Atmos-Enabled Products: Caution Ahead?

I am a huge fan of Dolby Atmos in commercial movie theaters. I routinely specifically choose to see movies in theaters that are Atmos-equipped, and will gladly pay a little extra if necessary. The immersion provided by Atmos playback, particularly from the array of ceiling speakers, is remarkable and in my opinion measurably improves the movie experience.

Thus I was overjoyed when the rumors of Atmos at home came true. The prospect of hearing Atmos soundtracks in my home theater suddenly made me excited about home-theater audio again. I could hardly wait for the specifications to be released, so I could install the necessary speakers, and buy whatever gear I would need. Now, comments from a Dolby heavyweight have made me a little nervous.

First, let me share with you some quotes from an article in The Hollywood Reporter (similar reporting has appeared elsewhere). Brett Crockett is the senior director of sound research at Dolby; here are some of his comments: "Height is an important part of Atmos, so we adapted that experience so that the consumer can get that in the living room or on a mobile device.... For the home theater environment we’ve put together a renderer in home receivers that renders to a height plane. We also partnered with manufacturers to develop Atmos-enabled speakers. Using the ceiling, we create reflected sound that sounds like overheads."

That seems reasonable enough, but I am also a little troubled. I am not a big fan of height virtualization nor of speakers that attempt to use ceiling reflections. In my opinion, neither of these is nearly as satisfactory as ceiling mounted speakers. Still, I understand that ceiling speakers would be a deal-breaker for lots of folks. So, as long as the spec allows ceiling speakers, I am grudgingly OK with non-ceiling Atmos.

I am more troubled by the reference to Atmos on a "mobile device." Say what? I am supposed to believe that one of the most magnificently immersive playback room experiences will also be available for phone earbud playback? That is like saying that Porsche will also make its 911 Turbo available at Walmart in the children's toy department, as a peddle car. It ain't the same thing.

Here's the deal: Let's suppose that you shell out $10,000 for a major upgrade to Atmos complete with an array of ceiling speakers, and let's suppose that it sounds awesome, just like in the movie theater. Now you run over to tell your friend that you have Atmos and it's awesome. And he pulls out his iPhone and says, oh, I have Atmos too and it really does sound super duper good. Instant buzz kill. You wanted something exclusive, something really cool that phones couldn't pretend to do, because you're sick of how phones dumb down everything. You know—like how low bit-rate MP3s pretend to play back music. Because it's also just an app, you feel like a dope for blowing all that money on your home theater.

Here's my advice to Dolby: I understand that you want as many big slices of pies as you can get. And phones are a really big pie. But don't dilute the Atmos name with a phone app that says Atmos. It will drag down the technology's reputation in movie theaters, and it will kill the buzz from us home-theater enthusiasts. Your company was built on the quality of the technology that you provided to audio enthusiasts. Atmos is the best thing you've given us in years. I hope my panic-speculation here is off base. Don't let us down.

javanp's picture

"I am supposed to believe that one of the most magnificently immersive playback room experiences will also be available for phone earbud playback?" Ummm... have you heard DTS Headphone:X? I would watch movies with headphones on the majority of the time if I could. It is absolutely mind-blowing. Granted, I haven't been too impressed with the height channels in the demos, but I also haven't heard them using Headphone:x calibrated headphones. And, yes, I do use earbuds.

javanp's picture

I mean, if I could utilize this technology on movies.

mikem's picture

Couldn't agree with Pohlmann more about watering down Atmos for HT users. I just finally got 7.1 tweaked to the hilt and I'd have to hit the lottery to pay for Atmos after just upgrading my whole HT room. It's bad enough I had to rob a bank to do so:)

Willie Sutton

JayhawkLaw's picture

As long as the sound experience isn’t diminished, who cares if a version for mobile devices is also available? Does it impact my enjoyment of the immersive quality that Dolby Atmos provides to a movie? No. I have friends that listen to lossy MP3 tracks through the speaker built in to their iPhones. Does that somehow impair my experience of listening to hi-def tracks played through a great DAC on my home system? If you’re looking to upgrade just so you can show-off to friends (who could probably care less) you’ll never be satisfied; someone will always have something newer, cooler and more expensive. If you are upgrading because you want to improve your own enjoyment of audio, Atmos appears to be a worthy consideration. Besides, to use the same metaphor, I could care less about the opinion of someone who could equate a 911 with a cheap Wal Mart kiddie car.