Denon Dolby Atmos receiver Surround Receivers

Dolby Atmos Receiver Basics—What You Need to Know

Dolby Atmos receivers are taking the industry by storm, and it’s a good thing as far as I’m concerned. This is one of the more flexible DSP-based surround systems I’ve seen, and I love the adaptability of it to fit nearly any room configuration. Of course, there are somethings you’ll need to be aware of in order to capitalize on the new Dolby Atmos features found on newer AV receivers. And for those of you bent on getting the latest and greatest, you’ll have some upgrades to make in order to receive all of the benefits the format brings.

Dolby Atmos Receivers and Speaker Channels

The first thing you’ll note about the new Dolby Atmos receivers are the additional speaker channel outputs. While a typical 7- or 9-channel AV receiver isn’t going to add more amplifiers to achieve Atmos functionality, it will allow you some room to maneuver when assigning your amplifiers. If you want to learn more about Atmos in general, please read our article entitled What is Dolby Atmos. For now, this article will center around what to expect from the new AV receivers and how they interact with your room differently than a typical Dolby Digital or DTS configuration or setup. Let’s take a look at the back of a recently-introduced Dolby Atmos receiver, the Denon AVR-X5200W:

Denon AVR-X5200W back

Though this is a 9-channel amplifier, the back of the AVR-X5200W receiver gives you a choice of 11 pairs of speaker terminals so you can connect what’s needed and then switch modes to change between Atmos, music, and whole-home audio listening. There’s even a 13.2-channel preamp output for additional flexibility.

Notice the Height 1 and Height 2 L/R speaker output pairs on the back of this receiver. Dolby Atmos receivers need to allocate signals for these additional channels in order to comply with the two or four overhead speakers required for the format. Any Dolby Atmos receiver that provides preamp outputs for these channels but no dedicated speaker terminals is going to limit your ability to reassign amplifiers as needed. Remember, Dolby Atmos adds speakers to a 5.1 or 7.1 configuration—not take them away. The height channels are in addition to those standard surround configurations. It’s likely this reason that Dolby Atmos features aren’t too popular (yet) on lower-priced receivers.

Take this Onkyo TX-NR636 receiver, for example. It is firmware-upgradeable to Dolby Atmos. It has, however, only 4-1/2 pairs of speaker terminals (as opposed to the 11 pairs of the above Denon AVR-X5200W). The Onkyo is going to have to share speaker terminals in order to achieve Dolby Atmos connectivity, and really it will only ever achieve 5.1.4 or 7.1.2 functionality due to this limitation.

Onkyo TX-NR636 rear

Dolby Atmos Receivers and Wiring

You’re going to need to take care in how you wire up speakers in a  Dolby Atmos surround configuration. If you opt for height channels, your work is pretty clear-cut. Wire for the ceiling speakers need to be run so that you have a wide pair just in front of the seating area and another wide pair just behind your main seating. Where it gets a bit confusing for those new to Atmos is in the case of using Dolby Atmos-enabled speakers. These are speakers that have a separate top-mounted speaker designed to reflect Dolby Atmos height channel audio off of the ceiling. This is truly another speaker, and it requires its own speaker cable. So when you run cables for your front speakers, a Dolby Atmos-enabled system will require two wires for the left channel, and two wires for the right channel. The same goes for your surround left and right speakers (in cases of a 4-speaker Dolby Atmos-enabled speaker system). This is the only way to get true Dolby Atmos information to those speakers since Atmos isn’t a “derived” format like the original Dolby Surround or Pro Logic. That information is discrete and it needs to be sent separately on its own amplified channel.

Dolby Atmos 5.1.4 speaker layout

Image courtesy of

Are you looking forward to Dolby Atmos in your living room or home theater? We are. The format is intriguing because it’s not terribly difficult to implement—particularly with the advent of Dolby Atmos-enabled speakers. Ceiling speakers are out of the question for most homeowners—at least practically-speaking, but for even movie users the use of Atmos-emnabled speakers makes a lot of sense…and the difference in envelopment is amazing.

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9 comments on “Dolby Atmos Receiver Basics—What You Need to Know

  1. Richard Dempsey

    Every atmos ceiling speaker placement diagram I see shows a single sitting place. What about the situation where you have two rows of seats and the back one is higher. If you have a room with a ceiling just 8′ (like I do) , the higher back row is at the Atmos minimum of 7.5 feet. Where would the 4 speakrs go then?
    In addition, I have expensive Monitor Audio speakers and there is no way I am about to get rid of them for ‘atmos enabled’ speakers. so I would have to put the atmos speakers in the ceiling. Is it worth it.
    Finally, I already have a 11.2 system in place, and in the relatively short room described above, the front and rear height speakers are already bumping the ceiling. Is there really any point in going to atmos, especially in the near future? Thanks

    • I think Atmos is very difficult for a lower ceiling installation. Yu might want to spend the money upgrading your existing rig. The fact that you have an 11.2 system is already amazing.

  2. Kathy Machir

    Sigh, questions from a novice. We are building a new house and want to be sure we have everything properly wired and in place during the basic construction phase. From what I have read, we will need a new receiver and probably tv?? We have a Yamaha RX-V665 receiver and a Samsung Series 7000 LED tv, both bought in November 2010. We are considering replacing the 48″ tv wt a 60″. We have a center and two side Bose speakers along with the sub-woofer. So, several questions: 1) will present tv and receiver work? 2) if not, for a 5 speaker setup, what receiver is recommended, and what do I look for on a tv’s specs? 3) we will use the Bose center speaker and two front laterals but will need to acquire two more for side/back speakers. Is it true we should not mix other speakers with Bose, or is that a Bose marketing rumor? Remember I am a novice….any and all advice you can give me including caution about speaker wire type and maximum length is highly appreciated.

    • The trouble with Bose is that all the audio typically runs through the subwoofer, so you’re sending the analog output of your 5 channels from the receiver to the sub…then on to the speakers (it’s kind of messy if you ask me.) A typically system connects each speaker directly to the AV receiver, and runs a single line level RCA cable from the “subwoofer out” on the back of the receiver to the subwoofer’s input.

      Given what you’ve said, your Yamaha will work just fine, as will the present TV if it has HDMI inputs (I’m sure it does).

      If you’re adding surround speakers, you can either use whatever you want—and connect them directly to your AV receiver’s surround speaker outputs, or stick with Bose and add whatever that sub is designed to work with. I highly recommend the former rather than continuing to invest in Bose. You can mis surrounds. We don’t recommend you mix a different center channel with your main speakers as the sound will sound odd when panning left-to-right, etc.

      If you run 16 gauge wire you should be fine for anything you do unless you’re going over 75 feet.

  3. Stacey

    I am setting up a new theater room, already wired tho. In ceiling speakers like your picture. I was looking at the 7. 2 Onkyo Reciever. I was looking at the KEF C1 series in ceiling speakers. We have a projector. Or do you have a combo that works great together.

  4. Everton

    I have an old Yamaha natural sound AV Receiver RX-V2095 running 7.1 with Klipsch speakers. Can I use this receiver with the addition of 4 ceiling speakers to produce the atmos experience. I do not want to put out the money for a new receiver if I don’t have to.

  5. sammy

    hi, i bought the onkyo tx nr636 and i dont have it set right or something cuz im not getting blown away, its reading dolby atmos input and output (5.1.2) everything is working right, i have dolby atmos blu rays, and 2 dolby atmos demo blu rays, i bought the dolby atmos enabled speakers, what setting am i missing??

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