Dolby Atmos is the hot new kid in the block with its object-based virtual surround sound technology that can move sound seamlessly in 3D space, even above your head. However, to get that overhead sound you need the necessary hardware and Dolby has a solution; Upfiring speakers. However, they are very expensive and that got me analyzing and comparing it to no end.
Yes, you need a speaker that can project sound from the top. While In-ceiling speakers may produce richer and higher quality sound, upfiring speakers are the better alternative if you don’t want to drill holes in the ceiling.
To understand upfiring speakers with more depth and understand if it’s worth the money, we need to dive deeper and figure out if they are even necessary.
If you’ve been to a commercial Dolby Atmos theater, you may have seen several speakers installed on the ceiling. They are used to represent sound over your head. Imagine rain falling down from the top or a helicopter flying over your head.
At home, you can recreate a similar setup with fewer speakers. Before Dolby Atmos, surround sound used to be planar, with 5,7 or even 9 channels in the 2D plane on the X and Y-axis. Dolby Atmos adds the third dimension and adds the Z-axis. Imagine a hemisphere around you. Dolby Atmos can play sound from any location or coordinate on this hemisphere and make your experience more immersive.
That’s why there’s also a need for speakers that can project sound from the top. There are three ways to do it:
- In-ceiling Speakers
- Upfiring Speakers
- Dolby Atmos Height Virtualization(no need for extra speakers)
In-ceiling Speakers vs Upfiring Speakers
There are many ways you can have a Dolby Atmos setup with in-ceiling speakers. My friend Greg installed two dedicated in-ceiling speakers to upgrade his 5.1 system to a Dolby Atmos 5.1.2. He has two tower speakers upfront with a center channel in the middle along with a subwoofer right below it. Two bookshelf speakers at the rear and two in-ceiling speakers at the top left and right.
Ideally, it’s best to have a full Atmos setup of the same series from the same manufacturer. However, since this was an upgrade over his existing system, Greg bought the Polk Audio RC80i 2-way Premium In-Ceiling speakers. If you want a more budget option, you can get these Pyle speakers.
You’ll also need an Atmos capable receiver to power this setup. If you have a 5.1.2 setup like Greg and plan to stick to it in the foreseeable future, then a budget receiver would do a fine job. If you want to expand in the future or plan on installing a more complex 7.1.4 or 9.2.4 Atmos setup, then you’ll need to climb the price ladder.
While this Atmos setup is quite complex and requires a lot of drilling, wire routing, mounting, and cable management, it’s the best-sounding setup in my experiment. However, I feel like the overhead sounds have been hyped up too much and need to clarify that they enrich your experience and don’t blow your mind every time. Let me explain!
While the occasional bee flying across the left wall, buzzing above your head, or shrapnel from an explosion flying past you from the top has its noteworthy mind-blowing effect, it’s just that — occasional. You get surprised, look up and get back to the scene. Instead, I noticed the strength of the in-ceiling speakers in filling out ambient sounds and taking some of the load off the upfront speakers.
The environment in the movie does come to life and there’s a noticeable difference when you switch from Dolby Digital surround sound to Dolby Atmos. Dolby’s intelligent processing sends ambient sounds to the ceiling speakers and brings a pleasant and subtle change that you’re aware of.
To test how they compare against upfiring speakers, I brought my pair of Klipsch R-41SA speakers, set them up on my friend’s front tower speakers, and hooked them to the receiver. You may have realized the installation difference already. It requires no mounting, no drilling on the ceiling, and offers an easier and more convenient alternative by reflecting the sound from the ceiling. But how do they sound?
While both the upfiring and in-ceiling speaker setups sound great compared to regular old planar surround sound, the in-ceiling setup has a distinctive edge. The dedicated in-ceiling speakers did a better job of mimicking the high above sound effects. They are also better at “filling up” the room with ambient sounds.
If you want to completely ditch the receiver, you can go for a setup with rear speakers, a subwoofer, and a soundbar with integrated upfiring speakers. This kind of setup would also save you a lot of money.
While in-ceiling speakers are better, if you live in a rented home, you would have to go through a lot of hassle to drill holes in the ceiling and do behind-the-wall wire routing. That’s why I still prefer the Dolby Upfiring speakers that bounce sound off the ceiling.
Dolby Atmos Height Virtualization
I also tried Dolby Atmos height processing with their Dolby Atmos Height Virtualization. You can try this out to get the “feel” of Atmos if you don’t want to invest in either upfiring or in-ceiling speakers. Dolby signal processing uses your existing 5.1 or 7.1 speakers and implements height filters to trick your ear into thinking that the sound is coming from above. However, it can’t come close to the real thing and is often a hit or miss.
If you want to enjoy Dolby Atmos in all its glory you need speakers with overhead sound to complete that 3D bubble effect. In my opinion, most people would prefer the upfiring speakers since they don’t have to drill holes in the wall, go through the mounting process and offer a great experience overall. While in-ceiling speakers are definitely better, the difference isn’t drastic enough to make me consider them.