Musings on Dolby Atmos Cinema Sound Technology

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Dolby Labs has been supplying Hollywood films with their audio system for years, the first film to have use its technology was Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange. By the mid 70s most major Hollywood films started using Dolby sound and today it’s still the most widely use surround sound system in theaters across the world. It’s also a stable in home video such as DVD and Bluray discs. Although the last couple of years, Bluray have been using Dolby’s competitor, DTS or Digital Surround Sound as the primary sound coding for movies in that format. DVD still uses Dolby Digital.

Dolby always try to come up a new surround sound format to get the audiences back into theaters, throughout the 70s and 80s, Dolby Surround Sound were used in most Hollywood produced and some foreign films. But in the early 90s, they came out with a new sound format simply called Dolby Digital and the first film to have been recorded in that format was Tim Burton’s Batman Returns. My first experience hearing Dolby Digital was in 1995 when I saw Crimson Tide, right then and there I fell in love with this new surround sound. A few years later, they came out with another surround sound format, this one was called Dolby Digital EX and the first film to have used that sound was Star Wars Ep.1 and I was fortunate enough to have experience hearing that sound in a theater and again I fell in love. Well fast forward to 2012 and Dolby decided to introduced the world to another surround sound format, this one is called Dolby Atmos and the first movie to have been encoded with this new sound was Pixar’s Brave.

I’ve been reading about this new format for months now but since I don’t live in a big city, I wasn’t able to experience it until our local theater Showplace ICON here in Minneapolis, MN decided to revamp the theater and included Dolby Atmos. The movie I saw was Gravity. So what is Dolby Atmos you might ask. Well if you really want to know all the technical stuff about it, you can check out Dolby’s site where they explain in more details.

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Basically, a typical theater have a 5.1 or 7.1 surround speakers set up, center, left/right and sub-woofer speakers are hidden behind the screen and the surround speakers are placed on the left/right and back of the theater. But with Atmos, they included additional speakers on ceilings to make it a more immersive experience (see image at the top). Now before I experienced this new sound format, I didn’t think I would hear any difference from other surround sound, to me I still think IMAX’s loss-less surround is still the best in cinemas today. Well after experiencing it, I think it may be one of the most immersive surround sound I’ve ever heard. I first saw Gravity at digital IMAX theater and I thought the surround sound there was perfect. Boy when I went to see it with the Atmos sound, it totally blew me away.

“Just as 3D offers added visual dimension, Dolby Atmos creates a virtual reality of sound, which fully immerses the audience in the aural journey,” Gravity‘s director Alfonso Cuarón said in a statement, as quoted by LA Times.

The separation of each surround channel was so discreet and clear that I felt I was in space with the character in the movie. The opening scene where the music came on and then the title of the movie appears was loud (not in a bad way) and clear that I felt the sound in my stomach and chest, it’s hard to explain but you have to experience it to know how it feels. Also, when some of the characters speaks, the sound was able to place their voice where it should be. For example when Clooney’s character was talking in one scene, he’s in top left corner of the screen and we hear his voice from the top left corner of the theater, it’s pretty cool! I know most surround sound can do that effect but with Atmos, you feel like his voice was right behind you, it’s so clear and didn’t feel like gimmicky to me at all. I think this sound format goes well with the spectacle you see on the screen, especially 3D effects. The explosions and clashes also sounded so realistic that you’d think you’re in the space ship with Sandra Bullock. If there’s a theater in your area that’s equipped Dolby Atmos, I’d highly you go check it out, it’s an quite an experience. Now I think this kind of surround sound only work with spectacle movies like Gravity, Thor, The Hobbit and other big tent pole pictures. I don’t think it would sound any different if they use it for comedies or dramas.

Currently Dolby Atmos is only available at the cinemas, there’s been some discussions that Dolby might consider bringing it to home theater and I can’t wait for that to happen. In the meantime, I’m looking forward to see more movies with this new soundtrack. Now I still think IMAX’s lossless surround sound is still the best but maybe I’ll change my mind once I see more movies with Atmos sound. In fact, I’m looking forward to comparing the two when I go see The Hobbit 2, it will be shown at both IMAX and Atmos equipped theaters.


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Well that’s my thoughts on Dolby Atmos, have you seen a movie with this new surround sound format? Would love to hear what you think of it.