Bring The Noise

These Dolby Atmos Soundbars Literally Take Your Home Theater To Another Level

Looking to take your AV setup to new heights? Here’s how to do it right.

by Scott Tharler
Dolby Atmos Soundbars: Denon DHT-S217 and Creative SXFI Carrier.

It doesn’t matter how gorgeous your TV is if the sound coming from it is lousy. If you’re looking to ramp up your home theater’s audio but don’t have the room for a full set of surround sound speakers, a soundbar is a great option. They’re generally cheaper, take up far less room, and are easier to install. And if you’re looking for truly immersive surround sound, a soundbar with Dolby Atmos technology is the way to go.

The Dolby Atmos logo is everywhere, but few people outside of the audiophile community know what it really means. A system with Atmos allows you to not only hear sound that envelops you laterally but also adds a dimension of sounds above you (bombs whistling down, planes soaring above and zooming by), as well as more detailed atmospheric sounds like water dripping off leaves and bugs chirping in a rainforest.

In other words? Dolby Atmos literally takes surround sound to a whole other level, making watching movies a much more immersive experience. Here, then, are some of the best available soundbars with Dolby Atmos as well as some expert tips for buying the right one for your needs.

So, You’re Buying A Soundbar...

To get the most out of a soundbar with Dolby Atmos, you’re going to have to do more than plug it in and hit play. If you’ve spent the money for a next-level sound system, you’re going to want to get your money’s worth. Mathias Bendull, VP of Living Room at Dolby Laboratories, offers some advice on what to look for in a system and how to get the best sound out of it.

1. Assess Your Needs

One of the most important questions when trying to narrow down your soundbar choices is: What’s more important, conserving space or having a more immersive audio experience?

If you’re concerned about space limitations — or you’re just a minimalist who wants to keep it simple — Bendull recommends you go with a "bar-only option.” As the name implies, these all-in-one systems, such as the very affordable Denon DHT-S217 mentioned below, manage to pack all the speakers (including a subwoofer) into a single unit. And then — this is the magical key — they configure those internal speakers in ways designed to bounce the sounds off the entertainment table, walls, and ceiling to fool your brain into thinking there are actual speakers around the room.

If truly immersive 360-degree audio is your top priority, you’ll want to surround yourself with a dedicated subwoofer and/or surround speakers. (The Nakamichi below is an extreme example.) But then again, advanced, high-end soundbars such as the Sennheiser Ambeo Soundbar Max ($2,000) and Devialet Dione ($2,400) also produce an incredibly compelling soundscape from an all-in-one format.

2. Know Your Budget

Yes, you get what you pay for. But having just mentioned two pricey systems, know that you don’t necessarily need to drop a ton of cash to get a great system (as evidenced by the sub-$1,000 entries below). Conversely, just because an Atmos soundbar is a great value doesn’t mean it will or won’t wow your ears. But that’s why we led with the question about space vs. audio immersion. Because that consideration factors in heavily at every price point. Obviously, at some point, you’ll need to consider how much you’re willing to spend on this. But it doesn’t need to be the first thing you settle on.

3. Board The ARC

Bottom line up front: eARC (enhanced audio return channel) is the fastest multimedia connection that your soundbar and TV can have. So if you intend to listen to Dolby Atmos and watch in 4K ultra-high def, that’s the best way to handle those bandwidth hogs.

Next best is just regular ARC. Essentially, what both of the ARC features do is allow your soundbar and TV to communicate and share A/V in either direction. To put it another way, you could plug all of your video sources (cable box, streaming stick, gaming console, Blu-ray player) into either your soundbar or your TV. If it’s into the TV, the ARC will pass the audio to your soundbar; or if it’s into the soundbar, the ARC will pass the video to your TV. So look for a soundbar with an eARC or at least an ARC feature.

6 Great Dolby Atmos Soundbars To Consider

What soundbars are worth considering for a next-level home setup? Here are six Dolby Atmos-enabled soundbars, representing a wide range of form factors and price levels.

The Affordable All-In-One

An Excellent Compact Soundbar

A Seriously High-Tech Soundbar

A Wonderful Wireless Soundbar

A Great Modular And Multi-Room Soundbar

A 360-Degree Soundbar Setup With Serious Boom

How To Make The Most Of Your Soundbar

Here, with Bendull’s assistance, are three ways to ensure your soundbar is as optimized as possible.

1. Don’t Scrimp On The Cables

The explicit caveat with all the technical ARC business mentioned above is that an HDMI connection is necessary. So while an optical digital connection used to be the cable to reach for when trying to optimize audio in your rack system of yesteryear, it simply doesn’t offer a big enough pipeline to transmit the volumes of data necessary to produce Atmos audio. Likewise, it’s important that you use high-speed HDMI cables (either version 1.4 or 2.0 will suffice, both for the cable itself and the jacks you plug them into on your soundbar and TV). Thankfully, many soundbar makers include the appropriate HDMI cable right in the box.

2. Upgrade Your Content

If you’re a Marvel fan, you’ve likely seen the Dolby Atmos logo before the post-credits scene pops up. Either way, if you still rent or collect discs, you should check for that same logo on the case sleeve.

“If you enjoy streaming, whether you are enjoying music or bingeing your favorite TV series, many services offer Dolby Atmos across all their subscription tiers,” says Bendull. “In addition, a growing number of cable providers offer Dolby Atmos to their customers.”

Put simply, since you’ve spent all this time researching how to buy and set up a great Dolby Atmos system, make sure that the movie, game, or music you’re planning to enjoy was actually mixed in Atmos. Because otherwise, you’ll miss out on the full audio experience.

3. Maximize Your Speaker Placement

Once you’ve got everything hooked up the right way, the most obvious and overarching error is preventing the sound from reaching your ears. So you want to make sure that the speakers aren’t impeded, leaving them enough room to properly produce the audio. To that end, Bendull suggests not mounting the soundbar flush against the wall and instead placing it on the edge of your entertainment center. This way, he says, “the audio reflects outward into the room.”

Bendull also suggests making sure you don't have any decorations or plants obstructing the soundbar's audio drivers, especially the side-firing and up-firing drivers.

This also goes for the TV itself, which if placed directly above the soundbar can physically impact the sound performance in a negative way. But that certainly doesn’t mean it’s best to watch in an empty room. Just the opposite, in fact. Bendull says that you may actually be able to improve the audio quality if you “consider sound-absorbing decorations like rugs, curtains, and wall art if you have a large, echoey room.”

Then grab some popcorn, get comfortable, and get ready to enjoy your movies on a new level.