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Commentary Home Entertainment

Move over, THX: The new Imax Enhanced certification is coming soon to your home theater

Analysis: Imax Enhanced gear and content is on its way. Here’s what that means for you.

Imax

Anyone who's been to the movies in the past 10 years knows Imax. The format delivers today's blockbusters in stunning crystal-clear, giant-screen presentations -- for a higher ticket price, of course.

Now, the company wants to bring a version of that cinema experience home. It's joined forces with DTS for Imax Enhanced, a new certification and remastering program that, according to the company, aims to "offer consumers a new level of quality in immersive sight and sound experiences for the home."

This is not a new format per se. All Imax Enhanced-certified gear will work with non-Imax Enhanced gear. Imax Enhanced software will play on non-Imax Enhanced gear. This is also not a new HDR or surround format. Instead, certified products will work together when showing special Imax Enhanced content, to supply what they claim to be improved picture and sound performance.

That improved content and gear is what separates Imax Enhanced from similar certifications, like THX Certifed, and to a lesser extent, Netflix.

Since Sony and Paramount have already signed on to produce content, and Sony and Sound United (parent company of Denon, Marantz, Polk and others) have announced products, this isn't an empty announcement. It's already happening.

The question is, do you need it?

Differently mastered

Based on initial demos and discussions, it seems the biggest difference with Imax Enhanced over competing certifications is the content itself. It will be 4K and HDR (though almost certainly HDR10 not Dolby Vision). Audio will be a "special variant" of DTS:X. There are two main ways Imax Enhanced content is potentially different from the non-Enhanced version of the same.

The first is video noise. Because Imax screens are typically larger and brighter than other cinemas, the company developed special noise reduction tech to make the image cleaner. This additional noise reduction would be on the special Imax  Enhanced version of the content, which would likely be a separate version available for download or purchase. I saw a demonstration of this at the recent Cedia Expo, and the "Enhanced" version had visibly less video noise (aka "grain").

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The four pillars of Imax Enhanced: "Remastered" video, a different aspect ratio, a special DTS:X soundtrack and Imax-exclusive content (documentaries, largely).

Imax

The other way is the aspect ratio. Most Hollywood blockbusters are in the very wide 2.4:1 aspect ratio. Imax movies are typically taller, 1.9:1 or even 1.43:1. The Imax  Enhanced version would be that ratio or close to it, presuming it was shot with Imax in mind originally. This is, to quote Imax, "not pan and scan." The Imax Enhanced more square-ish aspect ratio would show more of the image that was originally shot, but was cropped out of the 2.4:1 theatrical release version. Whether this is truly "better" is certainly worthy of debate. Personally I, and it seems most of Hollywood, find the wide 2.4:1 aspect ratio more "cinematic," but there are certainly directors who disagree.

Imax is adamant that both of these changes would be done only with the director's approval. The company won't reduce noise/grain or change the aspect ratio for Imax Enhanced content without working with the director.

So my question is, if the director wanted that aspect ratio and lack of "grain," why didn't they do it for the main theatrical release? There's nothing that says a movie has to be 2.4:1. Most aren't. Nearly every movie is shot digitally, so the amount of noise/grain in an image is largely a stylistic choice at this point. So I'm not sure I agree with Imax calling this content "remastered." "Differently mastered" seems more accurate.

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Imax

Regardless, this Imax Enhanced content is different. And if that difference is marketed as "filling your TV screen," it's going to get a lot of enthusiastic support. The lack, or reduction, of grain/noise will likely be welcomed as well. So the question becomes, how much more will the Imax version be? That we don't yet know. Personally, I don't think it's worth any additional money, but I'd be shocked if it's the same price.

Hardware

Companies will submit their higher-performing gear to get certified. It will need to pass some as-yet unannounced performance criteria to claim Imax Enhanced compatibility. Expect to see TVs, projectors, receivers and other A/V gear.

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The Imax Enhanced logo, along with some of Sony's other "Top Features" for the Imax Enhanced-certified X900F series

Sony

Said gear will have an Imax mode. Once you start playing Imax Enhanced software, either via disc or streaming, the gear will switch to the Imax mode. This will be picture and sound settings Imax engineers have determined that make that piece of gear perform its best. So, for example, switching to the TV's Cinema setting, the receiver to its DTS mode and so on. It's unclear if these settings will be accessible without the Imax Enhanced software.

imax-enhanced-blurb-on-sony

Sony's Imax Enhanced explanatory blurb. I feel like this family is watching four different things.

Imax

Imax @ home?

Imax does have some solid name recognition, so at least on that front the nascent certification is in good shape. The question is if consumers will really buy into this "Imax ecosystem" the company is pushing so hard. I don't feel the Imax marketing team has made the case strongly enough that you, the Imax enthusiast, really needs Imax Enhanced gear to get the whole experience.

Would an Imax Enhanced receiver really offer any additional performance over THX Certified receiver? Probably not. It would probably come down to the differences in the brands and units themselves. Same with displays. There's not some untapped well of performance Imax engineers can delve into for this. The Imax Mode could have settings that perhaps look better than the TV does out of the box, but that's hardly revolutionary, and something you could do yourself.

So most likely, the Imax Enhanced badge on gear will be a shorthand, like the THX logo, that the product has a certain level of performance. Not a guarantee it's the best in the category, but likely one of the better options. As far as that goes, fine.

The Imax software is more of an unknown. We'll have to see what these titles look like, and how much additional they cost, to judge if it's worth it.

There's more information on the Imax Enhanced website.

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