By far the biggest theme in surround sound at CEDIA EXPO 2014 was Dolby Atmos. In fact, you practically couldn’t enter a home theater demo at CEDIA without hearing about and experiencing Atmos. Whether it was a speaker or AV receiver/processor manufacturer Atmos was the most buzz-worthy trend at the show. (This new surround sound format is object based rather than channel based, and can support up to a whopping 34 speakers. For a primer on Dolby Atmos, click here.)
I did my best to attend all of the Atmos demos and was able to sit through a total of nine. So, what do you learn after nine Dolby Atmos demos at CEDIA EXPO?
Is it the Future?
With this much manufacturer support behind it, it is difficult to imagine that Atmos won’t succeed. But, if it didn’t impress in a demo, no one would bother. Fortunately, every Atmos demo that I sat through was terrific sounding, with great audio immersion and provided an easily demonstrable far richer audio experience when compared to traditional 5.1 or even 7.1-channel systems. Dealers that want to be successful with Atmos will definitely want to demo it to customers.
Enabled vs. Discrete?
Several demos – Pioneer Elite and Definitive Technology – used Dolby Atmos-enabled speakers instead of discrete in-ceiling models. The Dolby demo actually had a nice A/B of the same material directly comparing an Atmos enabled speaker against a discrete in-ceiling model. In my opinion, the in-ceiling speaker is the way to go. It offers the most encompassing sound and is the most dome-like experience with the audio information being placed directly overhead. The module is not a terrible alternative if you can’t retro an in-ceiling speaker or a client lives in a condo or apartment, but it is a compromise compared to the discrete in-ceilings from what I heard. Not a terrible compromise, mind you, but probably delivering about 85 percent of the experience. I think the good thing is there is an option for people that can’t or won’t do an in-ceiling, making Atmos available to nearly anyone.
There is currently a real shortage of Atmos demo material. And by “real shortage” I mean there is but one, single Dolby Atmos demo Blu-ray disc (see photo). And every Atmos demo that I sat through (save the JBL Synthesis demo which used a commercial digital cinema server and Atmos renderer) used material from this list. The Dolby clips are well recorded to show off the technology and even after watching Amaze and Leaf nearly 10 times, I still find myself paying attention to the swirling sounds around the room. The Transformers clip seems badly mixed, and doesn’t show off Atmos at all and the dialog sounded poorly recorded. In fact, I only saw it demonstrated once prior to the show at the GoldenEar Technology booth, and multiple people commented on how bad it sounded. (Clarification: After re-reading this I can see how this might appear that I implied it was the GoldenEar Technology demo that sounded bad. I want to clarify that I meant how bad the Transformers clip sounded, and that multiple other exhibitors commented on how poorly that clip was mixed. Numerous people – myself included – thought the GoldenEar demo was one of the best Atmos demos at CEDIA EXPO.) Oblivion had nice ambient effect but, as the presenter from Procella Audio joked, it unfortunately features Tom Cruise. The Star Trek clip sound great with lots of overhead and passing-through-you effects and nice engaging action. And, it’s 100-percent Tom Cruise free. Shockingly, the Enrique Iglesias video sounded really great, and the power of Atmos got me to watch it in its entirety three times.
How Many Speakers?
The minimum number of Atmos speakers is a 5.1.2 configuration with most current processors maxing out at 7.1.4. (The Trinnov processor and the Steinway Lyngdorf processors are able to support far more channels, but only Trinnov demonstrated a 9.2.4 array. The JBL Synthesis processor is a commercial digital cinema model able to support up to the full 64 speaker array.) From my experience, 7.1.4 is the sweet spot of the Atmos experience providing an amazingly immersive experience that creates a wonderful dome of audio that encapsulates listeners. While the JBL Synthesis demo included a total of 39 speakers in a 19.4.12 array and was by far the most impressive Atmos demo I heard at the show, the difference in Atmos objects travelling around the room did not seem significantly different than the 7.1.4 systems. (The bass, however, was absolutely phenomenal.)
Dolby Atmos is the most significant upgrade to home theater sound since the addition of surround-EX and lossless audio, and it also gives you the option to sell more speakers. As a dealer, Atmos should be high on your radar.
John Sciacca is principal of Custom Theater and Audio in Myrtle Beach, SC.