Spatial audio vs. Dolby Atmos: Understanding the differences in technology

Woman watching movie with spatial audio from Bose QuietComfort Ultra Headphones

Spatial audio and Dolby Atmos® are terms you may come across often when in the market for audio products. They both promise immersive, high-quality sound like never before, but what is spatial audio vs. Dolby Atmos? While they’re similar in some ways and there’s an overlap in how they sound, they are two distinct technologies. Read on to learn more, so you can be more informed before you “Add to cart.”

More realistic sound

Spatial audio can refer to different forms of immersive sound, while Dolby Atmos is a specific technology developed by Dolby Laboratories. Like Dolby Atmos, spatial audio expands on stereo left and right by making it feel like sounds are coming from the front and sides. While wearing spatial audio headphones, head tracking makes the audio react to your head movement, so it feels like the sound is moving around you.

For example, if you turn your head to the right, you’ll hear more audio in your left ear, just as you would in normal surroundings. When listening to a podcast through headphones, spatial audio practically puts you on the couch right next to your favorite podcast host.

Spatial audio can enhance existing stereo recordings. Bose TrueSpace technology, found in the Bose Smart Ultra Soundbar, upmixes stereo audio content into spatial audio, mixing it into additional height and side channels. The roar of the crowd envelops you while you’re watching your team battle out a close game.

Spatial audio is great for music, whether it’s studio albums or live recordings. It’s also perfect for soundscape acoustic installations, virtual reality, and gaming. In a multi-player online combat game, you’ll hear the direction of in-game footsteps of other players or nearby firefights easier, allowing you to get the jump on your opponents.

Extra dimension with Dolby Atmos

While spatial audio is often used as a general term, Dolby Atmos is a specific proprietary technology developed by Dolby Laboratories and licensed to audio manufacturers and streaming services.

While spatial audio can enhance stereo recordings after they’ve been made, Dolby Atmos is part of the sound recording and mixing process from the start. Not all content is available in Dolby Atmos yet, though more content is added every day.

Dolby Atmos mixes use a bed of up to 7.1.2 channels (7 for front and sides, 1 for low frequency, and 2 for height channels) and up to 118 sound objects to position and move sounds with precise accuracy anywhere in 3D space. You can then hear sounds in front, to the sides, over your head, and behind your listening or viewing position.

This is achieved by mixing content in Dolby Atmos–enabled software. For music, this means it’s easier to separate instruments, making the mix clearer. It also increases the listener’s sense of spatial awareness, so it’s like being there while the band jams. It also allows new and interesting uses of effects and more flexibility and space in the sound field for mix engineers, instead of trying to cram everything into stereo.

In film and TV audio, specific sounds can be positioned and moved more accurately in relation to what’s happening onscreen, making it feel like you’re in the middle of the action. Sounds are perceived like they would be in the real world, creating a much more exciting experience.

How to listen: Spatial audio vs. Dolby Atmos

Specially enabled headphones or earbuds are needed for spatial audio. Dolby Atmos down-mixes the multi-channel output for the best possible sound on your device, as well as through stereo headphones, but the content needs to be an Atmos mix to start with.

Noise cancelling headphones further enhance the effects of spatial audio and Dolby Atmos by blocking out external sound.

To experience Dolby Atmos through speakers, you’ll need either an Atmos-enabled soundbar like the Bose Ultra Soundbar or a dedicated Dolby Atmos home theater system with multiple speakers.

The number of speakers can vary, but for true Dolby Atmos sound, there must be speakers for the height channels. They can be upward-firing transducers in a soundbar to reflect sound from the ceiling, or ceiling-mounted speakers to project sound downward in a Dolby Atmos home theater system.



The best of both worlds

Some streaming services combine Dolby Atmos and spatial audio, giving you the best of both technologies. You can listen to Dolby Atmos mixes of your favorite albums on spatial audio headphones, and as you move your head, the sound responds to your movement.

Bose QuietComfort Ultra Headphones and QuietComfort Ultra Earbuds feature spatial audio capability, making everything sound so real you could almost reach out and touch it.

Which one is better?

Whether you’re using spatial audio or Dolby Atmos, you’re going to experience excellent sound quality. Spatial audio can enhance stereo content, while Dolby Atmos is a special mix format for content.

Both can be enjoyed on the right spatial audio headphones, and combined for a truly immersive, lifelike sound experience. Now that you know how each technology works, you’ll be able to choose the right approach to suit your personal listening preferences.

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