Dolby Atmos Demo at Pioneer

Pioneer invited several journalists to hear its new Atmos-enabled speakers in a normal-sized room, and the result was quite engaging.

Last week, I had the pleasure of attending a demonstration of Dolby Atmos for home theaters at Pioneer’s headquarters in Long Beach, CA. I had already heard the Pioneer system of Elite-branded, Atmos-enabled speakers—designed by Andrew Jones—and AV receiver at CE Week last month, but that was with a 14-foot ceiling, which is at the top of the range recommended by Dolby for upfiring “overhead” speakers. Besides, it never hurts to hear a new technology multiple times in different environments.

As you probably know, Dolby Atmos is a sound system that adds overhead speakers to the traditional surround array to create a true hemispherical soundfield. It is “object-oriented,” which means that individual sounds are treated like objects and placed in the soundfield by the mixer without having to think about channels, and each sound is reproduced by whatever speakers are necessary to create the illusion that it is coming from that location.

In commercial cinemas, speakers are mounted on the ceiling, which can also be done with a home-theater Atmos system. But that is impractical in many homes, so Dolby came up with an alternative—upward-firing speakers sitting on top of the front and surround left and right speakers that reflect their sound from the ceiling, creating the same effect. (Of course, with upfiring speakers, the ceiling can’t have any acoustic treatment; it must be reflective.) A typical Atmos home installation includes a conventional 5.1 or 7.1 speaker system with four upfiring speakers, resulting in a designation of 5.1.4 or 7.1.4, though there can be a maximum of 34 channels—24 in the horizontal plane and 10 overhead—depending on the capabilities of the preamp/processor or AVR.

Speaking of which, Atmos for the home requires a new pre/pro or AVR to decode the bitstream, but the good news is that current Blu-ray discs and players can accommodate that bitstream without modification. There have been over 120 movies mixed with an Atmos soundtrack, and Atmos-encoded discs should start appearing this fall. Streaming content can also include an Atmos soundtrack, which requires little additional bandwidth over conventional surround sound—in fact, streaming could be the first delivery medium for Atmos-encoded content.

After hearing Atmos with actual overhead speakers and upfiring “Atmos-enabled” speakers, Andrew Jones decided he preferred the upfiring approach for home applications, so he designed a new set of speakers for Pioneer’s Elite brand based on that principle—the floorstanding SP-EFS73 and bookshelf SP-EBS73-LR. (Calling the smaller one a “bookshelf” speaker is a bit of a misnomer, since it definitely shouldn’t be placed in a bookshelf; it would be more rightly called stand-mounted.) To complement these Atmos-enabled speakers, he also designed the center-channel SP-EC73 and SW-E10 powered subwoofer, which don’t have upfiring drivers. (For more on the new Pioneer speakerssee my interview with Andrew on Home Theater Geeks.)

The placement of Atmos-enabled speakers is a bit different than the conventional layout—the line between the left front and rear upfiring speakers should be parallel with the main axis of the room, as should the line between the right front and rear upfiring speakers. Also, all the Atmos-enabled speakers should be somewhat out in the room, not up against the wall, and toed in toward the listening position so the sound from the upfiring speakers, which are aimed at a slight angle from the vertical, reflect from the ceiling and down toward the listening area. Alternatively, if you mount speakers in the ceiling, they should be about three feet in front of and behind the listening position.

On the left, upfiring Atmos-enabled front and rear speakers reflect sound from the ceiling into the listening area. On the right, four ceiling-mounted speakers (depicted as circles inside rounded squares) are placed with two in front of the listening position and two behind.

One critical factor in making Atmos work in the home is the encoding and decoding of the audio data. The encoding process integrates the object metadata with the 5.1 or 7.1 “bed,” but the decoding is where the real complexity lies, requiring very powerful DSP (digital signal processing) chips. The audio spectrum of the overhead channels must be modified for upfiring speakers to optimize the sense of height using an HRTF (head-related transfer function), while the decoding for actual overhead speakers is not as demanding.

The Pioneer demo used a prototype Elite SC-89 AVR that had only Atmos decoding—no other Dolby or DTS decoder. Texas Instruments, which makes the DSP chips for Pioneer, Onkyo, and Yamaha AVRs, had not finished implementing all the other codecs that will be found in the final product. Interestingly, Atmos can use Dolby Digital Plus or TrueHD compression; we heard it in TrueHD. The speakers included two SP-EFS73 floorstanders, one SP-EC73 center speaker, and one SW-E10 subwoofer in the front and two SP-EBS73-LRs in the surround positions.

Dolby has created two demo discs with Atmos trailers, shorts, and clips from movies with Atmos soundtracks—so far, this is the only Atmos content available on Blu-ray. I had seen the “Amaze” and “Leaf” trailers in various Atmos-equipped commercial cinemas, which are designed to take full advantage of the system’s capabilities, and both sounded quite good in the Pioneer demo room, which measures about 23 x 16 x 8 feet with acoustic treatments on the walls but not on the ceiling. Both trailers created a convincing hemispherical soundfield with subtle sounds of rain and forest, though it wasn’t quite as expansive as the commercial presentation—which isn’t surprising, given the huge discrepancy in the sizes of the rooms.

Also on these discs are several shorts, including a Red Bull-sponsored piece about Formula 1 racing and two animated shorts called “Silent” (an homage to the silent-film era with a Harold Lloyd-type character and his child sidekick) and “Conductor” (starring the same child as in “Silent,” this time as an orchestra conductor). I didn’t hear quite as much going on overhead in these shorts, I think partly because they were louder than the trailers, which tends to obscure the Atmos effect in my experience.

Andrew then played some 2-channel music, saying he designed the speakers first to sound good with music, as he always does. He played WAV files from a MacBook Pro via USB to the SC-89 in Stream Direct mode, which disables all processing; the AVR’s internal asynchronous DAC can accommodate data up to 32-bit/192 kHz. We started with the floorstanders (no subwoofer, no upfiring drivers). The first clip was from a 1963 recording (digitized at 16/44.1) of Peter, Paul, and Mary doing “All My Trials” with acoustic guitars and stand-up bass, which sounded gorgeous with every voice and instrument clearly delineated. The next track was “Dimming of the Day” from Tom Jones’ new back-to-his-blues-roots album and downloaded from HDTracks, which sounded a bit harsh to my ears, but that might easily be the recording. Finally, we listened to a bit of “Almost Blue” by Diana Krall; the vocal sounded great, but I thought the piano was a bit congested, especially in the upper bass.

Before we left, Andrew swapped out the floorstanders for the SP-EBS73-LRs (again, no sub or upfiring drivers), and we listened to Lyle Lovett sing “Good Intentions,” which sounded nice and open with rich vocal texture. We ended with the same Diana Kralltrack as before, which sounded much the same, though perhaps a bit less bloated in the upper bass.

Overall, I’m very impressed with Pioneer’s Atmos-enabled speakers, which sound wonderful—as they should, since they are quite a bit more expensive than the company’s more budget-oriented yet highly regarded Andrew Jones-designed speakers. The SP-EFS73 floorstanders are $700 each, the SP-EBS73-LR bookshelves are $750/pair, the SP-EC73 center-channel is $400, and the SW-E10 subwoofer is $600, so a 5.1.4 system with floorstanders in front will set you back $3150, or you could go with four bookshelf models in the front and rear for $2500.

But you’re getting a lot more in the new models—a 3-way design with a new concentric driver for the mids and highs that is also used as the upfiring driver, new aluminum-cone bass drivers, new crossovers, and a significantly more powerful subwoofer. Plus, with an Atmos-capable AVR or pre/pro—and a flat, reflective ceiling—you get to experience the latest in truly immersive movie sound at home. As Martha Stewart would say, that’s a good thing.