Get Ready for Dolby Atmos for the Home

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Hey friends, I have not blogged enough lately, but that has to change now that we are getting settled in to our new home. Some big news from Dolby today in the home theater world was just what I needed to get me back on here.

Dolby just anounced that they are bringing their Dolby Atmos technology to the home. Now don’t get your panties in a bunch thinking everything you own just became immediately obsolete. I think the way surround sound is currently encoded on discs will hang around for pretty much the foreseeable future. Details on how this tech will be implemented in the home are a little fuzzy, but we do know that the idea is to add the ability to have overhead sound effects. I guess this means utilizing two more speaker modules up front or two more in your ceiling.

Two front ceiling speakers, or two more height speakers, in my opinion is a pretty lackluster feature when it comes to selling a big receiver upgrade. We have something like this already with Audyssey DSX, and Dolby Pro Logic IIZ now. So I’m eager to see how Dolby’s marketing department plays this news as a marked improvement to consumers.

That said, this consumer announcement really doesn’t make any reference to what Dolby Atmos is really about. For that, you need to poke your head inside an actual movie theater. Dolby Atmos in the theater setting is a surround sound system that utilizes anywhere between five channels of audio and 64 channels of audio. The cinema systems often have two lines of speakers left and right that run from the front of the theater to the rear. A small theater would never run all 64 speakers, it may only need 15 speakers given its size. A theater like the Seattle Cinerama would be perfect for a full 64 channel audio system. The critical concept is that the system is able to be scaled to the size of the room.

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With that in mind, what really differentiates Dolby Atmos is how the movies are mixed. Sound effects are placed in to a three dimensional space rather than a combination of channels. Then the computer that is playing it back determines which speakers best place that sound in the theater space. So in theory your five channel system at home is being given the same data as the 64 channel system at the Cinerama, just your receiver is trying to figure out how to replicate that sound in your space utilizing far less speakers. The need to create separate mixes for 5.1 or 7.1 at home, and what they play in the theater is no longer needed. A mixer just tells the computer where the sound should be. So in theory you should be able to play the Dolby Atmos track over a regular 5.1 system at home.

The real question is if it will have a better sounding mix in terms of using the entire surround space? Or is all that fancy work lost when you lose the massive array of speakers? I have no idea yet. The key take away here is that the playback hardware does all the work on figuring out which channels to use for a given sound. That concept probably will be lost in today announcement, but it is pretty cool, and I love anything that closes the gap between what you get at your local Cineplex and what you get at home.

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