There are movies in which sound is just a background, whereas in others, the sonic elements play such a pivotal role that we couldn’t imagine those movies without the soundtracks and sound effects they have.
Needless to say, I’m a huge fan of powerful soundscapes in movies, and recreating them in a home theater requires time, knowledge, and most of all, testing.
When you’re ready to test the power and clarity of your surround sound system, try it out with one or more of the movies I recommended below. Actually, these are more than just movies: they’re audiovisual works of art where sound is a storytelling element crucial for the narrative.
While science fiction has always been on the frontline when it comes to immersive soundscapes (think of 2001 or Tron), there are wonderful examples of immersive audio across all genres, from war movies to thrillers and wuxia.
I hope you’ll find in this list movies that are in line with your taste but that can also test the limits of your surround system.
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These are my favorite movies to test surround sound system:
- Interstellar (2014)
- Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)
- Arrival (2016)
- Saving Private Ryan (1998)
- Baby Driver (2017)
- Gravity (2013)
- Hero (2002)
- Blade Runner 2049 (2017)
- Genre: Adventure, drama, sci-fi
- Director: Christopher Nolan
- Composer: Hans Zimmer
- Sound design: Richard King
In the amazing sci-fi epic Interstellar, sound designer Richard King created a soundscape that conveys the eerie silence of space and the powerful forces at play beyond Earth’s atmosphere.
One of the most striking sonic elements is the contrast between stark silence in the vacuum of space and Hans Zimmer’s richly orchestrated score, which further accentuates the isolation and grandeur of the celestial settings.
This is particularly evident in scenes where there’s a sudden shift from the loud chaos of a spacecraft to the quiet of space.
Throughout these scenes, the careful use of the surround channels places the viewer in the middle of the action, whether it’s a swirling dust storm on Earth, inside the claustrophobic cockpits, or amidst galaxies.
Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)
- Genre: Action, adventure, sci-fi
- Director: George Miller
- Composer: Tom Holkenborg aka Junkie XL
- Sound design: Mark Mangini, David White
Here’s an example of a soundtrack that serves as a propeller, pushing the movie’s pace to even more breakneck speeds! Composer Junkie XL and sound designers Mark Mangini and David White did an incredible job at creating a sonic experience that’s as frenetic and chaotic as the film’s non-stop action.
Let’s start with the soundtrack, where heavy percussions and electric guitars match the film’s visceral energy and enhance the intensity of the chase scenes with rhythmic patterns.
Simply by listening to the soundtrack, you’re transported to a world that never sleeps, with carefully layered orchestral parts blending with galvanizing rhythms and machine sounds, bringing to life a dystopian, apocalyptic atmosphere.
Similarly, the sound team used a mix of organic and mechanical sounds to bring the film’s fleet of custom vehicles to life, each with its own distinct sonic signature.
If your sound system is up for the task, you’ll be placed right in the middle of the action, surrounded by the growls of engines, the whir of machinery, and the cacophony of battle.
- Genre: Drama, mystery, sci-fi
- Director: Denis Villeneuve
- Composer: Jóhann Jóhannsson
- Sound design: Sylvain Bellemare
The sound design in Arrival features a minimalist approach that contrasts with the often awe-inspiring soundscapes of traditional sci-fi movies. Here, the late Jóhannsson’s abstract arrangements perfectly represent the film’s focus on the alien nature of the visitors’ language and the intricacies of human perception.
The soundtrack blends ambient sounds and minimalist music to evoke the emotion and mystery surrounding the extraterrestrial encounter. The melodies seem to mimic vocalizations and otherworldly sounds to create a language that transcends words, speaking directly to the emotional and psychological journey of the protagonist (and the audience).
The sound effects are used sparingly, but when they are, they create a carefully defined emotional setting.
Sounds associated with the aliens often employ low-frequency effects that can push the limits of a surround sound system and are used to create an atmosphere of tension and wonder but also to highlight the film’s central theme: introspective exploration of language and time.
Saving Private Ryan (1998)
- Genre: Drama, war
- Director: Steven Spielberg
- Composer: John Williams
- Sound design: Gary Rydstrom
The sonic experience in Saving Private Ryan is just as poignant as the truculent images we see on the screen.
The iconic opening Omaha Beach scene showcases a layered approach to sound design that captures the cacophony of battle (bullets whizzing by, explosions, the cries of soldiers), which is then juxtaposed with moments of muffled silence that simulate the shock and disorientation experienced by the people who fought the battle.
In fact, the use of high and low frequencies mimics the effect of shell shock, with high-frequency ringing tones that replicate the sensation of temporary hearing loss. There are very few opening scenes as powerful and realistic as this one, and throughout the film, the sounds of warfare are rendered with excruciating detail.
The directionality of the sound throws the audience into the intensity and chaos of combat, making it an excellent film to test the capabilities of a surround sound system, both in terms of the clarity of detail and the ability to handle dynamic shifts in volume and chaos.
Baby Driver (2017)
- Genre: Action, crime, drama
- Director: Edgar Wright
- Composer: Steven Price
- Sound design: Julian Slater
Perhaps nowhere near as popular as other movies on this list, Baby Driver is a hidden gem, especially if you’re into carefully crafted soundtracks and sound design.
In the movie, every car chase, scene transition, and character movement are meticulously choreographed to the soundtrack that Baby, the main character, listens to throughout the movie.
This creates a rhythmic, almost hypnotizing flow to the action sequences, where gunshots, tire screeches, and dialogue often match the beat of the soundtrack. This synchronization reflects and enhances Baby’s perspective, with the audience essentially listening to every moment through his ears.
The audience is sometimes left wondering whether the sounds they hear are part of Baby’s music or the film’s ambient noise.
This creates an immersive experience, especially when heard through a high-quality surround sound system, which can control the directionality and layering of the sounds as they weave in and out of Baby’s world.
- Genre: Drama, sci-fi, thriller
- Director: Alfonso Cuarón
- Composer: Steven Price
- Sound design: Glenn Freemantle
A scientifically accurate soundscape has become a crucial element of sci-fi narrative in recent years, with directors and sound designers crafting the ideal sonic effects based on the nature of sound while evoking the sense of awe typical of speculative fiction. One of the finest examples of this approach is 2013’s Gravity.
Glenn Freemantle’s soundscape strictly adheres to the physics of space: sound does not travel in a vacuum, so the audience hears only what the characters would hear. This creates a tense, almost claustrophobic auditory experience where the silence of space is as powerful as any sound and further amplifies the isolation and vulnerability of the characters.
The music is subtle and atmospheric throughout the movie, using a minimalist approach to build tension and emotion.
All in all, Gravity is a masterclass in sonic restraint and creativity, using surround sound channels to immerse the audience in the environment thanks to the precise placement of subtle sounds and the intelligent use of silence.
- Genre: Action, adventure, drama
- Director: Zhang Yimou
- Composer: Tan Dun
- Sound design: Steve Burgess, Glenn Newnham
A visually stunning martial arts epic directed by Zhang Yimou, Hero is set in ancient China during the Warring States period. Centered around the journey of a nameless warrior, the film’s soundscape depicts the physicality of martial arts but also the philosophical and emotional undercurrents of the story.
Sound effects in Hero perfectly blend with the settings and powerful orchestral arrangements, putting even the most accurate sound systems to the test. The swish of silk, the whoosh of a sword cutting through the air, and the sounds of nature are all heightened to create a hyperreal world where fight scenes and dreams collide.
Hero’s fight scenes, and in particular the one between Sky and the nameless warrior, are choreographed to the movements of Tan Dun’s score, which features traditional Chinese instruments like the erhu and the guqin, to deepen the connection between the characters and their settings. A demonstration of how sound design can be an art form in itself.
Blade Runner 2049 (2017)
- Genre: Action, drama, mystery
- Director: Denis Villeneuve
- Composers: Hans Zimmer, Benjamin Wallfisch
- Sound design: Mark Mangini, Theo Green
Denis Villeneuve, together with Christopher Nolan, is one of those directors you can be certain will create an unforgettable soundscape for his movies.
In Blade Runner 2049, the work of iconic sound editor Mark Mangini and composers Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch bring to life a carefully constructed blend of electronic ambiances, futuristic sound effects, and a haunting score that echoes the original film while pushing the boundaries of this epic tale through sounds.
The music is both atmospheric and visceral, filled with Vangelis-inspired synthetic textures and ambient melodies that evoke the film’s themes of memory, identity, and humanity.
But it’s the sound effects that truly make this masterpiece unique, creating an aural tapestry that perfectly depicts the film’s dystopian environment. The sounds of the city, the hum of flying vehicles, and the footsteps in abandoned buildings craft a soundscape that feels alien yet familiar.
Blade Runner 2049 features a rich palette of ambient sounds that fill the environment, giving each location a distinct acoustic signature. From the bustling streets of Los Angeles to desolate wastelands, the surrounding channels can envelop the audience in the film’s world, creating an enveloping and realistic experience.
Do let me know in the comments below if you think there are other movies worth using to test out your new surround system!
Aside from being sonically stunning, I believe all these movies are masterpieces in their own right, so if you haven’t watched them yet, please do so, and possibly with a surround system that’ll do them justice.