Whether you call it "immersive audio" or the more nebulous "object-based audio," there is a new type of surround sound coming to a home theater near you. It's designed to let you feel closer to the action than before with the help of height channels, which just like the name indicates, are speakers shooting sound upwards.
However, like most everything in the world of electronics, immersive audio is in the throes of a format war between the two competing standards: Dolby Atmos and DTS:X. Dolby Atmos is well-established and quickly becoming the "Kleenex" of immersive. But just like Android versus iPhone or PlayStation versus Xbox, the default choice isn't always the best one for everyone. DTS:X also has its benefits.
A little history
When it comes to the next generation of surround sound, DTS knows it's behind its competitor. Appearing in cinemas since 2012,has also been increasingly popping up in people's homes in new AV receivers and Blu-rays. And until now, it hasn't had any real competition.
In April 2015, DTS outlined its competing object-based audio standard, DTS:X, and now the format is finally ready for the mainstream. Software updates for compatible AV receivers combined with a handful of DTS:X-encoded Blu-ray discs means that people can finally hear its immersive soundtrack format. But it's still David to Dolby's Goliath.
So what is DTS doing to close the gap? What discs or hardware can support the format? Are there any major differences between the two? We visited the headquarters of DTS in Calabasas, California, to find out.
Why object-based audio?
Object-based audio soundtracks promise improved surround imaging compared with current Dolby Digital, DTS, Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD Master Audio formats found on many TV shows and movies today. The idea is to create a bubble of sound by using dedicated height channels -- in essence, either speakers bouncing sound off the ceiling -- or better still, speakers directly mounted up there. Both DTS:X and Dolby Atmos soundtracks are available on standard Blu-ray discs, as well as the newer 4K versions.
Rather than requiring cinemas and home users to install a set number of channels, object-based soundtracks are more akin to a globe as opposed to the "five points on a map" of a traditional 5.1 mix. Object-based cinema soundtracks consist of a rendering in 3D space made of "objects", up to 128 for Atmos and unlimited for DTS:X, which are designed to adapt to whatever speakers are in a cinema in real time.
Although there is no "standard" theater, cinemas are typically subject to a system known as the X-curve. Unfortunately, this can't be directly translated to the home, so a cinema soundtrack can be too "harsh" when listened to in a home environment. Engineers spend a lot of time and money remixing soundtracks for home video release.
"The promise and the hope of the industry is that this object-based approach will eventually result in simplifying some of those issues," said Fred Maher, senior engineer at DTS.
Producing movie soundtracks is a cutthroat business, and engineers are subject to increasing time crunches. They may have as little as a weekend to produce a cinema-ready mix.
"Mix facilities are really concentrated on cost and speed now, more than ever, so being able to drop something in and produce a publishable mix quickly is their number one concern," said David McIntyre, senior vice president of corporate strategy, standards and business development at DTS.
In the early days of Blu-ray, the uncompressed soundtrack (PCM, or pulse-code modulation) was often included on the disc. This was joined by Dolby TrueHD and much later DTS-HD Master Audio, which promised "lossless" audio quality that sounded as good as something truly uncompressed. But as soundtracks became more complex, and as video features like 3D, 4K and "deep color" ate up more space, there was no way to include uncompressed audio any longer.
"You wouldn't be able to put that on a disc in a meaningful way. So DTS:X and the other formats are designed to get that on a disc in a way that works," said McIntyre.
Same compression, different costs
With current surround formats DTS and Dolby, it's tough to say which one is objectively better. Some audiophiles, such as our own Steve Guttenberg, prefer DTS because of its typically higher bit rates. McIntyre says that word of mouth is also an important factor. "You know there's also the marketing element, it's always a key part."
While McIntyre acknowledges that both DTS:X and Dolby Atmos offer the same amount of compression, he claims cost savings to the studios is one of its most attractive features. He says it takes less time to produce a DTS:X mix than an Atmos one. Its implementation is also simpler, as it only involves a plug-in to the most popular mixing software, Pro Tools.
"Immersive mixing is still relatively new in general," said Bill Neighbors, general manager of pro audio at DTS. "Us having a plug-in tool as opposed to a hardware- and software-based one is very interesting to our clients."
The DTS facility at Calabasas, where the format was announced to the press in 2015, is home to several mixing stages used for mixing movie soundtracks, in addition to education and research.
We got a hands-on with the tool, which is a compass-like ball controlled with a mouse. It was fun zooming around the main mixing stage at DTS. If one is feeling adventurous, all of the channels get their own tool, but 128 or more effects whizzing around the room at once is likely to make an audience confused or worse.
What you'll need to hear DTS:X
Dolby Atmos had a three-year drop on DTS:X by announcing in 2012, but the good news is that most new equipment, save at least one sound bar, is designed to decode both formats. Both work in a similar fashion: They map sound effects or "objects" in 3D space and decoded them in a way that's optimized for your setup.
Both formats need speakers with height channels, or at least add-on speakers like the $200 Pioneer SP-T22A-LR, which are designed to sit atop existing speakers and fire upward. You'll also need a new AV receiver that can actually support the formats. Many new receivers are billed as "DTS:X-ready," meaning they need a firmware update to play the format.
One thing you won't need is a new Blu-ray player. If your disc spinner can output Dolby TrueHD or DTS-HD, the previous generation surround formats, you're already set.
You bought a DTS:X ready receiver; when will you get it?
While many 2015 receivers that bore the Dolby Atmos logo also carried DTS:X, it's taken some time for firmware updates to become available. Jordan Miller, DTS' director of global communications, says updates are currently in the hands of the hardware manufacturers.
DTS:X was announced in April 2015, but it took until February 2016 for the first receivers to receive updates. At the time of writing, the products which have been issued DTS:X firmware include:
- Denon's AVR-X4200W, AVR-X6200W, AVR-X7200W plus Marantz's SR6010, SR7010 and AV8802A. The eight remaining receivers from Denon and Marantz will receive DTS:X support by the end of 2016.
- All of Yamaha's DTS:X-compatible receivers, in addition to the YSP-5600 soundbar.
- Onkyo has announced that its 2015 and 2016 models, including the TX-NR646, are now able to decode DTS:X. In addition, Onkyo-owned Pioneer says that its compatible receivers will be eligible to upgrade in fall 2016.
Which discs can you buy?
The first disc to be announced was the moody sci-fi thriller "Ex Machina" in July 2015. Since then the number has appreciated by about one a month.
As of September 2016 there are 16 titles available:
- American Ultra
- Crimson Peak
- Daddy's Home
- Divergent (UHD)
- Ex Machina
- Gods of Egypt (BD and UHD)
- Huntsman's Winter's War (BD and UHD)
- Independence Day (UHD)
- Ip Man 3
- Last Witch Hunter (BD and UHD)
- London Has Fallen
- Lone Survivor (UHD)
- Snow White & the Huntsman (UHD)
- The Big Short
- Whiskey Tango Foxtrot
- Zoolander 2
Meanwhile Dolby Atmos had more than 50 titles (not including 4K Blu-ray and streaming titles) which includes disks such as "Mad Max: Fury Road," "American Sniper," "Game of Thrones" and "The Hunger Games: Mockingjay -- Part 1" and "Part 2".
DTS admits that it has a long way to go if it wants to catch up to Dolby's Atmos. But the company seems to be content to share the stage with its competitor this time around.
"Right now there's some good stuff in the marketplace that our competitor has done, so they're out ahead," McIntyre said. "Will we get back to the 80 or 90 percent? I'd love to. But we don't have to, and I'm comfortable with a healthy balance in the marketplace."
While McIntyre said he could envision studios producing mixes for both DTS:X and Dolby Atmos, Jordan Miller says that due to space constraints only one of the formats will fit on a disc at once. By comparison, many existing discs carry both DTS-HD Master Audio and Dolby TrueHD formats.
The object-based surround future
Given that many receivers support both DTS:X and Dolby Atmos, it's not likely we'll get a"format war" scenario where we have to choose one format or the other. While some enthusiasts seek out discs based on which audio format it supports, most of us will just buy the movie we want to watch and listen to the default format.
While the lack of momentum, and lack of discs, has been a little frustrating for DTS fans, owners of compatible receivers and height-enabled speakers are finally able to hear the format as intended. All we need now are some more exciting titles.
Editors' note: This story was originally published on May 29, 2016, but has since been updated to reflect additional hardware and software releases for DTS:X and Dolby Atmos.