Originally Posted by kbarnes701
On June 15th I was invited to a demonstration of Atmos For The Home at Dolby Labs in London. This was a wonderful opportunity for me to be one of the very first AV enthusiasts to hear at first hand just how well — or not of course — the theatrical Atmos experience translates to the confines of the typical home cinema. What follows is a report of my experience that day and the impressions gained from it.
The demonstration was split into two parts. The first was held in Dolby’s amazing screening room. We were told that this room represents “probably the finest Atmos experience in Europe” and I can easily believe that, having heard what we did.
The room seated, at a guess, for I failed to count, about 130 seats and the rows of speakers on the side walls, down to the screen, on the rear walls and in two rows above our heads were pointed out to us. All in all I counted 32 speakers, more or less, including two huge subwoofers mounted in the rear corners.
Opening demo in Dolby’s main screening room.
After an explanation of the broad principles of object-based audio, we were treated to a couple of Dolby’s own short demo clips. While these did indeed display the amazing sense of 3D immersion in a sound field, my feeling was that this was to be ‘expected’. After all, Dolby themselves are not going to create special demo material that fails to deliver a good Atmos experience, especially in their own screening room. Sounds zipped around us, over us, even passing ‘through’ us. The precision and definition was startling, the bass was the best I have heard, anywhere, ever.
But what the small group of audience members was craving were some actual movie clips. And here, Dolby did not fall short. As we may have expected, the most awesome was the Academy Award Winning sound of Gravity. The clip chosen was close to the beginning of the movie, where Clooney and Bullock are space-walking, apparently repairing a failed component. Those who have seen this movie (including me, who has seen it four times) will remember the way the voices of the two actors pan around the room as the camera angle angle changes, all the while accompanied by the ceaseless chatter of radio comms, both from the characters in space and those on the ground at Mission Control. Even in 5.1 this is impressively done, but nothing can prepare you for the way that it is handled via Atmos. And then, the story starts. “Mission abort! Mission abort!” shouts Ed Harris from ground control, and all hell breaks loose, culminating in Bullock’s character cutting loose and being catapulted into space. So effective was the sound track at putting me “right there” that I felt my pulse rate quicken and my elevated heart rate left me a little short of breath. I was “there”, out in space, with them. It was an amazing experience and I have never felt anywhere near as immersed in a movie as I did during that sequence.
But in some ways, this was as expected as it was amazing. We were sitting in “probably the finest Atmos facility in Europe”. What we all wanted to know now was “how does this translate to the home?”, and this was next up on the agenda.
Atmos in the home theater.
We were split into groups of six and taken into a small, 6 seater ‘home theatre’ on the first floor of the Dolby facility. Immediately on entering the room, I noticed that it was treated, including treatments running front to back down the centre of the ceiling, and that the 7.2.4 Atmos system which they were running consisted of two decently sized subs and 7 fairly modest looking bookshelf satellite speakers. In the ceiling I could see 4 modest in-ceiling speakers. I’d say the room was about 15 feet long and 12 feet wide, with an 8 foot ceiling, so the sort of space that many people could easily replicate at home. I would say that the system components in this room were of the sort that most people could afford - there was nothing that seemed in any way ‘over the top’, so Dolby had gone to lengths to make this room typical of what we could recreate for ourselves at home.
The first demo up were the specially created Dolby ‘sound logos’ we had heard in the main room so that we could compare the two experiences. As before, they were excellent but expected. What impressed was, again, the three dimensionality of the sound. This demo, it was explained, was using the physical in-ceiling speakers, but all of the subsequent demos would use the Atmos-enabled speakers. This is where it started to get interesting.
When the operator played the Dolby demo clip again, using this time the Atmos speakers, I noticed a small, but definite, diminution of the precision with which the sounds were placed, especially overhead. But it was surprisingly small. One of the audience members I spoke to afterwards said he couldn’t hear any difference at all. I stress that the difference was unexpectedly small.
Watch out - Gollum is above you… behind you… in front of you… to the side of you…
But again, what I wanted to hear was not specially created Dolby clips but some real movie content and I was not disappointed. Let me try to describe what I heard when they played a clip from The Hobbit. It is the clip, for those of you who have seen the movie (twice for me at home and once in a SOTA cinema) where Gollum encounters Bilbo in a huge cave. Gollum is playing a malevolent game with Bilbo where he darts from shadow to shadow, rock to rock, taunting Bilbo as he moves around. I am very familiar with this clip and I have used it myself to demonstrate how a good system can ‘lose the walls of the room’ making the space of the HT sound much bigger than it really is.
But nothing, nothing I have heard before prepared me for this Atmos mix. And remember, I was hearing this now only on the Atmos-enabled speakers. The sound of Gollum’s voice came from above, from the left, from the centre, from the above left, from the left-centre, from everywhere that Gollum jumped to in the scene. The precision of the placement of his voice to reflect his physical location on the screen was excellent. I found myself moving my head towards his voice. In some parts of the scene we can’t see Gollum as he is obscured by shadows. But each time he spoke, before we could see him, we knew exactly where he was. Exactly. And when he came out of the shadows to reveal himself, he was exactly where we knew he would be.
Amazing though this was, and amazed as I was at the way the Atmos-enabled speakers ‘just worked’, this was not actually the most impressive part of this scene.
Much, much more than ‘height effects’.
No, the most impressive part was the sheer scale of the space we were now ’sitting in’. The walls and ceiling of the room had gone. They had just vanished. In their place instead were the confines of a massive cave, hundreds of feet wide and high. There is a lot of ambient sound and echoes in this scene and Atmos’s ability to add a height dimension was just breathtaking. I don’t want to ‘gush’ over this, but there is no other way to describe what I was hearing. I had been transported to a huge, echoing cave with an evil little creature taunting me as he hid and revealed himself over and over in this huge space. I closed my eyes. Yes, I was sitting in a massive cave, not a small demo room in central London. If Dolby had blown a cold blast of aircon into then room, the illusion would have been total. And I repeat, this was from the Atmos speakers not the physical in-ceiling speakers. Remember I said that I heard a little more precision in the sound with the physical speakers playing? I can only imagine how much better this clip would sound when using the physical speakers because, sadly, we had run out of time and had to make way for the next six attendees.
My overall impressions? OK - first off, Atmos is much, much more than ‘height effects’. This is one of the great misconceptions about Atmos in my opinion - that is only for ‘height effects’. Forget all about it only being of value when helicopters fly over or rain is coming down. Sure, these things are vastly better when heard via Atmos, but in my view, that is not what Atmos is about. What Atmos truly does is use those ceiling speakers, or the Atmos ‘modules’ in an Atmos speaker, to enable the sound to be precisely located in three dimensional space. The ‘top’ speakers have just as much of an important role in helping place a sound ‘just slightly above your head and to the right’ as they do in flyovers and so on. There is no doubt of the role of top speakers in creating that huge cave space in The Hobbit clip of course - without the ability to put sound ‘over our head’ that scene can never be as impressive as it was in Atmos. But ‘height effects’ doesn’t even begin to cover it.
A genuine revelation - Atmos-enabled speakers.
If you haven’t actually heard Atmos-enabled speakers for yourself, you cannot begin to understand how effective they are. They are not just ‘a bit’ effective. They are not a ‘real compromise’. They are just stunning in a way that can’t really be believed until you have heard them. For anyone who cannot or does not want to install physical speakers on or in the ceiling, Atmos-enabled speakers are not some sort of ‘poor man’s alternative’. Having heard both, ‘side by side’ I can tell you without any shadow of doubt that if you go with Atmos speakers for your Atmos system, you will not, in any way, be disappointed.
Dolby seem to have achieved the impossible here - they have found a way to deliver the Atmos experience in a small home theatre, or in a living room, without the apparent addition of a single extra speaker. To look at the Atmos system I saw and heard this week, it looks no different to any other 7.1 system already out there. If you are comfortable with a 5.1 or 7.1 system in your home, then you can enjoy Atmos without any visible change to the room at all. Note the use of the word ‘visible’. The audible change is of a magnitude I have not heard before.
I would like to thank Dolby, Onkyo (the co-hosts of the demo) and my good friend Allan of Ideal AV in Yorkshire, England for making this day possible. For anyone living within travelling distance of Allan’s great demo room, he will soon be having a full Atmos demo facility up and running. I urge everyone who can to go and hear this and especially anyone who feels that he cannot ‘accommodate’ an Atmos system. You can! And from what I heard this week, you will most definitely want to.
Thank you for sharing your impressions.
Since Onkyo was the co-host, I presume they would have used some Onkyo products in the HT. You mentioned unbranded speakers, did any of them look like the pics below I grabbed from the Onkyo website? Or could they have been the AJ Atmos speakers with the Pioneer insignia removed (seriously)?
Someday, consumers will purchase a BD with Atmos content and play it back on a BD player. For the demo, what was the container for the content and what equipment did they use for playback ?