The following article originally appeared in Wide Screen Review (WSR) magazine in July, 2012 and is being republished courtesy of the author, Terry Paullin.
From time-to-time most of us get confronted with an allegation from this direction or that, from one manufacturer or another proclaiming "This changes everything ..." or "Sets a new standard for ..." or "An experience like never before ..." - each hoping to keep our attention just long enough to finish the paragraph. Lucky me, as a journalist, I get piles of press releases, even from companies who can't spell Home Theatre (... that IS how you spell Home Theatre, isn't it?) claiming this uber status for their latest and greatest. Most can be quickly discounted as someone trying to reinvent the wheel and call it "visionary". The thought that a few of these might actually be something new under the sun can similarly be dispelled with a Google search or two.
But on that odd, rare occasion, the real deal comes along. This month's column is about one such game changer.
Most home theatre owners (especially my clients ... :-) ) resist the temptation to rush out and catch the latest blockbuster the day it's released to commercial theatres. Besides the usual arguments about convenience, cell phones and rude people, the truth is, it's a better A/V experience at home. Done properly, it's easy to beat the Bijou on the audio score. The laws of physics are on my side. Smaller venues are easier to treat and calibrate - and when the sub(s) need to move copious amounts of air, the fewer cubic feet give me another advantage. The video side is almost as easy (4K displays not withstanding) assuming a reasonable budget. Additionally, I can beat any commercial venue on contrast ratio, even on a modest budget.
So you may ask, "What's all this BLASPHAMY about Better than Home Theatre?" ............ hang in there.
Last week I was fortunate enough to be invited to the Grand Opening of the Dolby Theater in Hollywood ... that would be the one formerly known as the Kodak Theater, home to the Academy Awards. The grandeur of this venue plus the deep seeded links to Hollywood royalty would be enough to write about, but on that day all was trumped by a giant step forward in surround sound production and reproduction (coined Dolby Atmos). Once experienced, it will have you driving 50 miles out of your way to experience it again.
Yup, it's that good. Really.
Stats later, but the high level view is that it allows movie sound mixers the ability to place a single sound element anywhere in the theatre. We have always talked about "the suspension of disbelief" as the goal, and Dolby Atmos creates a tighter link between true-to-life audio reality and the image on the screen. Instead of hearing the action movie's obligatory helicopter flyover, you will now experience the aircraft levitating from the ground to well above your head before it is panned in any direction the sound mixer wants (not limited to left or right). The net is a more life-like, sensory experience.
One of the best lines delivered to the assembled Press that day was from a Dolby technical Exec who said "For years we have claimed you will be immersed in sound ... this time it's true" He was indeed, truthful. All in attendance sat in awe. Although the Dolby Atmos "codec" MUST be experienced firsthand, a look at the technical side offers a clue as to why it might be a huge step-function change from the ordinary theatre experience.
The Dolby Atmos package is really a new audio mastering platform that meshes with existing familiar tools and now enables the sound mixers to think in terms of where in space they want to position the sound, rather than what speaker they want it to go to. The platform uses terms familiar to mixers, such as stems, beds and objects. One of the main reasons this process will catch on and stick (in my opinion) is that the studios and their mixers will be the main cheerleaders, only slightly behind the listening public. With Dolby Atmos, they only have to master once. Master ONCE, play ANYWHERE is the chant, instead of having to create 5.1 and 7.1 versions, as is the current practice. When an Atmos mixed movie arrives at a particular venue, the S/W can interrogate the local system and perform an optimum mapping to whatever hardware is available. Although the system is limited(?) to 128 inputs and 64 speakers at any instance in time, it can address any number of speakers. For example, there were 164 speakers installed in the Dolby Theater that day, but we were only(?) listening to 64 (or less) at any instant.
To be sure, new rules come with Atmos. (I read the eleventeen page white paper that specifies exact size and location of every speaker in the house). Some highlights - full range, individually addressed, separately powered arrays on the sides - optional subwoofers across the back - Two speaker arrays suspended from the ceiling, coordinated in number to the side surrounds, etc.
Very soon, all commercial theatres will have to go digital in order to stay competitive (there are almost 4,000 now). Dolby Atmos offers an upgrade path to ALL digital theatres, modest to grandiose. The end result is so compelling that my guess is the transition will be relatively quick, nudged along by pressure from the studios. By the time you read this, Dolby will have 15 operating "beta" sites. Not insignificantly, the latest Disney blockbuster, "Brave" will have premiered in the Hollywood Dolby venue itself.
So by now, you must be asking (or fearing) "Does this mean that a boxcar full of amps and speakers will need to show up at my door (along with, of course, the necessary divorce papers) in order to keep my status as the best H.T. in my zip code?"
I'm not so sure.
It's difficult for me to imagine how Dolby Atmos can morph to the living room. How many speakers would be required to create a "space" large enough to deliver anything close to the experience a commercial Atmos venue can offer ... 10? ... 12? ... 20? It's possible that it may not be possible ... uhh, you know what I mean.
That said, I create H.T. experiences every day that I wouldn't have thought possible even a handful of years ago. Guess we'll just have to wait and see. I wouldn't bet against an Dolby Atmos living room in the current decade. In the meantime, the ultimate movie experience (I can't believe I'm writing this) has moved back to the Bijou!
Posted by Terry Paullin, February 4, 2013 7:15 AM
About Terry PaullinAfter 25+ years as a Silicon Valley Executive, most recently as President and C.O.O. of Crosscheck, Mr. Paullin decided to follow his passion to the emerging Home Theatre industry. In 1994 he formed Front Row Cinema to design, build and calibrate Home Theaters for private residences. Nearly 600 theaters later, he remains engaged in the Industry in the following ways.
Builds dedicated (single purpose) Home Theaters and "Theatre Environments" (rooms used for other purposes as well).
Teaches Imaging Science and other courses for the Imaging Science Foundation. Mr. Paullin has taught CEDIA accredited classes to the installation community at both AVAD and ADI.
Consults to Industry on the topic of Imaging Science (Pioneer, Optima, In-Focus and several others under non-disclosure). Mr. Paullin has served on the Board of two companies and the Advisory committee of two others.
Has written articles/product reviews for major industry publications, including Widescreen Review, The Perfect Vision, The Ultimate Guide to A/V, WIRED magazine and CEPro and has maintained a monthly column (One Installer's Opinion) in Widescreen Review for the past eight years.
Mr. Paullin has a B.S.E.E. degree from Long Beach State University and performs ISF monitor calibrations for private individuals.
Mr. Paullin also maintains 3 theaters in his home for testing, comparison, performance verification, and reference viewing.