My ageing DTS-less amp left us watching Star Wars with lowly 2-channel stereo sound, so it looked better than DVD but actually sounded worse, unless I wanted to turn it into a spaghetti western and watch it in Italian: “Luke, io sono tuo padre!”
My high school Italian is rusty, so I bit the bullet and invested in a new DTS-capable amp, but didn’t opt for those two extra speakers so Blu-rays are scaled back to 5.1-channel DTS.
These days, you’ll find high-end Dolby Atmos and DTS:X soundtracks on Ultra HD Blu-ray discs, while streaming services tend to favour Atmos.
Along with more immersive surround sound, Atmos adds a sense of height so X-wing fighters can roar overhead rather than around you. For the full effect you need speakers in the ceiling, but for your average home an Atmos-compatible soundbar is a more affordable compromise; firing audio sideways and upwards to fill the room.
The new $1399 Sonos Arc soundbar is Sonos’ first foray into Dolby Atmos, connecting to your television via HDMI cable. It’s also a multi-room audio smart speaker, supporting Google Assistant or Amazon’s Alexa, along with Apple’s Airplay 2 streaming.
While the soundbar supports the new HDMI eARC connection format, unfortunately my 2018 LG Ultra HD OLED smart TV only supports standard HDMI ARC, which struggles with Atmos.
LG tells me the Netflix app on my TV is pumping out “slightly compressed” Atmos via HDMI ARC, although to be fair you’d struggle to hear the difference via soundbar. Meanwhile it seems Disney+ has temporarily dropped Atmos as part of its efforts to lower bandwidth usage during the coronavirus lockdown.
Surround sound FOMO won’t convince me to dump a perfectly good two-year-old 4K OLED on the nature strip, so I’ll just need to live with it until I’m ready to buy my next TV.
Even without Atmos on Disney+, you can still hear the Sonos Arc’s upwards-firing speakers working hard in The Force Awakens when Poe’s X-wing squadron swoops in on Takodana.
Switching across to Michael Bay’s 6 Underground on Netflix brings Atmos to life. It’s subtle but noticeable, enhancing the immersion to the point where your average listener would likely forgive the lack of rear speakers.
If you’re fussy about your audio then you can link more Sonos devices to act as rears and a subwoofer, but it gets expensive and you’d need to weigh this up against a true surround sound system.
If you’re ready for a lounge room overhaul but can’t squeeze a full Atmos home theatre system into your home or your budget, an Atmos-capable soundbar might be the way to go. As long as you can live with that fear of missing out on the very best possible sound.
Adam Turner is an award-winning Australian technology journalist and co-host of weekly podcast Vertical Hold: Behind The Tech News.