The fact that these new wireless headphones are emblazoned with the Dolby logo does not, at first blush, seem like a big whoop. After all, countless products have incorporated Dolby technologies and promoted that usage, making its name a sort of shorthand for a premium audio—and, more recently, visual—experience.
But if you examine these Dolby Dimension headphones carefully, you’ll see that they carry only the familiar Dolby “double D.” That’s because they’re something new: a consumer product designed and marketed by Dolby itself. For the first time, the brand and the tech it represents are front and center, not just ingredients in some other company’s offering.
The Dimension headphones—which are optimized for delivering quality sound while you watch video at home on a TV, a tablet, or a phone—are ambitious in multiple ways. Yet it’s also clear that Dolby isn’t trying too hard to shake up the category it’s entering. They’ll sell for $599–a head-snapper of a price in a market where product lines from even higher-end brands such as Bose and Beats top out at $400. And at least at first, they’ll be available only from Dolby itself and (starting on December 1) at B8ta, a small chain of retail gadget showcases. Even if they’re a success, they probably won’t strike fear into the hearts of other manufacturers. Which is just as well for Dolby, since it provides technology to many of those companies and wouldn’t want to turn them into adversaries.
When I ask Dolby CEO Kevin Yeaman why Dolby decided to get into the consumer electronics game on its own, he doesn’t go out of his way to sell it as a landmark moment. Over the company’s history, “we’ve primarily applied our innovation to highly produced content and complex ecosystems,” he says matter-of-factly. “But we believe that this very same innovation can be applied to bring even more value to the world. And in some cases that’s going to mean us bringing something directly to market ourselves. You could imagine it being an app or a service or a product. In this case it’s a product.”
More specifically, it’s a product in a field that already bristles with competition and doesn’t obviously cry out for yet another entrant. Which is why Dolby worked hard to ensure that its headphones aren’t just more of the same.
In the beginning
Founded by audio engineer Ray Dolby in 1965, Dolby Laboratories initially focused on technologies for the professional market but morphed into a consumer brand by the early 1970s. Its noise-reduction technology minimized the hissing sound that was at the time a significant downside of music recorded on cassette tapes. That helped cassettes establish themselves as a credible medium at a time when purists still favored vinyl or even reel-to-reel tape.
In 1970, a Popular Science article explained that cassette decks with Dolby noise reduction cost about $100 more than equivalent decks sans Dolby. The magazine said the extra cost for what it called “the Dolby” was well worth it—if you were a discerning audiophile with a serious hi-fi system. (Its caution was presumably explained in part by the fact that $100 in 1970 dollars was the equivalent of about $650 today.)
Making cassettes sound better was not a business destined to matter forever. But Dolby deftly extended its expertise in audio in ways that helped consumer-electronics manufacturers, Hollywood, and the music industry make entertainment better. For instance, Dolby Stereo debuted in movie theaters with A Star Is Born—the 1976 Streisand version, that is—and got a big boost a year later when it helped make Star Wars an entertainment phenomenon. Its descendant, Dolby Atmos, uses far more sophisticated technology to create immersive audio that doesn’t require an infinite number of speakers to make movie watchers feel like they’re surrounded by sound.
Today, Atmos is available in variants for both theaters and home use. So is Dolby Vision, the company’s technology for high-dynamic range visuals with deep blacks, vivid colors, and lots of contrast. Both Atmos and Vision are part of Dolby Cinema, a turnkey experience currently available on 180 screens around the world, including ones at 100-plus AMC theaters in the U.S.
The company doesn’t just take charge of a Dolby Cinema’s audio/visual system; it even specs elements such as the seating, which provides both cushy comfort and a clear line of sight to the screen. “Historically we had always just sold products into screening rooms,” says Yeaman, who happens to be presenting to me, an audience of one, in the Dolby Cinema at the company’s San Francisco headquarters. “With Dolby Cinema, we wanted to ensure a higher quality of experience.” In effect, each Dolby Cinema is a giant Dolby-conceived product. And the new Dimension headphones spring from a similar desire to bear full responsibility for what the venerable brand means.
Though Dolby built its business by licensing intellectual property to others, it’s not an utter newbie when it comes to creating what Steve Jobs used to call “the whole widget.” Since 2010, the company has offered reference monitors—ultra-industrial-strength displays for professional content creators. It also now sells a speaker phone and videoconferencing equipment designed for corporate use.
As Dolby began to think about the headphones that became Dolby Dimension, it surveyed the headphone market as it stood, encompassing everything from dinky earbuds to huge, honking, over-the-ear cans. Most products skewed toward a particular use-case scenario: travel, sports, or music. Dolby, with its long experience providing technology to make entertainment sound and look better at home, gravitated toward a niche that seemed like an opportunity: in-home listening to movies and TV shows.
In the early days of in-home video streaming, consumers were smitten with the ability to call up a movie on demand and didn’t seem to be that fussy about how it looked and sounded. “What I would often hear is, ‘Kevin, the world has chosen convenience over quality,'” says Yeaman. But the experience you can expect when watching a movie over the internet has steadily improved, and Dolby has played its part. Apple TV, for instance, now supports both Atmos and Vision, and Netflix offers an ever-increasing catalog of movies and shows enhanced by Dolby technologies. That gave the company confidence that there might be a market for headphones aimed at people who like to binge-stream and care about the audio aspect of what they’re watching.
Then there’s the fact that video watching has become increasingly less communal, even when it’s done in the living room. By way of explanation, Dolby VP of new products Ariel Fischer shows me a stock photo of a wholesome family watching TV together from a comfy white sofa.
“They’re all happy and they all agreed that at the very specific time of day they’re going to be sitting together in front of the big screen and agreeing to watch the same piece of content,” he says. “We love it. We just have one major problem with it. It’s not today’s reality.” In the real world, some of those family members might be fixated on their own smartphones or tablets—even if everybody’s hanging out in the living room together. Suddenly, the notion of using headphones for private listening to a movie on a 55-inch flat-screen doesn’t sound like such an improbable scenario.
Dimension’s emphasis on at-home listening starts with the way you keep them charged. The left cup connects magnetically to a charging dock, leaving the right cup suspended in air by the headband and the whole affair looking a bit like a piece of curvy, avant-garde sculpture. The idea is that you’ll stow the headphones on the dock when not in use rather than throwing them in a backpack and forgetting to charge them until the battery is nearly depleted. (In the interest of versatility, the headphones do come with a carrying case, can be charged with a stock Micro USB cable, let you make and take phone calls, and are compatible with Siri and the Google Assistant; “home first, mobile second,” says Fischer.)
As you would expect, the Dimension headphones use active noice-cancellation technology to block out external distractions. More intriguingly, they acknowledge the fact that at home, you might not want to seal yourself off from your surroundings—especially if someone like a spouse or offspring wants your attention. A technology called LifeMix lets you choose to pump both the audio you’re consuming and ambient room noise into your ears simultaneously, allowing you to hear other folks clearly without tugging a headphone off one of your ears. You invoke LifeMix mode by double-tapping a touch surface on the right cup—which also lets you tap to pause playback and swipe to adjust volume—and can use Dolby’s smartphone app to adjust the blend of recorded and real-world sound to your taste.
Buttons on the edge of the right cup let you switch the headphones between three different Bluetooth-compatible devices—maybe a TV set-top box, tablet, and phone—and the app allows you to manage up to eight devices in total. Another feature, head tracking, is turned off by default. It detects when you’ve turned your head away from the screen and uses virtualization to keep the audio from feeling like it’s drifting with you—making the experience a bit more like you’d get from speakers, which stay put even if your ears don’t.
Yes, but how do they sound?
Full disclosure: I am in no way an audiophile. But I enjoyed auditioning Dolby’s headphones over a week and a half with several devices and a variety of content, at home and aboard a plane flight. The name “Dimension” nicely conveys the 3D-like quality of the sound they deliver. Their industrial design, crafted by an in-house Dolby team, is slick and comfortable, with soft surfaces rather than hard plastics; the touch controls work well.
In all, Dolby seems to have built exactly the headphones it set out to create. “It’s about . . . driving a new experience that’s staying core to what they do, which is great sound and great immersive experiences when it comes to content,” says analyst Carolina Milanesi of Creative Strategies.
Still, Dimension’s very uniqueness means it’s no sure thing. Less sophisticated wireless headphones designed for use with TVs have been around for a long time—I remember buying a pair circa the early 1990s—but remain something of an oddity. Dimension will only take off if consumers get their head around the concept of a pair of headphones designed to be enveloping, but—thanks to LifeMix—not necessarily isolating.
“It’s one of the challenges that we know we have to overcome,” acknowledges Fischer. Putting on a pair of headphones has long amounted to a signal that “I don’t want to talk to you or I need to focus on what I’m doing,” he says. “And we want to break the boundaries. Because at home, people don’t want life canceling.”
So is Dimension an experiment, or the first in a line of Dolby consumer-electronics products? “We’ll see where this takes us,” says Yeaman. For now, he adds, “our true north is the quality of the experience. And this is a proof point of our innovation.”