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It is a retailing insight that dates back to an ancient time, the time of CRT TV sets: “The way to make a TV look better is to connect it to a really good loudspeaker.” Sounds like a recipe for an analog, standard-def, monophonic home-theater system, doesn’t it? Some of those old TV salesmen may have been rough around the edges but they weren’t dumb.

A small, highly unscientific survey I performed recently — it was yesterday — indicates there still quite a few people who are only dimly aware of the advanced audio technology that is (or soon will be) our version of that “really good loudspeaker.” The technology is “immersive sound,” and it goes considerably beyond the 5.1-channel surround sound with which we are all familiar.

A Dolby Atmos 5.1.2 setup, with the sound pattern of the up-firing Atmos channels highlighted. (Figure: Dolby)

A Dolby Atmos 5.1.2 setup, with the sound pattern of the up-firing Atmos channels highlighted. (Figure: Dolby)

An immersive or 3D sound system adds one or two layers of height speakers above the ear-level speakers of 5.1 or 7.1 to create a three-dimensional sound field, but it can do even more. Like conventional 2-channel stereo, 5.1 surround sound is channel-based. That is, each source is assigned to a channel by the audio engineer, each channel is assigned to a specific speaker in the listening room, and that is what determines the source’s apparent location. That means that for the audio engineer’s intentions to be realized, the integrator or user must place the speakers where the engineer anticipates they will be placed.

Dolby Atmos, the most widely implemented immersive system for consumers, adds an object-based technology that uses metadata to place a sound anywhere in the sonic field independent of speaker location. These sonic objects are placed top of the 5.1 “bed channels,” which still perform their traditional function. Let us note that DTS MDA (Multi-Dimensional Audio) and the soon-to-appear DTS-X also use object-based technologies, although Dolby and DTS use different coordinate systems for defining the sound fields.

If you are able to precisely locate the speakers in the listening space, the object-based technology is not necessary. AURO technologies offers a high-end (that is, very expensive) approach that creates a very convincing 3D sound field with 11.1 channels in 3 levels: the base ear-level, the elevated level, and a speaker in the ceiling that AURO calls the
“god speaker” — because it is well-suited for deleivering “the voice of god.” I auditioned an AURO 3D system at CE Week in New York last June. The mandatory sonic demonstration of an airliner approaching from your rear and flying low over your head to land in front of you had some people ducking, but more subtle demonstrations were actually more impressive.

The playback of Bach organ pieces recorded in a cathedral convincingly reproduced the sense of soaring space, and the AURO 3D sound track that accompanied an urban street scene produced precise sonic placements of many simultaneous conversations and activities. As is true in life, you could consciously change your focus of attention and listen in to one conversational fragment or another. The sense of place was remarkable.


Pioneer Dolby Atmos enabled add-on speakers. The speakers were disigned by Andrew Jones, who has since moved on to ELAC America. Among Jones' first products for ELAC is an Atmos add-on speaker that looks very similar to his earlier effort for Pioneer. (Photo: Pioneer)

Pioneer Dolby Atmos enabled add-on speakers. The speakers were designed by Andrew Jones, who has since moved on to ELAC America. Among Jones’s first products for ELAC is an Atmos add-on speaker that looks externally very similar to his earlier effort for Pioneer. (Photo: Pioneer)

When Dolby, DTS, or AURO equips a cinema for 3D audio, many speakers are used at different levels. The largest of these installations can support 128 simultaneous objects and 64 speaker channels, according to Film Journal International. Dolby, which has the largest presence in cinemas with immersive systems, was first into the consumer space last year. Clearly, most consumers would not be interested in installing a dozen (or even four) ceiling mounted speakers. So, although an Atmos system can be implemented with ceiling speakers, several manufacturers are making upward-facing speakers intended to be placed on top of the left and right front channel speakers and also (optionally) on top of the surround or rear speakers. Dolby says that such add-on speakers can be very effective for ceiling heights from 8 to 12 feet. A small but increasing number of manufacturers are also incorporating the upward-facing speakers into otherwise traditional left-right speakers.

So, of what does a consumer Atmos system consist? Minimally, you need an A/V receiver that contains an Atmos decoder and supports 7.1 channels, the traditional 5.1 plus two height channels. Dolby designates such a system as 5.1.2, and says such a system can provide an impressive 3D audio effects. But for maximum drama (such as helicopter flyovers), you need two more ceiling or add-on speakers to go on top of your surround or rear speakers. That is, you need a 9.1 (5.1.4), Atmos-enabled receiver.

All of this comes in at substantially less than a small OLED-TV. If you already have a 5.1 system, you only need two more speakers and a 7.1-channel (5.1.2) Atmos receiver, which begin at less than $500. Receivers are available from the usual suspects, including Onkyo, Denon, Marantz, Yamaha, and Pioneer. There are already discontinued models for bargain-hunters, but newer models are more likely to have DTS-X decoding as well as Dolby Atmos.

I’ve just written a very few words on a very large subject, and I’ve just scratched the surface. But there’s one question I know I’d better answer: Is Atmos media available? Yes. Blu-ray.com list roughly 60 English-language BRDs that are currently available, and Dolby has a list of more than 50 movies that will be (or have been) released in 2015 and 2016, including The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2, The Martian, Sicario, The Peanuts Movie, and American Sniper. Standard BRD players support the Atmos coding, so there’s no new investment there.

Regular readers know of my deep skepticism concerning 3D television images. But 3D audio is something else entirely. It draws you into the story — and it does make the picture look better.

Ken Werner is Principal of Nutmeg Consultants, specializing in the display industry, manufacturing, technology, and applications, including mobile devices and television.  He consults for attorneys, investment analysts, and companies using displays in their products.  You can reach him at kwerner@nutmegconsultants.com.

Posted by Ken Werner, November 12, 2015 2:12 PM

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About Ken Werner

Kenneth I. Werner is the founder and Principal of Nutmeg Consultants, which specializes in the display industry, display technology, display manufacturing, and display applications. He serves as Marketing Consultant for Tannas Electronic Displays (Orange, California) and Senior Analyst for Insight Media. He is a founding co-editor of and regular contributor to Display Daily, and is a regular contributor to HDTVexpert.com and HDTV Magazine. He was the Editor of Information Display Magazine from 1987 to 2005.