Martians in Dolby Cinema at New York's AMC Empire 25

I had a dream last night. I was wandering around lower Manhattan (New York). I think I was trying to find my way, but as dreams go I’m not exactly sure where to. I was apparently using a map on my tablet, but the tablet was an old CRT the size of the integrated CRT monitor/computer on the first iMac. I wandered into a bookstore, apparently in search of a more usable map, but all I recall seeing was a copy of Widescreen Review and a children’s version of the New York Times, the latter’s cover filled with full color comics (definitively proving, I suppose, that we do dream in color, though the hues were so odd that they must have been captured in two-strip Technicolor). I had left my “tablet” outside (perhaps the bookstore was a tablet-free zone) and when I went back outside it was still there but the screen had been smashed. In a New York minute. Then I woke up.

This was all likely inspired by my recent trip to New York to attend the Vizio launch of its new Reference series Ultra HDTVs. I’ll be reporting on that event elsewhere, but will only note here that it consists of two models, one of them at 120-inches for $130,000 (ouch!) and the other 65-inches at $6,000—competitive prices but high for Vizio. While I was in the city I also did more than my share of hiking around the low numbered Manhattan streets—though I wasn’t carrying a CRT, didn’t find a bookstore, and know of no children’s edition of the New York Times (though the adult version can easily fill the bill).

I also spent an evening in the AMC Empire 25 movie cineplex near Times Square. Good movie theaters are thin on the ground in my current neck of the woods, unlike my former digs near Burbank, CA, five minutes from an AMC 16-plex having both a 400 seat IMAX house and an equally large “Prime” theater equipped with the new Dolby Cinema format (HDR laser projection and Dolby Atmos) and reclining leather seats.

My new home is twenty minutes (across a toll bridge) from an AMC cineplex with a single, relatively small (316 seat) IMAX auditorium. Twenty minutes further away is a Carmike cinema with a large Big D auditorium. When I visited the latter it looked compelling before the show started, with an up-to-the-minute, techy design, an estimated 500 seats, and a huge screen. But while the sound was impressive, the picture was unacceptably soft with mediocre contrast. I complained to the manager and he humored me by going up to fiddle with the focus, but it didn’t help. I left with my refund after 10 minutes. I’ll try that theater once again, but the picture there had all the earmarks of too little projector (and too mediocre a lens) on too big a screen.

I admit that my local AMC IMAX theater (and the smaller theaters in the same ‘plex) is decent. But when I e-mailed the manager there to ask when they might get a Dolby Cinema makeover with laser projection, his response suggested that he was rolling around on the floor laughing. Maybe by 2025!

That’s why I spent that evening in New York at the AMC Empire 25, experiencing The Martian in that theater’s Dolby Cinema Prime auditorium. It was one of the finest commercial theaters I had ever been to—even better than the AMC Prime theater in Burbank (which to be fair hadn’t yet installed Dolby Cinema in my many visits there in the year before I moved). At the Empire 25 I knew I was in for a treat even before the trailers started. Even the advertisements that are invariably screened before the main show were not only in HD, but apparently employed the same laser projector used for the feature (rather than the cheap business projectors used for this purpose in most theaters). Even the audio on the ads was high quality. And the trailers continued the hits, with audio as impressive as in the main feature and at a comparable volume level, not dynamically compressed for maximum loudness as the trailers so often are in most theaters.

Overall, the audio, on both the trailers and the main feature, was as good as I’ve ever heard in a commercial movie house, and played back at an appropriately loud but tolerable level. Dialogue was fully intelligible but without the exaggerated, fizzy, biting edge so common in commercial theater sound. I always bring earplugs to the movies and almost always need them. Not here.

The picture quality was also top drawer, though I wasn’t all that conscious of the bright highlights you normally see on a high dynamic range presentation. The spec for Dolby Cinema projection is a peak brightness of around 30 foot-lamberts. That’s impressive for an image on a large theater screen, and clearly brighter than usual for a commercial cinema. But it’s nowhere near the 200 foot-lamberts expected from the first generation of HDR Ultra HD sets. The brightness limits of projectors are likely why Dolby Cinema doesn’t typically do 3D showings (though The Martian is available in 3D in some standard theaters). While it could do 3D, the sacrifice in brightness that comes with that format would further limit the peak dynamic range.

But in every other way the picture quality was beyond reproach. The Martian is not a movie with particularly challenging blacks, but the black backgrounds on the darkest scenes, such as star fields and the dark backgrounds on both the end titles and Director Ridley Scott’s “Scott Free” logo at the front of the film, were jaw-dropping. Oddly, however, on several occasions when the screen went completely black between scenes, that black was clearly a mid-gray.

If I had any complaint it would be the bass shakers on the reclining seats. They couldn’t be turned off. I wasn’t even sure if there was any bass coming from the subwoofers, since my vibrating posterior distracted me enough that I didn’t notice. Also, a faint light came through one of the entrances on the far right of the theater, which was something of a distraction until I got into the movie and was able to ignore it. I also wish theaters could dim the emergency lights just a little. I know they have to be on, but even at half brightness they’d still be quite visible.

And the movie? It’s still in theaters so I’ll pass on any significant comment here to avoid spoilers. But no, it’s not based on a true story, or even inspired by one! It was, however, one of my three favorite movies of the year so far. The other’s were Disney’s live action Cinderella, and Ant-Man. Yes, my taste in movies is all over the map, but I suspect most readers will agree with me on The Martian.

David Vaughn's picture
Tom, thanks for the recap. Sadly, the closest Dolby Cinema experience for me is in Burbank as well...a 6 hour drive! My daughter is at UCLA and on one of our visits I plan to stop in and see a movie there. I happened to catch Cinderella at the El Capitan in April of this year (I agree with you...excellent movie) and I was mostly impressed by the audio in the auditorium, although the acoustics there are a bit wonky.
K.Reid's picture

I didn't even know about this theater. I will definitely have to take a look after work to see the Dolby Cinema. Tom or any fellow readers know if there Is an upcharge for the Dolby Cinema theater?

K.Reid's picture

So, Tom got me so curious that after work today I went to see The Martian at the AMC Empire 25 on 42nd Street between 7th and 8th Ave in New York City. Up until now, I have been a fan of all things IMAX and not convinced by Dolby Atmos. Well, that now changes. This was the single best theatrical presentation I have seen. Tom did not go into length about the physical characteristics of the theater, but it is impressive for the $20 charge.

Upon entrance, a patron is greeted by warm red LEDs casting their light on each individual driver on multiple surround speaker arrays. Each speaker is suspended at least 20ft high. I estimate each speaker to be approximately 6-8ft high and perhaps 16in. in diameter. The bottom section of the speaker had an array of what looked like 12in. long throw woofers. The top section of the speaker looked to have a 12in. midbass driver with and a 8 or 10in. coaxial mount horn midrange/tweeter. I do not know the brand, but they were imposing and seemingly well constructed. By the way, there had to be at least 30 speaker arrays at equidistant locations around the theater.

The ceiling was impressive with speakers lining two rows from front to back. Also, a first is full size subwoofers mounted on the ceiling with 12-15in drivers facing the seats below. I don't think these were speakers with a single full range driver. The were large...and backlit with red LEDs on the driver. WOW.

The seats were awesome. Full leather with headrest and electronic controls on the armrest to fully recline, raise and lower the chair. Tom was correct in that there are infrasonic radiators built in the seats. The rumbling was great and not intrusive at all - on my well insulated backside at least. If you have an ectomorphic (thin) body type, then I could see how the vibration could be uncomfortable for extended period of time. Suffice it to say that my rear end and achy back were comfortably massaged for the 2hr+ film.

The sound volume was perfect and the quality spectacular. Sound effects were convincing and visceral with awe inspiring bass and infrasonics. Dialogue was easily intelligible. I like the fact that overhead flyovers were noticeable and not discreet. Unlike some reviewers who advocate discreet overhead effects thinking that they draw attention away from the film - nothing could be further from the truth. There were tons of aggressive, overhead effects and I was very aware of them; but my eyes were anchored to the pristine visuals of the laser projected image.

The image was among the best I have seen in a commercial theater. High dynamic range really takes images to the next level, period. The color palette was extended and natural (for a sci-fi feature) with great gradations of color. Most blacks were inky. Spoiler Alert. When Matt Damon first sees the sprouting leaves from the potato plant, the scene transitions to a shot of a deep black space with many stars, then pans downward to the Earth - the constrast in this image is gorgeous and 3-D like; the blue just pops with nice saturation. Tom was right insofar as there were a few shots that were obviously mid-grey and not ink black.

Detail freaks will love this projector. In a preview for the upcoming James Bond movie Spectre, Daniel Craig is holding a ring with the Spectre logo and you see each hair below his knuckles on his fingers. I. The feature film close-ups of Matt Damon's beard were also noteworthy. Most whites looked natural with no tinge of blue or red. Perhaps Tom with his technical expertise could shed some light on how a laser projector works and delivers that great inky black and natural color that we video enthusiasts crave.

The exit sign on the left cast a very faint red tint on the lower left side of the screen on dark sequences in the movie. The issue is one of dimming and placement. First timers were awed by what they experienced. In sum, this was a full tilt visual, tactile and aural feast for the body. Dolby Cinema in this example is recommended without reservation and definitely worthy of a Top Pick. Nuff said.