Ears-on with Dolby Atmos: First impressions of the next generation of surround sound

ears on with dolby atmos first impressions of the next generation surround sound ceiling speakers

Author’s note: Dolby Labs recently contacted me to inform me that, due to technical trouble, the presentation I had originally viewed was not presented in Dolby Atmos. This article has been updated from the original to reflect my opinion of Dolby Atmos after returning to the theater to audition it a second time. 

Dolby Atmos made its public debut in the U.S. and Canada last Friday at 14 theaters scattered about North America (see our list below). Pixar’s Brave was the vehicle for the new audio technology, which many are billing as the next big thing in commercial cinema. As luck would have it, nearby Vancouver, WA’s Cinetopia theater is home to one auditorium equipped with Atmos technology; so I headed North first thing that morning to catch the 10:00 AM showing and hear for myself what all scuttlebutt is about. But there was a problem.

I was pretty underwhelmed by what I heard that day and my article reflected that opinion. After reading my report, Dolby contacted me to inform me that there was a technical glitch during the show I had seen, which caused the sound system to revert to 7.1. Essentially, Dolby asserted I hadn’t yet heard Atmos and requested that I return to the theater to give it a second go. I must admit that I was skeptical, but I obliged and returned to the same theater this morning. I’ve never been so happy to have been wrong.

How many channels do you need?

If you’re not familiar, Dolby Atmos is an audio technology that takes surround sound to an entirely new level. Until now, theaters have been able to reproduce a maximum of eight individual tracks of surround sound, spread out among varying numbers of speakers. With 7.1 surround, you get three channels up front (left, right and center) two side surround channels (left and right), two rear rear channels (left and right) and one subwoofer channel. When designing a film’s soundtrack, directors can use these different channels to steer sound effects around the room, providing  360 degrees of audio.

Dolby Atmos, on the other hand, is capable of  processing an ear-bending 128 channels of sound, which can be routed to up to 64 individual speakers. But the real magic behind the science of  Atmos isn’t just about the number of speakers, it is about where the new speakers are placed and how they are used. With Atmos, the ceiling is lined with any number of full-range speakers that work in concert with all of the other speakers in the room so that an “object” of sound can be placed just about anywhere within a virtual hemisphere. Previously, if a sound was sent to the left surround speakers, then all of the surround speakers on the left side of the room would play that sound. With Atmos, that sound can be placed in one speaker and panned around to any of ears on with dolby atmos first impressions of the next generation surround sound 1the other speakers in the room. In a way, you can chase the sound with your ears, tracking it and correlating it to the on-screen action. It sounds like it could be truly amazing, doesn’t it?  That’s why I darkened the door of a commercial theater for the first time in over three years to have a listen for myself.

But how does it sound?

The first time around, my brother and I walked into a nearly empty theater just seconds before the lights dimmed and the preview reels started spinning. As I entered the room, I looked straight up to count the number of ceiling speakers that had been installed. The total was 16, with 8 running the length of the room on the far left and right hand side. I had hoped for the speakers to be run a little further into the room, but, as I discovered today, the reason they hadn’t been run that way is due to the fact that, even though the theater is brand spanking new, it was completed without Atmos technology installed and, thus, had to be retrofitted. It turns out that ventilation ducts and sprinkler system pipes already in place simply made ideal placement impossible.

On my original visit, preview reels began immediately. This time, however, we were treated to a Dolby Atmos teaser/trailer first. Within seconds, it was blatantly apparent that Dolby had been right all along. In fact, I had not heard Atmos yet, and though I had only sampled a small morsel of it so far, I knew straight away that I was going to have to completely rewrite this review. The 15 seconds I had heard hadn’t impressed just me, either; gasps from fellow audience members let me know that everyone else in the room was digging it too –big time.

I expected the preview reels to launch next, but Dolby wasn’t done with us just yet. An informational video –which is available at Dolby’s website— came next, explaining the evolution of surround sound thus far and how Dolby Atmos is different. I’d seen the video before, but only heard it in stereo. While the video content does a great job of explaining how Dolby Atmos is different, it is the accompanying Atmos sound track –which can’t be reproduced on a computer, of course– that really brings the message home. But wait! There’s more! After the previews were completed, we got one more taste of Atmos exposed, with all of its capabilities proudly displayed, by way of a much longer Dolby Atmos trailer (and a refreshingly original one, I might add).

I almost ran out of the theater right then and there to grab my laptop and get writing. I’d already heard enough to know just how great Atmos could be. But I’m glad I stayed and sat through Brave again because hearing Atmos in context really deepened my understanding of how this technology has changed surround sound and what we can expect from it in the future.

We learned from an on-scene Dolby technician (thanks, Dan!) that programming the Atmos soundtrack for Brave was a little bit rushed due to time constraints. You’d never know it by hearing this movie, though. You can tell that the programmers had some fun steering sounds around the room for some of the scenes –and those were enjoyable moments– but what really impressed me is that the technology wasn’t over-used. On a debut like this, it would have been easy to beat the audience’s ears to death with sounds flying all around the room. Thankfully, though, the soundtrack never spiraled out of control.

What’s so great about it

I believe that we go to the movies to be transported elsewhere. We want to be able to suspend disbelief and and feel like we actually experienced what the characters in the story experienced. We want to walk out of the theater saying, “Wow…what a ride!” Dolby Atmos helps to make that possible.

Dolby Atmos isn’t just about hearing a helicopter fly over your head or an arrow wiz past your cheek. It’s about placing you in the middle of the action in a way that hasn’t been possible before. If the screen sucks you in, then Dolby Atmos helps keep you there. It adds a sense of realism to the movie-going experience that we’ve been longing for and that theater owners have needed.

Will Atmos start reeling into public theaters A/V exiles who have been hibernating away in their private home theaters for the last few years? It ought to. Even though Dolby is rumored to be developing a version of Atmos that can be licensed to home theater equipment manufacturers, we imagine it is probably a long way off and, while it may be possible to install a really big screen in a smaller room to mimic that theater feel at home, it would take a room of cavernous proportions to be able to accommodate an audio system that could do hold a candle to what Atmos can do in a properly sized auditorium.

Dolby Atmos really is a revolution in theater sound and we think it has the potential to rejuvenate the commercial theater business, but we are a little concerned that passing the cost onto the consumer via a price premium on tickets may be a little off-putting. Consider this: seeing Brave in Atmos at the  theater I visited tacks on an additional $2.50 to the price of the ticket. Add that to the premium placed on 3D presentations and you wind up with a $15 ticket –and that’s at matinee rates! The experience is great, but is it that great? The movie-going public will be the judge, I suppose.

Brave is currently playing the following Dolby Atmos equipped theaters:

• AMC Burbank 16 (Burbank, CA)

• AMC Century City 15 (Century City, CA)

• Century at Pacific Commons and XD (Fremont, CA)

• El Capitan Theatre (Hollywood, CA)

• AMC Van Ness 14 (San Francisco, CA)

• ArcLight Sherman Oaks (Sherman Oaks, CA)

• AMC Downtown Disney 24 (Lake Buena Vista, FL)

• Kerasotes ShowPlace™ ICON at Roosevelt Collection (Chicago, IL)

• AMC® BarryWoods 24 (Kansas City, MO)

• AMC Garden State 16 (Paramus, NJ)

• Brenden Theatres at the Palms (Las Vegas, NV)

• SilverCity-Yonge Eglington Cinemas (Cineplex) (Toronto, ON)

• Cinemark® West Plano and XD (West Plano, TX)

• Cinetopia Vancouver Mall 23 (Vancouver, WA)