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Into the Atmos-phere: The rise of Dolby immersive audio

With over 600 cinema screens worldwide already having installed or committed to Dolby Atmos technology, speaker manufacturers have much to look forward to.

A revolution is afoot. Dolby Atmos, along with rival ‘immersive audio’ formats like Barco’s Auro 11.1 and DTS Multi-Dimensional Audio (MDA), is changing the way cinema audiences experience film sound – and manufacturers of cinema speakers are reaping the benefits.

Dolby calls Atmos’s ‘adaptive rendering’ system – which makes it possible to direct sounds as if they were “dynamic objects,” delivering sound from multiple directions – its “most significant innovation in years.” Atmos can transmit up to 128 simultaneous, lossless audio inputs on up to 64 discrete speaker feeds, including ones placed in the ceiling above the audience.

One company seeing positive signs from the growing popularity of Atmos is JBL Professional, which has carried out approximately 200 Atmos installs globally and can count the Empire cinema in Leicester Square, London, Dolby’s UK headquarters in Soho, London, the world-famous Pinewood film studios in Buckinghamshire, UK, and the Walt Disney Studios in Burbank, California, US, among its customers to date. Chuck Goodsell, senior manager, cinema, at JBL Professional, says that the company’s 9320 cinema surround loudspeaker, which launched in October last year, is a popular choice for commercial Atmos installs.

“Since Dolby Atmos requires individual dynamic audio elements over as many as 64 channels, the addition of multiple surrounds – including overhead – as well as additional screen channel speakers has had a beneficial impact on [our] cinema sales,” Goodsell explains. “[JBL parent company] Harman has continued to work with Dolby to develop the most advanced systems for Atmos deployment globally.”

Things are also looking good at QSC Audio Products. “The conversion to digital cinema is nearly complete,” comments Mark Mayfield, QSC’s cinema marketing manager. “Over 80 per cent of the world’s 135,000 screens have been converted, and, in North America, it’s closer to 95 per cent. There’s no question that the emergence and popularity of these new ‘immersive’ sound formats has created yet another catalyst for sales of ‘B-chain’ technologies like processors, amplifiers, and loudspeakers.”

QSC recently installed what it believes to be the largest cinema sound system ever assembled, at the Colosseum at Caesar’s Palace, Las Vegas, for CinemaCon 2014, which featured – tellingly – the largest Atmos rig ever installed.

Mayfield says QSC is “obviously supportive” of Dolby Atmos and other immersive sound formats, and points out that its Q-Sys digital audio processing platform is currently the only processor available that accepts a direct digital connection from the Dolby CP850 Atmos processor.

All signs so far point to a boom time ahead for cinema-focussed loudspeaker companies. “To give you an idea of the amount of additional sound equipment that might be necessary for these formats, we’ve equipped a 294-seat cinema with 18 surround loudspeakers, three screen channel loudspeakers and four floor-mounted subwoofers behind the screen for a standard 7.1 presentation,” concludes Mayfield. “To demonstrate MDA and other object- and channel-based formats, we’ve added 24 additional surround loudspeakers, three LCR-height screen channels and two LFE subwoofers suspended from the ceiling. All of these loudspeakers require discrete amplifier channels, so the quantity of power amplifiers is significantly increased as well.”

Atmos is rumoured to be coming to home theatre systems as early as this autumn.