Dolby Atmos – Is This The Latest And Greatest?

Dolby Atmos

Just when you thought it was safe to settle in and enjoy your 5.1 or 7.1 surround system, the folks at Dolby are conjuring up more ways to make surround sound even more elaborate. Why? Home theaters have gotten incredibly good with big screen TVs and excellent sounding audio. Commercial movie theaters need new ways to attract the public by providing experiences that are different from those at home. Enter Dolby Atmos, a new way of doing surround sound.

Currently, when movie tracks are mixed, the elements of sound are assigned to specific speakers in either a 5 or 7 channel surround format. With Dolby Atmos, the elements are assigned to a specific spot in the theater. In the theater, up to 64 different speakers located in the front, back, sides and overhead receive the appropriate audio signal at the appropriate time. This is computed automatically. At home, if someone plays at Atmos movie with a conventional 7.1 or 5.1 system, the sounds are automatically distributed over the existing speakers.

The home version of Dolby Atmos is different. It starts with a 5.1 or 7.1 system and then additional ceiling speakers are added. Generally up to 4 ceiling speakers are used, 2 in the ceiling in the front of the room in a left and right position, and 2 in back of the room, left and right. If 4 ceiling speakers aren’t used, then 2 ceiling speakers can be used in the center of the room on the left and right sides. There’s also a solution for those who can’t install ceiling speakers. In this case, special front and rear speakers are used. These speakers have elements that aim the sound up towards the ceiling to bounce the sound back toward the listener. The ceiling would have to be flat (not vaulted) and have to be able to reflect sound. To me, this sounds “iffy.” Several manufacturers have announced Dolby Atmos compatible receivers with additional channels of amplification. So that means you will need a up to a 9 channel receiver for Dolby Atmos in a 5.1 system or up to 11 channels for an Atmos 7.1 or 7.2 system. Apparently, standard Blu-Ray players will be able to play Dolby Atmos soundtracks.

Is Dolby Atmos worthwhile? Last night I saw the movie The Equalizer in a Dolby Atmos theater (Regency in Agoura Hills, CA). This shoot-em-up starring Denzel Washington had quite a few sound effects; gunfire, explosions and the like. Overall, I thought the sound was excellent, but I’ve also made that comment about certain conventional movie theaters. Having multiple speakers on the sides of the room gave a great surround effect. However, I think that multiple speakers on the sides would also give a great effect with a conventional surround movie. I didn’t notice much benefit to the speakers in the ceiling. Did it seem like I was experiencing a new type of movie sound for the first time? In a word, no. Bottom line: the sound was great, but I’m not convinced it’s vital for the movie-going experience.

For the home, it will obviously benefit audio manufacturers and speaker companies like us. So far we haven’t experienced what the home version of Atmos will sound like. We’ll need to be convinced, before we can recommend it.

We’ve heard some initial opinions that the upward firing speakers under ideal conditions have a very limited “sweet spot”, meaning that numerous listening positions may not get the effect. Also, with in-ceiling speakers, there may be some localization issues if they are turned up too much or a person is sitting under them. It was also said that there seemed to be no benefit with non-Dolby Atmos movies. But again, we’ll have to evaluate it for ourselves and let you know.

Will Dolby Atmos catch on or will it be one those ideas that fails due to lack of public acceptance? We’ll get back to you on this in a future newsletter. In the meantime, if you’d like to learn more, Dolby has a white paper that you can download:
Dolby Atmos White Paper


How To Make Sure You're Getting True Surround From Your DirecTV Receiver


At our home, we have DirecTv. They broadcast many shows and movies in Dolby 5.1 surround. This enhances the viewing experience and in many cases, the surround audio is quite good. Normally, DirecTv receivers are not set by default to output Dolby surround. This may also be true for other cable and satellite services as well. However, we’ll confine the discussion here to DirecTv, since that’s what I’m most familiar with. If you have your satellite feeding your audio/video receiver through an HDMI cable or an optical cable and it never indicates that any program is in Dolby, chances are your satellite receiver isn’t set up correctly.

To check, first press ‘menu’ on your remote. Then, on the left side of your screen, scroll down and select “Settings & Help.” Arrow over to the right and press select on “Settings.” Then, on the left side of your screen, scroll down and select “Audio.” Then on the left side, select “Dolby Digital.” Then press select and you will see 2 choices: “Off” and “On.” Select “On” Then, press “exit.” Try watching some movies and your audio/video receiver should indicate “Dolby”, “Dolby Digital”, or “Dolby D.”

If you have a different TV service, you should consult the manual to determine how to set up your system for surround. If you don’t have your TV hooked up to a audio/video receiver, do not set your TV service for surround.


The Difference Between Music Speakers And Home Theater Speakers.

Music vs Home Theater Speakers

A question we’re often asked goes something like, “I see that your speakers are top rated for home theater use, but I listen to a lot of music. How good are they for music?”

The question implies that there is a difference between a great home theater speaker and a great music speaker. Here is how we typically answer this question:

When RSL started making speakers in 1970, home theater didn’t really exist. Our speakers were designed specifically for stereo. When we developed our current speakers, our goal was to make the ultimate, but affordable stereo music speaker system. All of the design work and refinements over the years led us to the concept of a 2.1 system, where there would be 2 smaller satellite speakers and a subwoofer. This concept has numerous advantages over large floorstanding speakers, which we covered in an earlier blog.

Once we finished the stereo design, we figured that it would be nice if people had the option of using these speakers for home theater. So, we added a center channel. That way, people could use 4 of our satellites, the center channel, and the subwoofer for a 5.1 system (or 6 satellites for a 7.1 system).

Although the system wasn’t specifically designed for home theater, we decided to submit it to the home theater magazines, just for fun. They went bananas over the system and gave us top ratings including “Top Picks of The Year.” This proves that building a reference quality speaker that offers extreme clarity and accuracy is just as relevant for music as it is for home theater.

If I had to point out any difference between music speakers and home theater speakers, I would say that the difference is often in the bass range. Movie soundtracks, with their explosions, crashes, etc. produce large amounts of the very lowest frequencies; some you hear and some you feel. Most music doesn’t contain as much of this low frequency content, the possible exceptions being pipe organs and synthesizers. Many subwoofers that are capable of handling the low frequency content of movies don’t do a good job on music due to their sloppy response. The RSL Speedwoofer 10 will not only handle the lowest bass frequencies in movies, but its Compression Guide tuning provides the type bass clarity for music that’s usually only found in the most expensive high end subwoofers.

Bottom line: There really shouldn’t be any difference between a home theater and a music speaker.


How To Listen To Stereo Music Over Home Theater Systems

Listening to stereo over HT

In addition to watching movies, most of our customers use their home theater systems for music as well. The source of music can be CDs, music over the Internet, iPhones, tablets, etc. Here are some of the ways to listen:

 Direct mode – some A/V receivers have a direct mode, which bypasses a lot of the circuitry in an attempt to provide the purest possible sound. This can be good for stereo listening provided that the subwoofer is not disabled (which some receivers do in direct mode).

Regular stereo – some receivers will allow you to just use your front left and right speakers along with your subwoofer for listening to stereo music, which is fine.

All channel stereo – some receivers offer and all channel stereo mode. In this situation, all of the music that would normally go to your left speaker will also go to your left side and rear speakers if you have them. Likewise, all of the music that would go to your right speaker will go to all of the speakers on the right half of your room. This mode is OK, but sometimes makes the imaging of individual instruments difficult to discern.

Synthesized DSP modes – many receivers offer synthetic surround modes, such as nightclub, Stadium, churches, concert Hall, etc. I don’t know why they include these. Nobody I’ve spoken to has ever liked the sound of these and we recommend that you do not use these artificial sounding modes.

Dolby Pro Logic – this is a method of extracting surround information from a two channel stereo source. It is not really synthesized and it can be useful. Many two channel recordings have out of phase information hidden within the recording. Dolby Pro Logic can retrieve this information and use it to provide a convincing surround experience. This is a mode that you should experiment with as some stereo recordings will benefit from it and others won’t. Pink Floyd’s Dark Side Of The Moon CD is an example of a recording that will can sound amazing with Dolby Pro Logic.

As always, if you have any questions, please either contact us or give us a call at 800-905-5485


The Important Role Of Acoustics In Your Home Theater


The importance of your room’s acoustic cannot be overemphasized! In college, I was working part time as a DJ at a local radio station. The studio walls and ceiling were covered in white acoustical tiles with little holes in them. You may have seen them in photos of radio and TV studios of the past. The sound system in this studio was not nearly as good as the one I had in my dorm room. I couldn’t figure out why. The dorm room was not carpeted and in combination with the bare walls sound pretty echoey. One day I brought my speakers into the studio and hooked them up. The difference was night and day!

Since that time I have heard mediocre audio systems in rooms with great acoustical properties and high end systems in terrible acoustical environments. I would always prefer the sound of the mediocre system in the room with better acoustics.

To generalize, items that help a room’s acoustical properties include carpeting, stuffed furniture, wall treatments such as drapes and any other items that absorb sound and keep it from bouncing from wall to wall or ceiling to floor. The shape of the room will also have an effect on acoustics. Parallel walls will increase reverberation.

In the past the only way to improve a room’s acoustics was to change its shape or the way it is furnished or decorated, which for many people wasn’t practical. There really hasn’t been any electronic gadget that could tame a room’s reverberation until now. With the introduction of Audyssey room correction, all that’s changed.

We recently had an unusual situation where a home theater system didn’t sound good due to the room’s bad acoustics. This was a giant room with almost no furniture, a hardwood floor, thin window treatments and a vaulted ceiling. The room opened into another room with similar characteristics. We hooked up an AV receiver that had one of the best versions of Audyssey room correction (This one was an Integra, but Audyssey can be found in several popular brands of AVRs). Our jaws dropped! All of a sudden, this was a great sounding system. It sounded full and three-dimensional.

A good room correction circuit can make all the difference in the world when it comes to sound. There are different brands of room correction that come with different A/V receivers. So far, our favorite has been the Audyssey. Audyssey makes different levels of room correction circuits. Obviously, the more expensive receivers have the better versions. If your room acoustics are very challenging you should consider an AV receiver with a better Audyssey room correction circuit. If you’d like to discuss your acoustics, give us a call at 800-905-5485.


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