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From movies to mu­sic, home en­ter­tain­ment has wholly em­braced Dolby Atmos. But what does it of­fer above reg­u­lar sur­round sound, and is now the best time to up­grade?

Australian T3 - - CONTENTS - Words: Steve May Pho­tog­ra­phy: Olly Cur­tis

Ev­ery­thing you need to know about Dolby Atmos sound, and how it can trans­form your home cin­ema

Ge­orge Lu­cas fa­mously said that sound was 50 per cent of the moviewatch­ing ex­pe­ri­ence. With Dolby Atmos, we think it could be a good deal more.

Ba­si­cally 3D for your ears, it’s the big­gest thing in home cin­ema au­dio since the launch of Dolby Dig­i­tal 5.1, and has opened up a to­tally new way for TV and films to de­liver sound.

A big change in Dolby Atmos is that sounds be­come ‘ob­ject-based’, rather than ‘chan­nel-based’ as in Dolby 5.1. With chan­nel-based tech, the en­gi­neers could direct sounds to spe­cific speak­ers. In an ob­ject-based sys­tem, au­dio de­sign­ers can place in­di­vid­ual sonic el­e­ments in­side a 3D sound­field, with their move­ment and po­si­tion re­flected by the speaker ar­range­ment. This tech­nol­ogy, says Dolby, cre­ates an ‘il­lu­sion of an in­fi­nite num­ber of speak­ers’ and it can fully im­merse you in the ac­tion.

ATMOS ORI­GINS

Of course Dolby Atmos, like so many pro­pri­etary Dolby sound for­mats, made its de­but in the cin­ema. The award-win­ning Dis­ney Pixar’s Brave was the first movie re­leased with an Atmos sound­track, and the sound sys­tem has since be­come a com­mon at­tribute of pre­mium screens.

The loud­speaker ar­ray em­braces a 360-de­gree con­fig­u­ra­tion in a Dolby Atmos cin­ema. En­clo­sures reach right to the edge of the screen, bol­stered by ad­di­tional speak­ers over­head. Within a Dolby At­mosen­coded sound­track, ev­ery el­e­ment within a frame can ef­fec­tively be­come a sep­a­rate sound ob­ject. Adap­tive ren­der­ing in the cin­ema’s au­dio de­coder de­ter­mines ex­actly where a sound should be heard in any par­tic­u­lar theatre. So while the num­ber of loud­speak­ers in a screen may vary, man­dated by its size and lay­out, the lis­ten­ing ex­pe­ri­ence will be uni­form.

Dolby Atmos ar­rived in the home on the back of Blu-ray, but it’s since been adopted by stream­ing ser­vices and – in the UK – pre­mium TV providers such as Sky (us­ing the Sky Q plat­form). Atmos isn’t just for movies and TV shows, though: it has added a whole new level of re­al­ism to live broad­cast­ing. Sport led the way, but more re­cently Sky trans­mit­ted the Royal wed­ding in Dolby Atmos, and pumped out 19 hours of live mu­sic from the Isle of Wight Fes­ti­val 2018.

Cru­cially, Net­flix now streams Dolby Atmos-en­coded movies through its app on mul­ti­ple de­vices, and this spring Ap­ple will bring Dolby Atmos to Ap­ple TV 4K with tvOS 12, and prom­ises that iTunes will have the largest col­lec­tion of Dolby Atmos movies to date.

HOME ATMOS-SPHERE

In its do­mes­tic guise, Dolby Atmos comes in all shapes and sizes. Home cin­ema sys­tems, built around an AV re­ceiver, of­fer the near­est you can cur­rently get to that fully im­mer­sive the­atri­cal ex­pe­ri­ence, through a com­bi­na­tion of reg­u­lar sur­round sound, with ei­ther five of seven speak­ers, plus ei­ther two or four height chan­nels (de­pend­ing on avail­able am­pli­fi­ca­tion).

A Dolby Atmos sur­round sys­tem with 5.1 sur­round and two-height 5.1 chan­nels is com­monly re­ferred to

as 5.1.2, while a 7.1 sys­tem with four-height chan­nels is 7.1.4. Add a sec­ond sub­woofer and this be­comes 7.2.4, and so on.

Dolby Atmos height is com­monly de­liv­ered via ded­i­cated up­fir­ing speak­ers (al­though if you have pro-style in-ceil­ing speak­ers, they’ll work too). By re­flect­ing sound off the ceil­ing, these Dolby-en­abled speak­ers fool your brain into think­ing that au­dio is gen­uinely com­ing from above. This tends to be how things work for ei­ther a sur­round sys­tem or a sound­bar, which will have the up­fir­ing speak­ers built into its driver ar­ray.

You can get a Dolby Atmos sound­bar with sep­a­rate rear speak­ers, such as the Sam­sung HW-K950 or Dam­son S Se­ries, which are de­signed to of­fer the best of both worlds, adding a level of true 3D sound with­out tak­ing up the space of a big set of speak­ers. But many mod­els have all of the speak­ers in­cluded in the sin­gle unit, as found on the Sony HT-Z9F or LG SK10Y. Ul­ti­mately, your choice of hard­ware will be driven by the space you use it in and the level of com­plex­ity you want.

Of course, com­pro­mises need to be made when keep­ing things sim­ple. While an AV re­ceiver, with a full com­ple­ment of speak­ers, of­fers the most ac­cu­rate Dolby Atmos ex­pe­ri­ence, a sound­bar will gen­er­ally only be able to cre­ate a sense of width and height, with­out a match­ing sense of over­head au­dio. But when com­pared to a stereo sound­bar, this im­proved scale should make the en­tire up­grade worth­while.

IN THE AC­TION

Dolby’s 3D au­dio for­mat isn’t just about movies and tele­vi­sion shows, how­ever. It’s trans­for­ma­tive for sports too. Ex­am­ples in the UK show what’s pos­si­ble with sports – in par­tic­u­lar soc­cer – and other events. The ob­ject-based soundsys­tem is uniquely able to bring home the true at­mos­phere of a large sta­dium event. In a live con­text, Dolby Atmos is used to con­vey the at­mos­phere of a match and the way a crowd can ut­terly en­velop you.

Mix­ing Atmos au­dio for live events is fun­da­men­tally dif­fer­ent from cre­at­ing 3D au­dio for films. For one thing, the num­ber of au­dio ob­jects is far lower. Be­tween two or four are as­signed to at­mos­phere and crowd noise, while the com­men­tary and PA sys­tem in the ground also be­come in­di­vid­ual el­e­ments. Crowd chants or singing could also be­come an in­di­vid­ual ob­ject. Clever use of am­biance will help to cre­ate a sense of sta­dium seat­ing, so you re­ally feel as if there are peo­ple sat around and above you.

The de­liv­ery of Dolby Atmos from set-top boxes is also rather dif­fer­ent from that on Blu-ray. The lat­ter presents Dolby Atmos as an ex­ten­sion of the Dolby True HD for­mat, how­ever Atmos from a set-top box or stream­ing ser­vice is de­liv­ered via Dolby Dig­i­tal Plus, a more band­width-friendly con­duit. Dolby Dig­i­tal Plus, as we re­veal later on, will be the key to tak­ing Dolby Atmos to an­other level.

If you’re an Xbox One owner, you can also avail your­self of Dolby Atmos games. All you need is the Dolby Ac­cess app in­stalled on your con­sole, and an en­coded game, such as

Dolby speak­ers fool your brain into think­ing sound is com­ing from above

Gears of War4, Rise of the Tomb Raider, or As­sas­sin’s Creed Ori­gins. You can then route an Atmos bit­stream from your Xbox con­sole to an AV re­ceiver or sound­bar. In ad­di­tion, there are a num­ber of Dolby Atmos en­abled head­phones that can also be used with the Dolby Ac­cess app. Those in­clude the Tur­tle Beach Stealth 700 gam­ing head­set and the Plantron­ics RIG line of gam­ing head­sets (the 500 PRO se­ries and 800LX are stand­outs).

Both LG and Sony of­fer a se­lec­tion of screens with in­te­grated Dolby Atmos au­dio de­cod­ing. These can un­fold Atmos au­dio from Net­flix, as well as from ex­ter­nal sources such as a set-top box or Blu-ray player. The TV it­self doesn’t do any­thing clever with the Atmos track; the im­por­tant thing is that it can send the bit­stream of au­dio out over HDMI (us­ing the set’s au­dio re­turn chan­nel, or ARC), where it can be de­coded by an AV re­ceiver or sound­bar.

THE HEIGHT OF MU­SIC

Dolby Atmos is slowly find­ing an ac­tive role within the mu­sic in­dus­try, and can now be ex­pe­ri­enced in all its live glory. In fact, the ob­ject-based sound tech­nol­ogy al­ready has a home on the dance club cir­cuit: Lon­don’s Min­istry of Sound be­came the first venue in the world to in­stall a Dolby Atmos sound sys­tem. The club’s 600-ca­pac­ity Dol­bye­quipped space, called The Box, fea­tures 60 speak­ers, 22 chan­nels and a syn­chro­nised light­ing sys­tem.

With movies, ob­ject-based au­dio en­ables in­di­vid­ual items to be steered with pre­ci­sion around a sound­stage. In its club guise, Dolby Atmos en­ables a DJ to pan au­dio dy­nam­i­cally in real time. Mul­ti­ple stems of mu­sic can be washed in any di­rec­tion around a venue, cre­at­ing a unique lis­ten­ing ex­pe­ri­ence.

If club­bing isn’t your idea of a good time, last year R.E.M is­sued a Dolby Atmos remix of Au­to­mat­ic­forthePeo­ple, to cel­e­brate the al­bum’s 25th an­niver­sary. If you’re look­ing for some­thing a lit­tle more es­o­teric, you might want to check out Prometheus:The Dol­byAt­mosEx­pe­ri­ence by sym­phonic metal band Rhap­sody. It’s the kind of thing Thor would chill to be­tween quests, while pol­ish­ing his mighty ham­mer.

Dolby hasn’t had a clear run at the nextgen au­dio mar­ket. A com­pet­ing sys­tem, Auro-3D, cre­ated by Bel­gium-based Auro

Atmos is be­ing used to cre­ate dy­namic au­dio ex­pe­ri­ences at big mu­sic events

Tech­nolo­gies, gar­nered a smat­ter­ing of stu­dio sup­port. Be­yond some iso­lated ap­pear­ances on Blu-ray (such as Adam San­dler’s film Pix­els, of all things), it hasn’t re­ally amounted to much.

Dolby Atmos’ big­gest ri­val, there­fore, is DTS:X. This is a sounda­like ob­ject-based sys­tem from the mak­ers of DTS-HD Mas­ter Au­dio, a for­mat that dom­i­nated sound­tracks on reg­u­lar Blu-ray. DTS has been far less suc­cess­ful in get­ting DTS:X off the ground, but there is still stu­dio sup­port for it, and con­se­quently all Dolby Atmos AV receivers, and some sound­bars, of­fer com­pat­i­bil­ity.

Use KEF’s beefy R50 speak­ers to cre­ate an over­head sound­field

The com­pact Dam­son S Se­ries is ideal for small spa­ces that still want to pack a big Atmos punch

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