My uncle Bill recently moved from California to Minnesota, near where my mom recently moved (also from California to Minnesota) which is two hours south of where I live. He’s a microbiologist who worked for the USDA prior to retirement, in which capacity he was once a leading researcher into wheat genetics. However, he’s also always been a huge audiophile, with progressively evolving stereo listening setups, the current iteration of which dwarfs any other suite, amateur or professional, I’ve ever been in.
Everybody needs a hobby.
Consequently, when he told me at Thanksgiving that he wanted to set up a home theater, I immediately blurted out two things; “You want a 77 inch LG C9,” and “you need Dolby Atmos.” He knows I’m serious about movie viewing, so he just agreed despite knowing nothing about HDR or Atmos.
The truth was, while I’ve had the privilege of supervising the mix of one of my movies in an Atmos theater last year, am reasonably well informed about how Dolby Atmos works for theatrical distribution, and had the opportunity to learn more about setting up Dolby Atmos in broad strokes having written updates to the Fairlight section of the DaVinci Resolve manual recently, I actually didn’t know much about how one went about setting up Atmos for the home. After all, Atmos for the theater famously accommodates up to 64 speakers, including overhead (height) speakers that allow a more specific spatial positioning of sound to enhance the aural experience of a movie. Here’s Dolby’s pitch for theatrical Atmos. But how on earth do you create that kind of experience in the confines of a typical basement room?
I know that manufacturers have created numerous solutions to deliver Atmos to the home, and I’ve seen it done for ambitious home theater thanks to my friend, actor, writer, and editor Jeffy Branion, who’s got one of the most well appointed home theaters I’ve had the pleasure of checking out, and who recently updated the entire thing to include state of the art HDR home theater projection and a really nice Atmos speaker setup. However, my own home theater is small, in a small room, in which there’s only room for the 5.1 setup I’ve got. I’ve had no reason to look into how to actually set up home theater Atmos, so I’d put off reading up on the specifics.
However, I’m a filmmaker, and being such I love spending other people’s money, so my uncle’s situation gave me all the excuse I needed to dive in. I knew already that Dolby Atmos is an object based mixing standard for which compatible amplification setups are capable of dynamically interpreting a mix to accommodate a variety of different speaker setups with differing numbers of speakers. What I didn’t know is what each specific combination looked like, and where the speakers needed to be placed.
A Google search answered all questions. Dolby has a nice page that outlines Atmos for the home here, and you can get to the actual layouts themselves here. An even more comprehensive and important white paper to read is available as PDF, Dolby Atmos Home Theater Installation Guidelines.
There are a staggering number of options, but having the requisite number of speakers is only half of it. You need to have an amplifier capable of driving all those speakers, and the prices of those actually helped determine what we decided was affordable. There are numerous options for individual speakers to use with Atmos, with some hybrid speakers doing double duty by serving as both a surround and a height (ceiling) speaker by bouncing sound off the ceiling via another set of drivers. However, knowing my uncle’s love of sound, I wanted to set him up with a discrete speaker setup for the most clear experience. Driving separate speakers, amps capable of 7.1.4 output seemed like the best bang for the buck, so we decided on a setup with seven L-C-R-Surround speakers, one subwoofer, and four height (ceiling) speakers.
The other thing that drove this decision was the fact that my uncle is also a speaker building enthusiast; he just happened to have three pairs of more-or-less balanced bookshelf speakers that he’s made sitting in a closet, along with a well-matched center speaker from a previous 5.1 surround setup. Since that covered LCR, the surrounds, and the back surrounds, that seemed like a decent place to start, and all we needed to do was to add the four height (ceiling) speakers and a new subwoofer to take us all the way to 7.1.4. We figured we’d use the speakers he had, and if the result was unsatisfactory, then he could upgrade whatever needed upgrading. However, he did need to buy new subwoofers and speakers for the height part of Atmos.
Being the audio junkie that he is, my uncle opted for two subwoofers instead of one (getting the really wonderful sounding SVS SB-3000’s, which have a freaking iPhone app for setup via blu-tooth) so it’s really a 7.2.4 setup.
For the heights, he got a set of four Definitive ProMonitor 800 speakers that were suggested for their reasonable sound, small size, and ease of installation. They sound fine, and the quality of the listening experience using them for home Atmos seems to prove that you don’t need giant speakers for height. Consequently, he’s debating about just going with in-wall height speakers as an upgrade, for their wider dispersion and flatter footprint.
Researching amplifiers more thoroughly, my uncle found the Denon AVR-X6500H, which has great reviews across the board, and checked all my boxes (4K 8 HDMI 2.2 inputs, Dolby Vision, AirPlay 2, Atmos, TrueHD, DTS, Audyssey room calibration, blah, blah). After having set it up, configured it, done a room analysis with it, and watched a few different movies with Atmos through it, I can say it’s a really great amp. Connection was easy, setup was easy, the analysis was clearly explained and easy to execute via pages of well illustrated onscreen instructions via the connected television, and the resulting sound, balancing together each pair of slightly different speakers within our unorthodox room layout, was really great. Nothing in the audio presentation was distractingly off during playback. I don’t doubt that pairing this amp with a more intentionally balanced set of speakers would probably sound better, but there’s nothing in what my uncle’s got now that isn’t thoroughly enjoyable.
So, based on these decisions, my uncle ordered all the gear and wiring, and we discussed how to go about getting this set up. He has a dedicated room for all this, but it’s just a bit small, and the shape is a little unorthodox. Knowing that even small speaker position changes can make a difference, I suggested that we mount everything, including the height speakers, on temporary stands and scaffolding, so we can move things around at will without drilling twelve holes in every wall surface. He loved the idea, and being a wood-worker with a whole shop in the garage (he takes every hobby very seriously) banged together a bunch of stands out of 2×4 lumber. Once everything arrived, he had this scaffolding ready, and I went down to help with the install.
Following the instructions for placement as well as the space would allow relative the central “ideal” seating position, we ended up doing pretty well. We ended up setting up, calibrating, and adjusting the speaker position twice to get to what we agreed was as good as things were going to get. His home-built Left and Right speakers were great, and the center is a decent match (though probably the first speaker he’ll upgrade). After the calibration, the two SVS SB-3000’s were turned down fairly low, but the resulting even and blended bass sounded fantastic, especially during Bladerunner 2049, the opening scene of which really exercises bass and LFE in a big way. We were both really impressed, and I had to admit that while I tried (mildly) to talk him out of getting two subwoofers, I couldn’t argue with the result.
Please bear in mind in these photos that this is a temporary setup. The lighting is wrong and will be changed out once the TV is mounted to the wall (I just grabbed a couple of fixtures and put 20 watt bulbs in to have some dim ambient light for the OLED HDR TV for the moment). Wall treatments to cut down on audio reflection are planned, the green color is going away, and the scaffolding will be gone in favor of wall mounts. We simply wanted to get everything set up to see how the existing collection of hardware would sound before committing to the space and arrangement, and to final mounting solutions and hardware. I’m glad we did.
My uncle is already mulling over swapping out some of the speakers with those from an audiophile kit company he knows. The biggest problem with the room is not so much the weird shape, but the fact that the left surround can’t really get far enough away from the seating position while having all the speakers be balanced. However, we struck the best balance we could, and all in all it actually sounds really freaking great, even to my uncle’s discerning ears. Watching a variety of movies and scenes in the setup seen above, the Atmos mixes all sounded riveting in different ways. I’m really impressed at Audyssey processing’s ability to balance the speakers and the room through whatever insane math cocktail it uses during its acoustic analysis.
I also want to say that the 77″ LG C9 looks fantastic. I have a 55″ LG TV myself, and while my uncle was (justifiably) on the fence between saving money with the 65″ and splurging on the 77″, the extra screen size really did make a difference, and he had to agree with me that sitting a bit closer to the TV at that size wasn’t a bad decision; you really get a big screen experience with that combo that makes me not miss projection at even bigger screen sizes. Until projectors capable of more robust HDR experiences are affordable, I think, for today, HDR on OLED displays is where it’s at.
One last detail. For UltraHD playback we opted for the Sony X800M2, which has been performing nicely. Furthermore, the HDMI-CED Simplink control via the eARC HDMI 2 output of the LG TV nicely controls both the Denon amp and Sony UltraHD player (which is plugged directly into the Denon amp), so that the LG remote actually controlled everything appropriately pretty much out of the box. I was shocked, since my experience with previous generations of ARC has been spotty at best. However, turning on the TV automatically turns on everything else, and choosing relevant inputs automatically enables and controls whatever options make sense for that input. My uncle may not even bother buying a universal remote, because his setup is so simple (apps on the LG and the UltraHD player are pretty much all he cares about).
So, having gotten this far, my work is done. I’ve given him a laundry list of other things that need to be done, and my uncle gets the fun of overseeing the finishing touches. Now, it’s all I can do to not rip my own home theater apart in an effort to try and squeeze the same thing in down there.