February 12, 2015

Dolby Atmos - is it worth pursuing?

Is Dolby Atmos worth pursuing at home? A recent talk at audio post production studio Soundfirm in Melbourne shed some light on the new format.

An evening organised by AES included a talk by one of their senior mixers, Chris Goodes, a tour of the facility and some demos of the capabilities of Atmos. The demo room was the size of a small to medium commercial cinema. One thing that became clear was that with Atmos you get much greater resolution of movement. Instead of an array of side surrounds that all act as a single channel, each one can act as an individual channel. This means there is greater control of movement.

The object approach means that out of over 100 possible simultaneous objects, each one is assigned a 3D location within the cinema as well as the object having a size. In a 5 or 7 channel system we have 5 or 7 speakers which seek to recreate the sound. With atmos the difference is probably best represented in a commercial cinema where you might have 10 side speakers rather than 1 or 2.

We experienced a demo of the movie Gravity and it was a good example of being drawn into the scene far more. We also saw a demo of paper airplane which was mixed at Soundfirm. One of the attendees heard it recently and commented that the Atmos demo of the night was a substantial improvement.

An interesting comment from was the Atmos is pulling the sound further away from the screen. The experience is certainly more three dimensional.

Driving home I couldn't help but start thinking about how I might implement Atmos.

The implications in the home are interesting. In terms of movie mixing, I suspect it may result in greater emphasis on surround content. This would place additional demands on surround speakers and amplifiers. Most people have had more capability in their main speakers for pragmatic reasons, although it has always been ideal that all channels have equal headroom in the listening region. Questions in my mind arise over whether people will start to water down quality in attempting to get so many channels. It all does start to become expensive.

I think we will see three types of experience of Atmos:

1. Atmos done poorly, with unnatural use of effects coming from the ceiling that don't belong there
2. Atmos done very impressively like the Gravity example - the kind of demo that puts it into "must have" territory for many
3. Atmos done in a more subtle way so that it becomes an enhancement rather than knocking you on the head with it

I'm in no hurry to implement it right away but it's on the cards for me.

In terms of products there will be some new designs emerging with Atmos in mind.

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