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Apple TV 4K gets Dolby Atmos sound: Three reasons it matters

Aaaaand four reasons it doesn't.

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With the addition of Dolby Atmos this, the Apple TV 4K, will be even more desirable to AV enthusiasts.

Sarah Tew/CNET

The Apple TV 4K and iTunes are getting support for Dolby Atmos. Should you care?

If you're an AV enthusiast with an Apple TV 4K, or the desire to get one eventually, the answer is a solid "maybe." But if you're not, perhaps you're wondering what Dolby Atmos is.

Along with DTS:X, Dolby Atmos is one of the highest-quality surround sound formats available today. It adds to the more widely known 5.1 surround sound formats, like Dolby Digital and Dolby Digital Plus, with dedicated "height" channels designed to more precisely locate sound in space. Those formats are pretty good already, but serious audio enthusiasts -- or people who paid a lot for an Atmos system -- have reason to seek out Atmos-capable gear.

The Apple TV 4K was already CNET's favorite streaming device for home theater geeks with extra cash, in part because it supports Dolby Vision HDR for video. With the addition of Dolby Atmos this fall, it gets even more capable.

ReadWhy Dolby Atmos is cool, how it works and how to get it

Now Playing: Watch this: Dolby Atmos comes to Apple TV 4K
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Why Atmos on Apple TV 4K matters

It brings the Apple TV 4K closer to being "the one" source you need. When the Apple TV 4K debuted, the lack of Atmos on its spec sheet was suspicious in part because devices that cost far less, like the $70 Roku Streaming Stick Plus, do support Atmos. Although it still lacks YouTube in 4K and HDR, Apple's high-end device at least achieves audio parity with Roku and other Atmos-toting competitors, such as the Nvidia Shield, Amazon Fire TV and Google's Chromecast Ultra, and comes closer to matching the experience of 4K Blu-ray

With Dolby Vision already on-board, it checks more high-end streaming boxes, so to speak, than any competitor so far. 

Apple TV 4K

4K Blu-ray discs also have Dolby Atmos sound, but they're not as convenient as streaming.

Sarah Tew/CNET

It makes buying on iTunes even more future-proof. If you buy a non-Atmos movie on iTunes that later gets upgraded to include an Atmos soundtrack, Apple will upgrade your version free of charge. Added to Apple's existing promise to upgrade HD movies to 4K HDR when they become available, and its policy of pricing HD and 4K movies the same, it makes an iTunes movie or TV purchase even more compelling compared to competitors Vudu, Google Play and Amazon.

It can actually sound better. If you have the right setup -- typically an Atmos-enabled AV receiver with Atmos surround speakers, or at least a good Atmos soundbar with upward-firing height speakers -- you will likely hear benefits compared to a standard 5.1 setup. Those height effects can definitely add to immersion, and some Atmos movie mixes really do sound amazing.

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The Samsung HW-K950 is CNET's favorite sound bar with Dolby Atmos. It costs $1,400, £1,299 or AU$1,500.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Why it doesn't matter

You need the right gear (and content) to appreciate it. If you're not watching an Atmos movie on a high-end setup, you won't hear any improvement compared to standard surround sound -- which the Apple TV has already. And many Atmos-enabled devices, like LG's TVs, provide a dubious improvement at best. Finally, many movies and nearly all TV shows and other content you watch don't have Atmos.

Other devices have it already. When Apple does something it's often seen as a big deal, but what about Roku boxes, Fire TV, the Nvidia Shield, the Xbox One, the Chromecast Ultra, smart TV apps and 4K Blu-ray players, many of which have had Atmos for years? Chances are, if you're an AV enthusiast you have at least one of those devices already, and Atmos on Apple TV might be redundant.

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The Apple TV 4K is hardly the first streamer with Dolby Atmos.

Sarah Tew/CNET

"Regular" surround sounds pretty great. Unless you're a real audiophile with money to burn, the non-Atmos surround soundtrack is probably good enough -- not worth buying a whole new system for, anyway. Dolby Digital delivers convincing surround effects, and is much, much more widely available than Atmos.

It's only on iTunes (for now). Apple's announcement made no mention of Netflix, Vudu, Plex or other popular apps that can handle Atmos on other devices. Perhaps that will change when the Atmos update goes live this fall, but for now it means that Apple TV 4K's Atmos support still isn't as complete as it could be. (Apple has yet to respond to a request for information on Atmos apps beyond iTunes.)

In sum, the Apple TV 4K getting Atmos support is a big deal for home theater enthusiasts with nice Atmos rigs who buy movies through iTunes and watch them via Apple TV. For everyone else, maybe not so much.

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