While home theaters have come a long way in terms of offering up a surround sound experience, there’s only so much you can do with three speakers plus a subwoofer. Okay, that front soundbar might have three speakers within it, front left, front center and front right, while the two back satellite speakers are rear left and rear right, but still, one big advantage that a movie theater has over even the most well equipped home is that movie theaters have a ton of speakers installed.
Even old school theaters can be working with 11 separate audio tracks so that sounds happen where they should logically be occurring based on what’s on screen. You know, the helicopter flying into the frame should “come from” the appropriate direction in the theater, and when the actor on the left side of the screen talks, their dialog should not be coming out of the right speaker. That’d just be weird.
But imagine if you could really go crazy and install dozens and dozens of speakers throughout the movie theater, even on the ceiling? Kind of like this:
Welcome to the world of Dolby Atmos. There aren’t a lot of theaters in the United States equipped with this state-of-the-art sound technology today (under 100 total), but fortunately AMC Flatiron Crossing 14 has a Dolby Atmos theater setup and so when I wanted to catch the latest installment of the all-action The Fast and the Furious series, Fate of the Furious, I headed to Broomfield, Colorado and joined a surprising number of other theatergoers who had opted for a premium matinee ticket to have a premium cinematic experience.
Even the entrance door to this particular theater is swanky:
Dolby provides more than just an amazing sound system, however, also powering a different type of projector technology too. One that’s crystal clear, very fast tracking with action sequences and with a deep, dark black that looks like the projector’s no longer working. Coupled with the Atmos sound system, it was fantastic.
I reached out to Dolby to ask Stuart Bowling, Content & Creative Relations Director about how the technology works. Here’s our discussion:
Q: How does Dolby differentiate themselves from other sound systems and how does it compare?
Dolby is in a unique position in that we have relationships with studios and filmmakers, which has allowed us to take their input and feedback to develop technologies like Dolby Atmos. If you develop a technology in isolation, getting content created is an uphill battle. Picking and targeting influencers allows you to develop and refine the technology making adoption easier and quicker. Relationships is a key differentiator for Dolby, and relationships have allowed us to be so successful. You will always have competing systems and solutions come to market, and we believe competition is good and helps drive our business. Dolby was the first to widely deploy an object-based sound system like Dolby Atmos. Before Dolby Atmos, we looked at 9.1, 11.1 and even 13.1 but each iteration was only an incremental improvement. It became clear that we had to completely redefine the surround experience and create an intelligent sound system that is scalable and flexible, which channel-based systems are not. Dolby Atmos immerses the viewer in the environment the filmmaker has created. This allows precision of audio placement above, behind, or around you that’s more lifelike and natural.
Q: Even at its most basic, a cinema audio system has how many channels? And how are they synchronized to the visuals?
A cinema sound system at its basic level is 5.1. 5.1 is 5 channels and low frequency, or in other words “boom boom shake the room.” There are three channels behind screen left, center and right, with two surround zones inside the theatre: left surround and right surround. The audio is played back off the digital cinema server with picture. As processing is happening on the projector, we have a master audio delay on the server that allows us to sync audio back to picture. Additionally, depending on room size we also have delays in the surrounds to allow proper arrival times to the audience and not at the same time as the main screen channels.
Q: What’s the history of Dolby sound technology and how did it get into the movie theater?
Dolby has an incredibly rich history in motion pictures and has been around for over 50 years. Our founder Ray Dolby developed noise reduction Dolby A Type that helped improve not only the recording side of movies but the playback inside movie theatres. Dolby developed the Dolby Theatre program by working with exhibitors to improve their sound systems and adopt Dolby technologies inside our cinema processors (this is like the cinema version of an AVR).
Dolby Stereo (mono surround 4 channel audio) was introduced on A Star is Born in 1977. Star Wars was the feature film that catapulted the surround sound experience.
Dolby introduced 5.1 to 70MM film – also known as 6 track mag or split surrounds – with Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now in 1979.
In 1987, Dolby advanced noise reduction to the next level with the introduction of Dolby SR (Spectral Noise Reduction). Dolby SR provided higher highs and lower lows without distortion. The first feature to use this was Robocop.
The digital age on 35MM film brought the introduction of 5.1 with Tim Burton’s Batman Returns in 1992.
Surround EX was the last innovation for film, adding a rear surround channel for Star Wars: Episode 1 – The Phantom Menace in 1999.
We introduced Dolby Surround 7.1 for Toy Story 3 in 2010, followed by Dolby Atmos for Brave in 2012.
Q: Theaters charge more for state of the art sound systems. Is it worth it to the average moviegoer? Why?
Typically, movie theatres charge more for what they call a premium experience. This is normally several upgrades bundled together, and not just audio. This means upgraded seating, a larger screen, and premium audio. This way the moviegoer can see and appreciate the difference they are paying for.
Q: From big screen to home theater. How does the average viewer translate the richness of movie theater sound to their home 5.1 theater sound system?
Home theatre has been around for some time and has also evolved over the years alongside the cinema experience. Today various iterations of Dolby Atmos are available in the home, from overhead ceiling speakers, reflective speakers that bounce the overhead sound off the ceiling, to soundbars that incorporate Dolby Atmos. This gives moviegoers options that fit their lifestyles and budgets and improve the surround experience. Blu Ray and streaming services like VUDU offer content with Dolby Atmos soundtracks.
Q: If I am hooked on Dolby Atmos, how can I duplicate that aural experience at home for minimal cost?
Dolby Atmos is incorporated into certain soundbars, however if you already have a 5.1 system check with your speaker manufacturer and see if they offer the Atmos upward firing speaker module and purchase a Dolby Atmos enabled AVR.
Q: What is Dolby’s current footprint within the U.S. with AMC Theatres?
Dolby Atmos is currently available at 92 AMC locations across the U.S. In addition, we have opened 65 Dolby Cinema’s at AMC since 2015 and anticipate reaching 100 locations by this year.
Q: What upcoming content can we expect to be in Dolby Cinemas this summer?
Movie-goers can expect a number of exciting titles to be screened in Dolby Cinema this summer, including Wonder Woman, Guardians of the Galaxy 2, The Mummy, War For The Planet of the Apes, Spider-Man: Homecoming, Cars 3, Alien: Covenant, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales, King Arthur, and Baby Driver.
Me? I’m down for all of those in a Dolby Theater. Check to see if you have a Dolby-equipped theater near you and give it a shot. Then come back and tell me if it blew your socks off! Oh, and Fate of the Furious? Pretty much what you’d expect. Fast cars, breathtaking stunts, daft dialog, muscular guys fighting and the obligatory women with skimpy clothes. A surprisingly entertaining time! 🙂