Professional audio is not a big industry and surround sound is a relatively small niche within in it but it is a fiercely contested area, both commercially and technologically. That fact has been underlined in recent weeks with both the big names in multichannel sound for broadcast, cinema and now new media buying up smaller companies with reputations for innovation equal to their own.
Dolby Laboratories bought Spanish developer Imm Sound on 23 July, primarily to support its recently launched Atmos, a 3D audio system designed to bring a more multi-dimensional sensation to cinemas.
DTS completing the $148 million buy-out of fellow US developer SRS Labs on 20 July is a broader business move, as the new owner further contemplates the surround sound market for mobile phones and tablets, as well as TV, radio and cinema, both theatrically and in the home.
SRS Labs is known for a range of products licensed by other manufacturers for a wide variety of markets, including TruSurround HD (home entertainment), WOW HD (mobile), Premium Sound 3D (computers) and Circle Surround II (in-car). The company also produces the Multi-Dimensional Audio (MDA) object-based open platform and this year launched iWOW-U, an "audio enriching universal adapter".
DTS was originally focused on the cinema market as an alternative to Dolby but in the last ten years has broadened its reach to include TV broadcast, DVD/Blu-ray disc, computers, gaming and in-car systems. Its professional codecs include DTS-HD Master Audio and DTS Express, while Neo X and Boost are amongst the audio processor offering.
Jon Kirchner (pictured), DTS' chairman and chief executive, says the completion of the deal, which was first announced in April, paves the way for integrating the product lines of the two companies to create "best in class solutions for audio delivery challenges". The combination of technologies will, he believes, give DTS an advantage in pre and post processing of audio for all its markets but primarily the networked sound sector, including connected TVs, mobile PCs and set-top boxes.
"I think there are significant opportunities to improve the audio experience," he comments. "Sound matters and there is a number of demands put on it. Historically it has been difficult to get quality at lower bandwidths but there is the opportunity now to significantly enhance the audio offering for film, music, video and games entertainment. The addition of SRS Labs accelerates our move towards this goal by having a large base of intellectual property."
SRS Labs put itself up for sale and Kirchner says it was an attractive proposition because the company has a similar culture to DTS' and shares a comparable vision about the importance of audio. He does not expect any immediate changes in branding and how the companies operate but says over time an integrated strategy will appear. SRS Labs' headquarters in Santa Ana, California will continue to operate and "a brand and technology road map" will emerge in the future. "There are different market positions for both DTS and SRS as far as consumers are concerned," Kirchner explains.
Behind the talk about "similar cultures" is the reality that extended surround sound, with height and depth as well as width and length, is a crucial element in the development of new immersive TV and computing systems. In Europe the FascinatE project, which includes "3D" audio based on Ambisonics, is nearing its conclusion, while in Japan NHK's research department continues its work on 22.2 channel sound for Super Hi-Vision TV.
Although aimed at cinema right now, Dolby's Atmos system, and acquisition of Imm Sound, is another sign of how seriously people are considering sound for the new viewing future. Kirchner believes "multi-dimensional audio" will be a major part of 3D video and "raises the bar" above existing 5.1 and 7.1 formats. "Competition in the audio business is nothing new," he comments. "We were continuing our research into new technologies independent of the acquisition but the addition of SRS Labs will accelerate the progress we were making. We want to innovate faster and move forward more aggressively in providing audio solutions."
While the primary focus of the new DTS-SRS Labs combination appears to be on the consumer market, Kirchner says the professional side of the business is not being neglected: "We have tools that service the post-production and broadcast end and it is our intention to continue with that. These support the delivery of audio and so nothing is going to change. The pro tools business is important."