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Surround Sound Journey: From Soundtrack to Speakers

By Phil Lozen
A look at the technology behind movie soundtracks and how the sound is delivered on surround systems.

Today, the options are endless when it comes to home entertainment. Technologies from Dolby and DTS offer producers more choices than ever before, and the options for home theater setup are always expanding. This article will look at three of those options as they relate to speaker setup, and how the technologies behind the soundtracks ultimately determine what you hear when you settle in to watch a movie.


Every soundtrack is created using one of two main technologies: Dolby and DTS. Both Dolby and DTS feature multiple profiles, such as Dolby Digital Plus and DTS-HD Master Audio. There's also THX, which is not a format but a certification process. Soundtracks and equipment can each be THX Certified, meaning they have passed a rigid set of tests required to earn the THX badge.

When a recording is being produced, a decision has to be made about what type of soundtrack to include. As the soundtracks get more full-featured, the amount of data on the audio portion of a disc grows. Directors are often forced to walk a delicate line to get the highest quality audio and video they can on a disc, at times sacrificing one for the other.

Bit-rate & Compression

Bit-rate and compression determine the final size of a soundtrack. Bit-rate is the amount of data passed per second during playback, the higher the bit-rate, the more data there is. The highest quality next generation audio formats, Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD Master Audio, support up to 18Mbps and 24.5 Mbps, respectively. In the profiles the next level down, Dolby Digital Plus and DTS-HD High Resolution Audio, the bit-rate drops to 6Mbps. By comparison, the bit-rate for the standard 5.1 surround sound formats for both Dolby and DTS is no more than 1.5Mbs.

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