Dolby Atmos Demo

This morning, I attended a press preview of the newly renamed Dolby Theater at the Hollywood and Highland complex in Hollywood, California. The official unveiling of the venue's new signage will take place this evening amid throngs of people—an extravaganza not unlike the Academy Awards ceremony that makes its home there—so I was glad to get a sneak peek beforehand.

The theater looks about the same as it has since it was built in 2001 under the Kodak name, with one obvious exception—two 50-foot trusses suspended overhead, each with 22 speakers. These speakers are part of the Dolby Atmos sound system installed in the theater, one of only six in operation at the moment, though Dolby expects 15 or more to be up and running in the US by the end of June.

Like the 3D Audio Alliance's Multi-Dimensional Audio (MDA) profiled here, here, and here, Dolby Atmos takes an object-oriented approach to movie sound. Each sound-generating object, such as a plane, explosion, etc., is placed in a 3-dimensional soundfield by the mixing engineer and reproduced by speakers all around and above the audience. The current system can reproduce up to 128 individual objects simultaneously

According to Dolby, the system widens the "sweet spot" to include the entire audience, and it's scalable to match the resources of different theaters. In addition, it's fully backward compatible with conventional 5.1 and 7.1 systems.

The Dolby Theater is quite large—180,000 square feet with 3400 seats—and the Atmos system fills it nicely with a total of 164 speakers, most of which are self-powered models from Meyer Sound, permanently installed and used by Cirque du Soleil in its Iris show presented 10 times per week in the venue.

Behind the screen are three line arrays, each with 10 JBL Vertec VT4888s, as well as six custom-designed JBL subwoofers, each with dual 18-inch drivers. The front speakers and subs are all driven by Crown power amps.

We saw and heard several clips, including a 30-second trailer created by sound designer Erik Aadahl, who has appeared as a guest on the Home Theater Geeks podcast. After trying to come up with a soundtrack for existing video, he ended up creating the audio with no visual imagery, and the computer-generated video was added after the fact. The effect was stunning, with sound swirling all around and above the audience.

Other clips included Atmos remixes of scenes from existing movies. From The Incredibles, the scene in which Dash is being chased by Syndrome's soldiers in flying speeders was, well, incredible as the speeders flew overhead and around the room. This clip was played a second time with only the 16 Atmos objects—no dialog or music—so we could hear their placement more clearly.

Also impressive was the sandstorm scene from Mission: Impossible—Ghost Protocol. I could almost hear individual grains of sand whipping around my head as Ethan Hunt chases the bad guy.

Not to give the visuals short shrift, Dolby installed a Dolby 3D projection system in the theater using two Christie 4230 4K DLP projectors firing onto a Harkness Perlux miniperf screen measuring 60 by 32 feet. We saw a 3D clip from Fly Me to the Moon as well as a 3D version of the Atmos trailer, and both looked great, though I noticed some strange reflections in the glasses as I often do with Dolby 3D.

Now that the movie industry has undergone the transition to digital cinema and modern 3D, Dolby figures it's time to upgrade the sound, and Atmos is its bid to do just that. For now, the system is intended only for commercial cinemas, but I suppose it could eventually find its way into home theaters. Until then, look for a Dolby Atmos theater in your area—it's a sonic experience worth seeking out.

instybob's picture

What's the budget for 165 speakers at home?

triforce7's picture

Maybe they could start with a 'lite' version, so to speak, for home theater. It could maybe do something like combine virtual speaker technology with Atmos so that you could do with just two overhead speakers added to standard 5.1-11.1 systems. That'd still be pretty neat and still possibly affordable for home theater.

Easternlethal's picture

but good luck getting cinemas to maintain so many speakers. I have yet to hear decent surround from a commercial cinema. Most of them seem happy to let their rear and side speakers rot because most cinema goers hardly notice them.

Jarod's picture

Sounds like you've been visiting the wrong cinemas.

Mark_887's picture

my jaw just drop 22 speakers? :). I wish i had scotts job,i would love to visit that theater! great write up.

Jarod's picture

I'm very excited to hear a Dolby Atmos theater. I'm so jealous Scott!

extremus's picture might very well be close to an Atmos theater - Barrywoods 24 in KCMO.

Jarod's picture

Yep I'm indeed around the area and went to that very theater today to sample the new tech.

ca1ore's picture

I would think that the high number of speakers required is partly a function of the size of the space, and that an effective home version would require only a modest addition to current 7.1 setups. Perhaps some kind of matrix encoder could be sold as an add-on to current sytems to extract height/overhead information? In my personal system, it is an overhead channel that seems most conspicuous in its absence.

extremus's picture

I just checked the times and prices for Brave in different formats; here in KCMO the Atmos showing gets a $1 more than 3D and $4.50 more than the standard digital presentation. Unless they have neglected to list it, the Atmos showing of Brave is not in 3d. The theater here uses RealD.

That being said, I'm going to opt for Atmos over 3D, but I'm going to the 1st showing of the day, which will save me $5 a ticket. I'll be sure to get there early enough to get a prime viewing/listening seat and I'll post a review of the film and Atmos on G+.

Scott Wilkinson's picture
...if Brave were showing in 2D in any Atmos theater. I'd bet that Dolby made sure all Atmos theaters are 3D, even if they aren't Dolby 3D. You say, "the Atmos showing of Brave is not in 3D. The theater here uses RealD." Well, RealD is 3D, it's just not Dolby 3D; it's a different technology. I strongly recommend seeing Brave in whatever version of 3D is offered in your local theater, and by all means, seek out an Atmos theater if possible.
Jarod's picture

Scott you are correct the Dolby Atmos theater in KCMO is the ETX theater is showing in RealD 3D.