From stereo speakers to 7.1 channel surround sound, home entertainment systems have come a long way and Dolby is perhaps the name most synonymous with this development. While many homes have speaker systems that support Dolby surround sound, until recently its latest technology Dolby Atmos was only available in cinema halls. Now the company is bringing Atmos to the home and brands like Yamaha, Pioneer, Denon and Marantz are getting ready to ship products.
Dolby Atmos cinemas first made their appearance in 2012, and in India many of our halls are still in the process of upgrading to the new technology. The first hall to add Atmos in the country was the Sathyam multiplex in Chennai, though more halls including PVR Juhu and Prasads Multiplex in Hyderabad have also started to use the technology. In Delhi the first theatre to bring in Atmos was Delite in May, and Sapna added Atmos in June.
(Also see: Building India's Largest Dolby Atmos Theatre)
What is Atmos?
Dolby Atmos is essentially a way to layer an extra bed of sounds over the regular mix made using traditional channel-based method. The bed mix largely consists of atmospheric sounds. On top of this bed, additional audio elements or an audio object can be positioned according to the corresponding visual on screen.
Instead of using the speaker channels, Atmos can pinpoint individual speakers, to make the position of sounds much more precise, letting you accurately trace the movements of, say, a helicopter, or helping you feel like you're really inside a scene as the various environmental effects fill the space.
By doing this, Dolby Atmos gives sound designers the ability to 'move' the sound as background or foreground objects move on or off-screen, giving the resultant effects a more realistic feel. For example, in Transformers: Age of Extinction there is a scene where a gunfight is taking place. If you watched this film with Atmos, you can hear - not just see - the bullets whizzing past, and thudding into different parts of a wall.
While the technology is still being adopted in cinema halls in India, this technology will soon be making its way into our living rooms in the form of Dolby Atmos for Home Theatres. Bollywood is also warming up to its enhanced surround effect. The first Bollywood movie to use the technology, Madras Cafe, won the sound designer Bishwadeep Chatterjee a National award.
(Also see: Making Bollywood Movies With Dolby Atmos)
We got a chance to visit Dolby's new office in Mumbai to get a live demo of Atmos for Home Theatres and were pretty impressed. The results are not quite as good as the enveloping feeling of audio in a properly equipped cinema hall, but considering how stripped down the setup is, the experience is still very good.
Modular and upgradable
At Dolby's facility, the test setup included an Oppo media player, Yamaha's soon-to-launch RX-A3040 Audio Video Receiver (AVR) and a 12 channel 7.1.4 custom Bower and Wilkin speakers, where the number 4 indicates a new set of overhead speakers. This meant that we had a total of 12 speakers, but according to Dolby, the Atmos for Home Theater format will support up to 32 independently firing speakers, to create an even more immersive experience than the one we got to try. While that's impressive, it's still a far cry from the 64-channel setup that you can have in cinema halls.
Of course, aside from the cost of the AVR, adding more speakers will also make it more expensive for you to put together your Atmos setup but the system is modular and speakers can be added over time.
To use Dolby Atmos you can add overhead speakers to your current home theater or upward firing speakers that reflect sound from your ceiling to create the surround effect, the same way virtual surround sound bounces the sound waves off your walls. Home Theatres in a Box (HTIB) with Dolby Atmos audio are being planned for the near future. These will also be cheaper than putting together your own setup.
To showcase the technology, Dolby showed us a few demo videos such as a Red Bull racing video, and an experimental music video for the song Bailando, by Enrique Iglesaias.
The moment we heard Sebastian Vettel's Renault F1 racing car whizzing past us at a dizzying speed, we were hooked. The panning sound moved through the side mounted speakers smoothly.
The overhead speakers on the other hand were a little too close for comfort, and couldn't really replicate the same engulfing effect that Atmos has in cinema halls. If a sound passes through the overhead speakers, it is very apparent and feels like something is flying by right overhead instead of being up in the air.
Of course, this will depend on the size of the room, the speakers being used, the sealing of sound, and many other factors, so the experience has the possibility of getting better in different settings.
On the other hand the music video really took us out of the experience. The problem could just be that the mix was done to showcase Atmos and not the song, but when instruments start to come from just one speaker for no real reason then it takes away from the experience. What could probably work is if the technology was used for accurate sound staging and highlighting channel separation, especially to pan the sound of a particular instrument.
These small quibbles aside, there is no other surround sound experience that can match Dolby Atmos at the moment.
Content is king
Of course, a technology is only as good as the content that supports it. However, Dolby assures us that customers will not have to switch to entirely new formats to make use of Atmos. Blu-ray discs and HDMI 1.4 cables will continue to be used, which means that your old content will work fine on a Dolby Atmos setup. At the same time, you'll be able to buy Blu-rays, starting with Transformers: Age of Extinction, which will release by the end of September. Also, starting October 15, Bollywood movie May Kom's Blu-ray discs with Dolby Atmos mix will become available.
In other markets, services with 4K streaming can also support Dolby Atmos which will give customers a lot of content, although this is something Dolby expects to see in more mature markets for now, and there is no indication of 4K streaming in India yet.
This means that getting Atmos for your home is a tempting proposition, but it won't come cheap. Pioneer has three AVRs available now in the US market, which support an 11-channel setup. You can get the SC-85 at $1,600 (Rs. 98,400 approximately), the SC-87 at $2,000 (Rs. 1,23,000 approximately) and the SC-89 at $3,000 (Rs. 1,84,230 approximately) - plus of course, shipping and customs will add a fair bit to the price.
Yamaha, Onkyo, Denon and Marantz have already lined up their products for release but we have no concrete details about their pricing right now. Of course, you have to factor in the cost of speakers to the actual cost of having your own Atmos setup.
For now at least, we, along with most others, will continue to experience Atmos in cinema halls. But the demo has us convinced that, over the next few years, Atmos for Home Theater is going to be as big a leap as the jump from stereo to 5.1 surround sound.