Dolby has done a solid job of convincing Hollywood to embrace Atmos, its two-year-old system for creating sound effects which come at the audience from every which way. For instance, such blockbusters and would-be blockbusters as Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, Edge of Tomorrow, Guardians of the Galaxy, Godzilla, How to Train Your Dragon 2, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and Transformers: Age of Extinction have all been released in Atmos mixes.
But even if you've seen any of those movies, it's far from a given that you heard them in Atmos. So far, fewer than 200 theater screens in North America are Atmos-ready.
Starting soon, however, you might be able to hear Atmos at home, or even on the go. Dolby is introducing versions of the technology designed for home theaters and mobile devices, and says that products based upon them will be available later this year. I got an audible sneak peek during a recent press event, which the company held at its San Francisco headquarters.
At first blush, it might sound like marketing overreach for Dolby to give the same name to audio technologies designed for personal use which it applies to a high-end movie-theater system that supports up to 64 loudspeakers, including ones built into the ceiling. But unlike previous audio formats dating all the way back to stereo, Atmos was never about a specific quantity or configuration of speakers.
Instead, the technology lets moviemakers work with object-oriented editing tools to precisely position sound effects in 3-D space, without worrying about exactly what sort of speaker setup will eventually be used to render the audio. The new home-theater and mobile versions of Atmos will use the same mixes originally created for theaters, not dumbed-down ones.
Which is not to say that they'll sound like movie-theater Atmos. In the demos Dolby provided at its event—which included some trailers the company produced itself as well as a clip from last year's Star Trek: Into Darkness—the versions played over the theater-grade Atmos system in Dolby's screening room were by far the gold standard. But the in-home and mobile ones sounded impressive, given the constraints they were working with.
If you've got a huge entertainment budget and aren't intimidated by the idea of ripping up your ceiling, you'll be able to install an at-home Atmos setup that resembles a scaled-down version of those in theaters, complete with overhead speakers. However, there will be a cheaper, simpler option: New Atmos-enabled speakers that sit on the floor and create an immersive effect by bouncing sound off the ceiling.
For home-theater Atmos, you'll also need an Atmos-ready receiver: Dolby says options should begin at around $1,000, and big manufacturers such as Denon, Marantz, Onkyo, and Pioneer have pledged support. The company is also working to get Atmos sound available on streaming services and Blu-ray releases. (You shouldn't need a new Blu-ray player, nor do any updates need to be made to the Blu-ray standard for it to accommodate an Atmos soundtrack.)
As for Atmos for mobile devices, it's designed to be listened to over headphones, not the teensy, tinny speakers built into phones and tablets. Like many earlier technologies, it fools your ears into thinking the sound that's being piped directly into them is emanating from all over. And when I listened—using the serious headphones which Dolby provided—it did indeed sound like some of the sound effects were ricocheting somewhere above my head.
Dolby, which has provided technology built into mobile devices from Acer, Lenovo, Microsoft, Samsung, and others, isn't saying where this portable variant of Atmos might show up. Amazon would be one logical partner: It already incorporates Dolby technologies in its Kindle Fire tablets and Fire phone, and operates its own video service which could presumably stream movies with Atmos sound.
It'll make the most sense to get excited over in-home and mobile Atmos once specific hardware which supports it gets announced—and it's clear that films which were mixed in Atmos for theatrical release will also be available in Atmos versions on streaming services and Blu-ray. In the meantime, if there's an Atmos-equipped movie theater near you, it's very much worth giving the technology a listen.
[Image: Flickr user Timothy Tolle]