The quest for home theater nirvana can be tricky, especially if you want full surround sound immersion in a modern living room. Speaker space has never been more expensive, and as much as I want a movie viewing experience to rival my local multiplex, I also have to be realistic.
It is a shame. After all, nothing beats watching a 4K Blu-ray or streaming a 4K movie through a full-fledged AV system. And the emergence of audio formats like Dolby Atmos and their integration into consumer home theater products have given a new dimension to the way we watch movies and TV shows and added a new layer to the listening experience.
To get the most out of these soundtracks, though, you really need a dedicated Dolby Atmos-enabled surround sound speaker package with all the trimmings – including speakers placed in your ceiling or upward-firing modules on (or on) the top of your speakers that use reflections to deliver a similar height effect.
But what if that’s not practical?
The rise of Dolby Atmos soundbars
Now I’m trying to write this with a straight face, but one of the ways we’ve been told we can experience Dolby Atmos is purely through a television. TV manufacturers love to make a song and dance about the fact that their TVs can deliver the format through their built-in TV speakers. But I’ve heard it – and I’m assuming some of you reading this have too – and it’s nothing like The Real Deal.
More serious attempts have been made to design TVs with upward firing drivers on the back (from Panasonic) to give a sort of Atmos effect, or integrated soundbars that can do the same (from Philips). To be fair they don’t do a terrible job, but as you’d expect it’s still not the most convincing – you know, compared to a surround speaker based Atmos setup.
So you can understand why Dolby Atmos soundbars have become so popular. You can find budget models that support the audio format, but for me it’s higher in the price range where a Dolby Atmos soundbar makes the most sense. After all, a small bar of forward-facing drivers powered by an algorithm designed to try and weave magic out of a Dolby Atmos soundtrack can only do so much.
The best Atmos soundbars are brilliant…
A few weeks ago I was lucky enough to listen to some of the best Dolby Atmos soundbars passing through our test rooms in 2022. I had back-to-back demos of the Sonos Arc, Sony HT-A7000 and the Sennheiser Ambeo Plus – all soundbars that gave me a much greater sense of immersion than any TV.
Of course they still won’t be as convincing as a full 5.1.2 or 7.1.4 setup due to the nature of their size and placement, but when I heard effects float and move overhead during the scenes I saw of Blade runner 2049 I couldn’t help but be impressed with the level of immersion provided by such a ‘simple’ setup.
But just as I was about to reach for the popcorn and turn on my out-of-office for the afternoon, I noticed a problem: Every soundbar consistently blocked the TV screen. All of these soundbars are on the more premium end of the market and feature larger drivers in greater numbers and in more positions than cheaper models. That’s great for sound quality and immersion, but a little trickier to adjust.
But modern TV designs let them down
Which finally brings me to the main points of this article (congratulations if you’re still with me): the fact that there are so many TVs on the market that make it difficult to house the very best Dolby Atmos soundbars. Some TVs hug your rack so tightly that you can’t slide cigarette paper between the underside of the bezel and your AV stand. Maybe it’s the OCD part of my personality, but I really don’t want anything to spoil my enjoyment of a glossy 4K photo – not even the inch at the bottom of one.
In the past, some TV manufacturers have left enough gaps for their own soundbars to slide into place, which is very nice of them… but what if I don’t want my soundbar to match my TV? Some excellent TV manufacturers (who will remain nameless) don’t necessarily have a glowing track record of making breathtakingly good soundbars. I’d rather invest in a Sennheiser or Sonos soundbar that’s more effective at delivering the kind of experience I want, but doesn’t have TVs to match.
What I don’t want is to have to peer over the top of the soundbar to make sure I don’t miss any action on the bottom inches of my TV screen. There can certainly be a compromise that allows room for larger soundbars to breathe while still achieving the desirable aesthetic a manufacturer wants. Or maybe there isn’t? Perhaps I’ve resigned myself to using a stack of carefully positioned back issues of Which Hi-Fi? to take my TV to a new height…
But that is not everything…
Even if there’s room to place the soundbar in front of the TV, it won’t necessarily produce the best results. Sure, the drivers have a better chance of driving effects upwards, but then your TV starts acting like a back wall, with sound bouncing off the front of the panel and interfering with what’s coming out of the drivers. Not ideal.
If you don’t want to block the screen and your TV sits on a multi-shelf AV rack, you may be tempted to move the soundbar to the shelf below. But that doesn’t really work for premium Dolby Atmos soundbars with drivers on top, as they would just end up firing audio up and into the shelf above – those overhead effects wouldn’t be able to reach the listener.
It could also be that you’ve mounted your TV on the wall and are thinking, “I’ll add the soundbar underneath.” Actually, this introduces another potential problem. If your TV is at eye level, it could mean that your soundbar is lower than ideal to get the most out of Atmos. And this can be compounded by my last point…
That’s that for Dolby Atmos to work at its best, you need to be in the right place to make the most of those ceiling reflections. Unfortunately, many Dolby Atmos soundbars just don’t have the adjustments necessary to account for one seating position, let alone several, and produce convincing overhead sound for all parties. It’s the kind of flexibility that comes standard in the best AV receivers.
Unless some clever soul finds a way to place TVs and Dolby Atmos soundbars in harmony, then it’s come full circle again: perhaps Dolby Atmos is simply best served via a dedicated surround sound setup.
Dolby Atmos: what is it? How can you get it?
The 22 best Dolby Atmos movie scenes to test your home theater surround sound system
Our pick from the best Dolby Atmos soundbars