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Atmos at a Theater Near You

October 1, 2014 | Comments

When you consider how advanced home entertainment technology has become over the past decade or so - from huge high-definition TVs that hang on the wall to multi-speaker surround sound systems that pull you into the story - it's no wonder commercial cinemas are always on the lookout for ways to step up their game.

In recent years, dine-in theaters and 3D or mega-screen IMAX events have gained popularity. Even so, home AV systems have gotten so good and options for content delivery so varied that many of us simply have no desire to leave the comfort of our easy chairs and drive to the local Cineplex. We'd just as soon wait for that latest blockbuster to hit Netflix.

Now there's a new theater technology in town called Dolby Atmos that Hollywood hopes will give us a new reason to leave Netflix behind and go out to the movies. Atmos aims to deliver a "powerful new listening experience" with sound that's even more realistic and enveloping than the best of today's Dolby Surround 7.1 theaters - like the Academy's (as in the Oscar awards folks) world-class Samuel Goldwyn Theater in Beverly Hills.

The goal is to give movie directors a new set of tools that gets them closer to realizing their cinematic vision on a large scale. The use of descriptive metadata embedded in the movie soundtrack - and additional speakers in the theater - gives the filmmaker more control over the placement and movement of sound around the audience so it matches onscreen action, and enables sound designers to integrate music and effects in a more natural way. Think of it as 3D sound.

The most distinctive feature of Atmos theaters is the use of multiple overhead speakers to quite literally heighten sonic realism. Additional speakers are also placed behind the screen and along the side walls to allow for more precise placement of sound.

Since the format was introduced in 2012, upwards of 120 movie theaters across the country are now equipped with Dolby Atmos, and by the end of 2014, well over 100 movies will have been produced using the technology. The list includes Frozen, Gravity, Noah, and Godzilla. Visit dolby.com to find the closest Atmos theater.

Atmos is working its way into the home, though some expense and effort is required for a proper setup. Then again, it's already possible to add "phantom" height channels to your home theater using the Dolby Pro Logic IIz and DTS Neo:X modes included in many of today's high-end AV receivers - those with nine or more channels.

But unlike Atmos, which calls for a series of speakers above the entire space, these consumer technologies use special processing to derive an additional two front height channels from existing program material. While more spacious than a standard 5.1 or 7.1 surround-sound system, the experience is not as lifelike and all-encompassing as what you get from an Atmos system, where sounds are actually coordinated with onscreen action.

To learn more about how you can up your home theater game, consult a CEDIA professional. Click here for a list of CEDIA-member home technology professionals in your area.