What is Dolby Atmos for Gaming?

There wasn't much fanfare for it, but the Samsung Galaxy S10 is one of the first devices ushering in Dolby Atmos for gaming. It's a spatial audio technology that enhances the listening experience to offer a new level of immersion.

But what even is Dolby Atmos? What does it do? How does it affect all the games you play and the movies you watch? We're glad you asked, because we have answers to give.

What is Dolby Atmos?

Dolby Atmos is the latest in spatial audio technology from the company that made its name on producing amazing sound at the cinema. Some might think the name is just a fancy veil for a glorified equalizer, but that would be wrong.

To hear Dolby tell it:

With Dolby Atmos, any sound can be rendered as a single audio element, an object, independent from the rest of the soundtrack. A child yelling, a helicopter taking off, a blaring car horn—the filmmaker can decide exactly where the sound should originate and where it should move as the scene develops.

This means that content you consume will be more immersive because the technology makes it easy for content creators to put you within a sound space that makes it feel as though you were in the middle of everything going down.

An ideal Dolby Atmos setup.

An ideal Dolby Atmos setup.

We've long had some level of audio manipulation in many of these blockbuster films over the years to simulate those effects, but many of those movies were using much simpler techniques and technology that would simply move audio back and forth between stereo or surround channels. It works to bring you a bit more into the show, but it never gave the sense that you are actually there.

With Dolby Atmos, however, you get a true spatial audio engine that can deliver on a 3D soundstage. Filmmakers can decide where in a scene audio should come from.

Dolby Atmos changes how (and where) you hear everything.

Think of a plane flying overhead or a car driving by in the real world — you could tell the exact direction they're going even if you close your eyes. And because they can manipulate the sound of up to 150 different objects in any given scene, they can be far more precise about what you hear.

Dolby Atmos isn't the first spatial audio engine out there — Google has been actively supporting one for Daydream and VR users — but as we've seen time and again in the cinematography industry, Dolby probably provides the most refined and robust of them all, so that's what everyone will flock to.

The downside to all of this is you need stuff that can handle Dolby Atmos, as it requires special audio processing. You also only get the full effect with the right home theater setup, and not a whole lot of those setups fit within most people's budget. As such, it's a pretty hefty series of upgrades to make, but ones that will be worth it in the long run if you want to get the most out of your movies and shows.

That said, Dolby has done extensive work to adapt Atmos for less-than-capable setups, such as stereo headphones or computer speakers. It uses a technique based heavily on psychoacoustics, which is the study of how the human ear can perceive audio. With it, they can simulate these 3D sound stages even when the sound is coming out of stereo equipment.

The end result is audio that feels more rich, spacious, and full of depth than a typical stereo audio implementation can provide. It's not quite as ideal as going for a full 5.1 surround sound setup, but Dolby Atmos for headphones and stereo speakers does enough on its own to upgrade your listening experience.

It's important to remember in all of this that it's up to the filmmakers to decide whether they want to incorporate this level of mastering in their content. Before long, most serious studios will be using Dolby Atmos for pretty much everything they do, so you're unlikely to run into situations where there's not enough compatible content out there for you to enjoy.

How does Dolby Atmos work for gaming?

While we mainly talked about films (since that's the most common type of content making use of Dolby Atmos right now), Dolby Atmos can also be used in gaming. It's not quite as impressive an effect when used in video games as many games already manage sound positioning for individual objects.

But Dolby Atmos does alter the soundstage enough that it enhances pretty much any game you play, even if that game wasn't mastered for it. It can often give you that concert hall or movie theater effect where the vibrations from the audio are being heard and felt throughout the room. You won't quite get the body vibrations, of course, but the idea is that you're not just hearing flat audio coming from one direction.

Dolby Atmos will enhance those little moments where you can hear some leaves rustling in the distance or hear individual insects buzzing around your character. And, of course, those big Michael Bay-esque explosions will be even more impactful than they already were.

Can Dolby Atmos work inside phones?

Dolby Atmos can technically work on anything with speakers and the right audio processing hardware. That includes a handful of Android smartphones, some of which you might even already own.

The presence of the functionality is welcome, but don't expect the full Dolby Atmos experience if you're watching content directly over the phone. It will do what it can, but you're still going to be held back by the limitations of smaller speakers and fewer audio channels. It's best to use headphones to get the most out of it, and, of course, it'll work nicely for those times when you're using the phone to playback content on more capable hardware.

In some phones, Dolby Atmos also works closely with the Android system to reduce audio lag. Because advanced audio like Dolby Atmos has to be processed before being output to your ears, it can cause a delay between what you see on the screen and what you hear.

This side effect is easily covered in video content because the only element of the experience it needs to work with is something that you can't really interact with. In gaming, however, audio is unpredictable and can be triggered by user input, and this can create those weird situations where you're seeing something happen, but you don't hear any feedback until fractions of a second later.

It's a mild effect, but it has the potential to ruin your immersion and overall gaming experience if the lag is too severe. Dolby Atmos addresses this by working with Android's audio latency framework at the system level to ensure that you're not only hearing better sound, but more accurate sound that matches the action on your screen.

Are there any phones with Dolby Atmos for gaming?

While we already have a good amount of smartphones incorporating Dolby Atmos, there is only a handful confirmed to have the separate Dolby Atmos feature specifically meant for gaming.

We know that the Samsung Galaxy S10 family will have it out of the box and that the Galaxy Note 9 received the functionality in its One UI (Android Pie) update. Strangely enough, the feature was also present in the beta version of the Galaxy S9's One UI update but didn't make its way in for the final release.

Samsung users would be able to find it by heading to the Settings > Sounds and vibration > Advanced sound settings > Sound quality and effects menu on their phone. It exists as a separate "Dolby Atmos for gaming" toggle right beneath the regular "Dolby Atmos" option.

It's likely we'll see more phones support the feature proper in the near future. For now, however, here's a list of all the phones that support Dolby Atmos, which makes it the shortlist for phones that could eventually get Dolby Atmos for Gaming support (bolded phones already have it):

  • Samsung Galaxy S10
  • Samsung Galaxy Note 9
  • Samsung Galaxy S9
  • Samsung Galaxy S9+
  • Razer Phone
  • Nokia 6
  • Lenovo Vibe K5
  • Lenovo Phab 2
  • Huawei P20
  • Huawei P20 Pro
  • Huawei Porsche Design
  • ZTE Axon 7
  • General Mobile 9 Pro

Better sound is coming

If you're lucky enough to own a phone with Dolby Atmos for gaming, let us know in the comments how it's been treating you. Otherwise, sit tight — Dolby Atmos is still relatively new and it'll take a while for the technology to trickle into our devices and content. Those who want it for gaming and want it now, however, should think about grabbing a Samsung Galaxy S10.

Quentyn Kennemer