In case you aren’t familiar with the brand, Dolby Atmos is the audio company’s latest generation of multichannel sound processing and reproduction. It uses an object oriented approach to placing specific sounds around an auditorium in contrast to the 5.1 or 7.1 channel technique that’s the current industry standard. Even though it’s fairly new to the theatrical market, Dolby, Onkyo and Pioneer, its first consumer Atmos licensees, plan to bring the technology to the market in time for this year’s holiday buying season. But is it ready for the consumer market?
The immersive effect of multichannel audio has been an important part of the theatrical motion picture experience ever since This is Cinerama was released in 1953, first as a premium experience for high profile roadshow releases, then, beginning in the late 1970s, a standard component. Audio engineers achieved the illusion of three dimensional sound by funneling the audio through a matrix of channels, ranging from a simple stereophonic mix with just a right and left channel, to today’s more sophisticated combinations of front, side and rear channels – all on a flat, horizontal plane using X Y coordinates for the perceived location of the sounds. Dolby Atmos takes that concept to the next level by first adding an array of overhead speakers for X Y and Z coordinates and then directing individual sounds to as many as 128 different locations through a combination of a scalable speaker array and psychoacoustic audio imaging.
The technology was first introduced in April, 2012 with the release of Disney’s Brave. There are currently a relatively small number of screens equipped with Dolby Atmos. According to a map on Dolby’s website, there are fewer than 20 Atmos locations in Los Angeles County. Further, many of the movies released with a Dolby Atmos soundtrack were actually remixed from their initial 5.1 channel audio designs, rather than designed for Dolby Atmos from the beginning.
Whether or not a movie’s audio track was originally designed for Dolby Atmos versus a post-production retro-mix can make a huge difference on how dramatically an audience can hear the difference. According to Dolby’s website, in 2014, 41 movies have either been released in Dolby Atmos or are scheduled to be released between now and the end of the year, including several high profile, tentpole movies like the latest entry in the Transformers franchise.
Early adopter consumers will be able to buy AV receivers either equipped for Dolby Atmos or with the ability to upgrade to Atmos through a firmware update. And, although no specific titles have been announced yet, we can look forward to select Blu-ray discs coming out with Dolby Atmos soundtracks beginning fourth quarter of this year. Existing Blu-ray players are already fully compatible with Atmos encoding, according to Brett Crockett Dolby’s sound research director.
To get the full effect, consumers will need to install additional speakers to their home theatre systems, ideally ceiling mounted speakers, though both Onkyo and Pioneer have announced plans for special front channel speakers designed to add height channels to the traditional mix.
What does this mean for the industry? For right now, it’s very much a “chicken and egg” situation. A technology like Dolby Atmos needs to reach a critical mass of both movies which fully take advantage of its technology and enough theatrical screens around the world that can effectively showcase the technology. Thus far, less than 100 movies have been released using Dolby Atmos, many of those, especially the earlier releases, don’t really take full advantage of the technology. But this advancement in audio technology is, in fact, the next logical step in creating increasingly immersive and realistic audience experiences.
Since Atmos is kind of an audio version of 3D, one of the challenges facing early adopters is going to be how much content they can get their hands on that has a native Atmos soundtrack. Just as many 3D TVs offer real time 2D – 3D image conversion, will those first generation Atmos-equipped receivers offer a similar feature? And if so, how will it sound?
But those are short term concerns. Just as the original Dolby stereo technology ultimately became the audio standard in the 1980s, and its 5.1 and 7.1 channel descendants became the current industry standards, both theatrically and in the home, it’s reasonable to project that either Dolby Atmos, or a similar three dimensional audio system will be the next standard within the next five years or so, as long as audio designers learn how to master and take advantage of the technology’s ability to more precisely place individual sounds in a physical space.
More to the point, as Dolby Atmos becomes more commonplace in the home, the immersive nature of that technology is bound to be a “must have” when it comes to things like concerts, live sports events and video games. Those who want to be ahead of the curve when it comes to new and increasingly in-demand technology would be well advised to master object oriented audio concepts, and the sooner the better.