Five tips for better TV sound – Dolby Atmos for beginners

Five tips for better TV sound demystifies the sales hype telling you to get a Dolby Atmos soundbar. Why? Because a soundbar can’t magically add Dolby Atmos 3D spatial sound unless you have a Dolby Atmos TV and other stars align.

Five tips for better TV sound helps you understand the current sound types and what you need.

99% of TV sound is not Dolby Atmos 3D spatial

Most over-the-air-TV content is mono 1.0 or stereo 2.0. Most streaming services (Netflix at al.) can stream sound up to 5.1. You get a DA sound stream if you pay extra for 4K Dolby Vision (DV) content or play a 4K DV Blu-ray. A Sub-woofer adds .1 as the centre number, e.g., 2.1

Sound types2.03.04.05.07.09.0
Mono (1.0) – most older TV content      
Stereo Left front
Stereo Right front
Clear Dialogue Centre front  
Left front surround   
Right front surround   
Left rear surround   
Right rear surround   
Left wide surround     
 Right wide surround     

Dolby Atmos adds 3D spatial height (up-firing or overhead) speakers, e.g., 5.1.2 or 7.1.4

Left front up-firing   .2
Right front up-firing   .2
Left rear up-firing   .4
Right rear up-firing   .4

Dolby Atmos (DA) – is a much used and abused term

DA means adding extra up-firing or overhead speakers to add 3D height to your otherwise flat horizontal sound stage.

If you don’t have a DV/DA TV, you won’t get 3D spatial sound. You need DA encoded content (metadata), and your TV needs a licensed DA decoder to process the sound and direct it to the available speakers. Or it can pass it through to a DA soundbar for decoding there. In which case, you only need a lower-cost soundbar.

Sure, you can pay more for DA, but you will never get DA sound until you get a DA TV.

My TV has Dolby Vision and Atmos, but I can’t see/hear any difference

Remember that DA is about speaker numbers and placement around the room and overhead.

A TV generally has 2.0 speakers (left and right stereo) and may have a centre dialogue speaker (3.0). Some claim to have a sub-woofer (2.1), but that is physically impossible with micro-TV speakers. It may have a bass radiator that bounces sound off the wall behind it.

It decodes DA to your available speakers. At best, it can phase sound between the left and right speakers to give a faux sense of direction, but TV speakers are generally woefully underpowered (5-15W).

Adding an external soundbar, preferably 5.1 or DA 5.1.2 or 4 or higher, will not only give you more volume but will have a far better amplifier system than the TV for better, clearer sound.

As for Dolby Vision, it is a much-abused term too. All that means is that it can decode DV content and play it to the screen’s capability. DV on a typical edge or backlit 4K LED/LCD looks quite inferior when placed beside a 4K OLED TV.

Oh, and you need HDMI 2.1 eARC ports (4K@120Hz) on the TV and soundbar and HDMI 2.1 48Gbps Ultra High-Speed cables for true DA.

Be aware of psychoacoustic trickery

Single soundbars (all-in-one) above 3.0 use psychoacoustic trickery to fool your ears into thinking that sound is coming from around, behind, or above you. To do this, they bounce sound off the ceiling and walls. That is fine if you have lower ceilings and close walls to bounce off – otherwise, you lessen or eliminate the effect.

There is no substitute for dedicated rear or overhead speakers – forward-firing (surround sound) and up-firing (DA).

What type of soundbar do you need?

A soundbar primarily provides better quality sound and more volume than the TV can – that is not hard! In fact, 99% of TV sound only requires a 2.0 soundbar, and a sub-woofer (2.1) is nice but not necessary. It can also clear up the dialogue channel (3.0 or above), which may help those that are a little hard of hearing. So, any reputable brand, all-in-one 3.0 or 3.1, is all you need. Here are a few options that I like. Prices are from JB Hi-Fi November 2021 but shop around.

  • Panasonic SC-HTB688 3.1 all-in-one $369.
  • Samsung HW-A650 3.1 all-in-one $599
  • Samsung Q700a series (best with Samsung Q-series TV) 3.1.2 all-in-one $695
  • Sonos Beam Gen 2 5.0 Dolby Atmos capable $699 (the outstanding lower cost choice and fully upgradeable with rears and sub – although these are expensive)
  • Sony HTG700 3.1 all-in-on $699
  • LG SP70Y 3.1.2 all-on-one $745
  • JBL Bar 5.1 Ultra HD with true wireless surround speakers $999.
  • JBL Bar 9.1 is a 5.1.4 Dolby Atmos soundbar with rear speakers $1499.95
  •  LG SP11RA 7.1.4 at $1699 rates as one of the best Dolby Atmos soundbars.
  • Samsung Q950A 11.1.4 Dolby Atmos $2099

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