundtrack. But if you own a pair of Apple’s AirPods Pro, AirPods third-generation, or AirPods Max, the Apple TV will also enable head-tracking spatial audio — an even more immersive version of Dolby Atmos (and multichannel surround) that simulates what it’s like to listen without any headphones at all. It’s quite magical.

You can get the same experience on any mobile phone or tablet that supports Dolby Atmos.

Dolby Atmos Music via headphones

If you subscribe to Apple Music, Tidal HiFi, or Amazon Music, you can hear Dolby Atmos Music via your headphones, provided that these services have published a version of their apps that are compatible with your phone and you’ve selected a Dolby Atmos Music version of the song you want to hear. Not all songs are available in Dolby Atmos, however.

How do I know if I’m getting Dolby Atmos?

Denon AVR-X1700H 8K AV receiver.

Because Dolby Atmos systems can upmix any surround sound signals they get, in order to use all of your speakers, it can sometimes be tricky to know if you’re getting true Dolby Atmos or upmixed 5.1 or 7.1 surround sound. From an audible point of view, if you’re getting Atmos, you should be able to detect sounds as they appear to move from one area of the room to another. Rainfall, bullet ricochets, and whizzing cars are all good candidates for this.

They won’t just move from front to back or side to side; they should also occasionally sound as though they’re coming from overhead, or somewhere above the screen.

Still not certain? The one surefire way to confirm Dolby Atmos is working is to check the information panel on the front of your AV receiver or your soundbar (if it has one, or perhaps an on-screen display). It should display the kind of audio signal it’s currently working with. If the display doesn’t specifically say “Atmos” or “Dolby Atmos,” then the odds are that you’re not getting Atmos. Checking the display is likely easier than queuing up the right soundtrack for a rainfall or ricochet sound check.

Some Atmos soundbars, like the Sonos Arc, Bose Smart Soundbar 900, and LG SP9YA, will show you the audio signal within their respective mobile apps for iOS and Android.

One more thing

We have one last troubleshooting trick up our sleeves for those of you who still can’t get Atmos to appear despite exhausting all the protocols mentioned above. TVs and streaming devices have different settings for their digital audio outputs. Most of the time, they’re set to “auto” by default, which is what you want.

But sometimes, they end up in PCM (Pulse Code Modulation) mode, for whatever reason. Perhaps you have troubleshot your device every way you know how and still can’t pick up Dolby Atmos. In that case, we recommend you navigate its settings to see if it’s in PCM mode. If it’s set to PCM, change it to Auto or Bitstream. Not all setups are compatible with Dolby Atmos, so if this doesn’t work either, you might have an incompatible system.

Achieving proper Dolby Atmos requires a bit of diligence and technical know-how on your part, but it’s totally worth it. The result is a clearer, richer sound that surpasses 5.1 or 7.1 surround. We have created the diagram above to provide you with the proper guidelines to ensure that your Atmos setup goes off without a hitch. Once you dial in your files, hardware, apps, and settings, you should be able to achieve impressive Dolby Atmos sound that’s worth all the effort.

Editors' Recommendations

The best Roku TVs of 2023: which should you buy?
TCL 6-Series TV displaying colorful image of an apple tree against a blue sky background.

If you've ever used a Roku streaming stick or set-top box, then you know that the popular Roku TV OS platform is one of the most user-friendly ways to get access to streaming apps such as Netflix, Disney+, Hulu, and HBO Max, as well as tons of other apps and games.

But if you happen to be in the market for a new TV and are pretty set on Roku as your operating system of choice, Roku also partners with a handful of TV makers, like TCL and Hisense, to offer up a solid lineup of sets with the OS built right in. Roku itself recently announced that it, too, will be designing and making its own Roku-branded TVs beginning in the spring of 2023, so if you don't see something on this list, you can wait to see what Roku offers.

Read more
Best wireless speakers for 2023: Apple, Sonos, KEF, and more
Apple HomePod 2023

Choosing the best wireless speaker from the sea of options out there can be tricky. What defines a "wireless" speaker can mean many things to people: Does it use Bluetooth or your home's Wi-Fi network (or both) to connect and stream music and podcasts from your phone or other sources? Does it have a battery or do you need to plug it in? Is it portable or more of a homebody kinda speaker that's part of a bigger multiroom network music system? Yes, yes, and yes.

We're going to include all of the above here, because we think that you like to have options. With additional features like battery life, durability, availability of voice assistants, and sound quality to consider, the task of finding the best wireless speaker for your needs gets even more layered. But worry not. We've put together this roundup of the best wireless speakers you can buy right now, and for our money, we still think that the Sonos One (Gen 2) ranks as one of the best wireless speakers for most people when it comes to quality, sound, and price. Apple also makes it way back to the list with the recently launched Home Pod 2, which we think is also pretty excellent.

Read more
The best OTA DVRs for cord cutters in 2023
Nuvyyo Tablo Dual OTA DVR angled to the right.

If you've made the jump from cable TV providers to streaming services, like many folks have, and have even gone the extra mile by adding an over-the-air TV antenna to bring back your local TV stations for news and sports, then you might be missing one thing: your digital video recorder (DVR).

Relax, there's hope. Adding an OTA DVR to your setup will bring back that sweet ability to record, rewind, fast-forward, and skip commercials so, like your streaming services, you can watch all that free live programming at your leisure, like the DVR days of old. Today's leading OTA DVRs are sleek, can store up to hundreds of shows and movies, and some models can even connect to the internet. But it is worth noting that not all OTA DVRs have internal storage built-in and users often have to purchase a separate external hard drive or pay a monthly or yearly fee for a DVR service that allows for additional recording features and storage options.

Read more