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Your laptop probably has 3D spatial sound and it's awesome

If you've updated your Windows 10 PC recently, then it supports 3D spatial sound. Learn what it does and how to set it up.

Have you read about Dolby Atmos and like the sound of bringing 3D surround sound -- spatial sound, they're calling it -- to your home theater but have yet to invest in a new receiver and speaker system? If you are curious to try Dolby Atmos -- or Microsoft's equivalent spatial sound technology -- you can check it out with just your laptop and a decent pair of headphones. It makes movies and games more immersive.

What is Dolby Atmos?

Dolby Atmos is Dolby's spatial sound technology. Instead of using channel (rear-left speaker, for example), it assigns sounds to a place (rear-left corner, 8-feet high). Dolby Atmos adds height to the surround-sound equation, which creates a smoother, more realistic surround sound experience as sounds are passed from place to place around you.

dolby-atmos

Atmos.

Screenshot by Matt Elliott/CNET

How does it work on a PC?

Dolby Atmos can be set up on a PC to be used with headphones or, a less likely scenario, external speakers and an AV receiver that supports Atmos. 

Does my PC support it?

As long as you updated to Windows 10 Creators Update last spring, it does.

Microsoft offers something similar?

Microsoft has its own flavor of spatial sound, but it works only with headphones. It's called Windows Sonic for Headphones.

Which one should I use?

You have only one choice -- Dolby Atmos -- if you have a sweet surround-sound speaker system hooked up to your PC via a receiver that supports Atmos. For headphones, I suggest you give Windows Sonic a whirl. Dolby Atmos costs $14.99 to enable, a fee which you can pay via the Dolby Access app. Windows Sonic is free and already on board your PC if you are running Creators Update or later.

I tried out both Dolby Atmos and Windows Sonic on a Windows 10 PC with a pair of gaming headphones. I watched trailers from the Movies & TV app and could hear the difference between spatial sound and no spatial sound, but I couldn't discern any difference between Windows Sonic and Dolby Atmos. There's a 30-day free trial for Dolby Atmos so you can see (or hear, rather) which one sounds better with your setup.

How do I enable it?

Connect headphones to your PC, right-click the speaker icon in the system tray and then click Spacial sound from the menu. Your options will be either Windows Sonic for Headphones or Dolby Atmos for Headphones. Choose the latter, and you'll open the Dolby Access page in the Windows Store to download the free app, which you then use to buy the license for Dolby Atmos -- or start the 30-day free trial. The license lets you use Dolby Atmos on 10 devices, including an Xbox One. 

windows-sonic

 I couldn't discern any difference between Windows Sonic and Dolby Atmos.

Screenshot by Matt Elliott/CNET

If you have a Dolby Atmos receiver connected to your PC via HDMI, then you'll see only one option in the Spatial sound menu: Dolby Atmos for Home Theater.