A 7.1 Update

At the party last night at the Roosevelt Hotel in Hollywood to celebrate the release of the Blu-ray Disc and DVD of Dexter, Season 5, I got to spend some quality time with Craig Eggers, Director of Blu-ray Ecosystems for Dolby Labs. Eggers was there because the Blu-ray release is in Dolby TrueHD 5.1. I think I was supposed to talk with him about the new discs, but instead I cornered him for an update on something far more interesting to me: the status of 7.1 sound.

One of the great features touted when Blu-ray Disc was launched in 2006 was its ability to carry 7.1 channels of digital sound. But the rollout of 7.1 has been slow; a couple of years after Blu-ray’s release, there were still only a handful of titles with 7.1 soundtracks. Eggers says the introduction last August of Dolby 7.1, a 7.1 format designed for digital cinema, has finally opened the floodgates for 7.1 because sound mixers can use the same mix for home and cinema.

“We’re seeing increasingly more 7.1 in theatrical releases now, including Cars 2, Super 8, and the latest Transformers and Pirates of the Caribbean movies,” Eggers said. “The sound designers are really excited about having discrete rear surround channels. Sometimes they just pass the 7.1 theatrical mix onto Blu-ray, but some of them will sit down in a mixing environment similar to a home theater and remix it for that experience.”

Yeah, but is anyone actually listening in 7.1? Yep, according to Eggers. “Our research shows an attach rate [the number of people actually using the feature] for 7.1 in the high 40 percent range. And 7.1 is the de facto standard for home theater receivers now.”

Given that we were standing around the Roosevelt Hotel pool surrounded by the stars of Dexter, Dexter banners, and waitresses with fake blood splattered all over their faces, I had to point out that the new Dexter release is in plain old 5.1. “TV is still a 5.1 world,” Eggers responded, “but certainly in the future you could see TV shows streaming over the Internet in 7.1.”

But even 5.1 streaming is rare — it’s currently available only on Netflix (through Playstation 3) and on Vudu. So I asked Eggers if there was really a chance we’d see 7.1 streaming any time soon. “Sure,” he said. “Both of those services use Dolby Digital Plus, which can do 7.1, although that’s not happening presently.”

“We’re somewhere north of 225 Blu-ray titles in 7.1 at this point,” he added — reason enough, it seems to me, to finally add those two extra back speakers if you haven’t yet done so.