The Future of Surround Sound

Close your eyes. Wait, don’t do that. You won’t be able to read. Imagine yourself sitting in the center seat, center row, of a dark and empty theater. It’s a good theater, quiet, and you can feel the space stretching out from you in all directions. A sound rises to an audible level far in front of you. It’s a bee. Okay, maybe you don’t like bees. It’s an old plane, rotary engine struggling to turn over, the sputters emanating from a center channel speaker unseen behind the screen in the dark theater. The plane taxis left. There’s no picture on the screen: You localize it just by how the sound moves toward the left speakers.

The unseen pilot jabs an unseen throttle, and the engine noise increases in fervor and volume. You hear the plane move to the speakers on the left wall of the theater. Then it passes behind your head, the sound of its many pistons taxing the little speakers on the back wall. It continues its audible flight, passing to the right wall and then the right speakers, finally settling down back in the center. Best case, this is what surround sound has been for more than 2 decades. Indeed, the experience surrounds you with sound. But... But...

The unseen pilot jabs the throttle, and the engine rises in pitch and intensity. It rises in dimension, too, taking off and sliding smoothly down the left wall of the theater. Suddenly, it loops overhead and around behind you, unbroken in timbre, pitch, or volume. As it passes back along the left the way it came, it soars up again, high above and in front of you, to continue its seamless flight down the right wall and back to the center of the theater.

This is the promise of Dolby Atmos. It’s what surround sound has always strived to be: perfect audio envelopment. Forget the number of speakers, channels, or anything else. That’s the “how,” and while interesting, it belies the success of the “what.” Not only is Atmos a much more audibly convincing surround sound experience, it’s also a new method of audio mixing and distribution that gives audio mixers the tools to create the next generation of multichannel surround sound, while also being backward-compatible with legacy gear.

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Here’s how Dolby pitches Atmos: “Content creators will welcome the new power they have to tell their stories with Dolby Atmos. Studios will appreciate the simplified distribution. Exhibitors will be able to offer audiences a new, compelling, only-in-a-theater experience. The audience will enjoy a completely new listening experience with enveloping sound that brings the stories on screen more fully to life.”

Grandiose marketing language aside, Dolby’s pitch indicates the multiple changes Atmos promises to bring to movie sound. And while on the surface Atmos is about many more channels than what’s available now, the company is careful to not alienate current 5.1 and 7.1 theaters. Atmos isn’t about more speakers per se; it’s a better way of dealing with the speakers that are already available, and it also offers the potential to add more.

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