Poll: Is Now Too Soon to Upgrade to Dolby Atmos?

I, for one, am very excited about the recent introduction of Dolby Atmos surround sound on Blu-ray. I’ve been making plans to upgrade my A/V receiver to an Atmos model, and have taken some preliminary steps to prepare my home theater room. However, rumblings that new competing sound formats may be available next year make me hesitate. Is this a bad time to upgrade? Would it be smarter to wait another year?

The first Atmos equipment hit the market a couple months ago, and thus far the only available Blu-ray with an Atmos soundtrack is ‘Transformers: Age of Extinction‘. (Technically, that’s two titles if you count the 2D and 3D editions separately.) A few more movies with Atmos tracks have been announced for the near future (‘The Expendables 3’, ‘Hercules’, ‘Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles’ and ‘Step Up All In’), but none that excite me very much. From the perspective of content availability, we’re still in the very early days. Jumping in so soon seems perhaps a bit hasty.

On the other hand, I’m confident that more Atmos Blu-rays will be announced soon. Over 100 movies have existing Atmos theatrical soundtracks that could be ported to disc. (I’d kill for ‘Gravity’ in 3D with Atmos!) Atmos receivers also have the ability to upmix standard 5.1 or 7.1 soundtracks to the greater number of speaker channels through the Dolby Surround decoder, and I’ve heard a lot of encouraging reports about the quality of that.

Yet now Barco intends to bring its Auro-3D 13.1 sound format to the home. At the same time, DTS is rumored to introduce its own Atmos-like, object-based sound format called DTS-UHD sometime in 2015.

Honestly, I’m not overly concerned about Barco’s product. Auro-3D is basically an also-ran format in cinemas and I don’t expect it to gain much traction on home video. DTS, however, is a major player on Blu-ray with a lot of firmly-established Hollywood studio ties. A new DTS format could be a very big deal.

But has Dolby gotten the jump on DTS this time? With Atmos already available, has DTS missed its window? Can the market really support two very similar object-based sound formats? I don’t have any answers to questions like these.

Upgrading an A/V receiver is an expensive proposition and a big hassle. If I buy into Atmos now, I don’t want to have to repeat the process all over again next year to get DTS-UHD. Could current Atmos receivers be upgraded by firmware to support DTS-UHD if it becomes available? Maybe, but I doubt that we can count on that happening.

In short, I’m torn in this decision. I have the upgrade itch big-time and don’t know if I can wait another year for a new format that may or may not even happen.

What are your plans, if any?

Is Now Too Soon to Upgrade to Dolby Atmos?

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34 comments

    • Josh Zyber
      Author

      Object-based sound formats like Atmos or (presumably) DTS-UHD should be very flexible in terms of speaker placement. During set-up, the decoder figures out where your speakers are and then maps sounds to them based on where the sound objects are supposed to be located in the room.

  1. rahjelli

    I’ve upgraded to an Onkyo Atmos receiver (TX-NR838), and will be adding the 2 Onkyo Atmos set top speakers to my existing Klipsch 7.1 setup, so I think it’s worth the cost effective upgrade to be future proof.

  2. Ramzy

    Upgrading to Atmos isn’t cheap to me. Replacing an AVR or processor along with adding 4 speakers is going to be costly. I’m waiting to see how mainstream it becomes. I need to justify the cost and a niche market isn’t enough for me. Otherwise, I think I’d be better served with spending that money on something like a new display, amp, seating, etc.

  3. T.J. Kats

    Voted wait and see but that’s more just because I don’t have the money as opposed to truly being concerned with what DTS does. The plus is by the time I will have the money to justify the receiver and extra speakers we should know more about what DTS is doing and have receivers that can support it.

  4. I love where these new sound formats are going, but I’d rather wait it out. In some ways dts may have an advantage because they may have found ways to improve this object based surround. Would it be too much to ask for a receiver that decodes both? I also would hate a “surround format war”. We don’t need anything like that. Remember the early days of DVD when you had to buy another DVD just for dts? I would hate for that to happen. I think waiting it out for things to be more firmly established would be wisest for me. I am super excited about it though!

    • William Henley

      Were there any discs that were DTS only? Maybe I just didn’t notice, I think DVD players had built-in DTS decoders

      • Sort of. I bought Saving Private Ryan dts DVD. The only Dolby option was prologic or stereo. My Jurassic Park dts discs would drop some bonus features ( maybe to free up disc space?). Possibly the 5.1 dd tracks. My Virus dts disc is missing some bonus features.

      • Josh Zyber
        Author

        DTS was an optional format on DVD. All DVD discs were required to include either a Dolby Digital or PCM soundtrack, regardless of whether DTS was additionally included on top of that. (PCM was limited to 2 channels on DVD.)

          • Josh Zyber
            Author

            The features were probably omitted to fit the DTS track on the disc. Or it could have just been a cheap marketing ploy to con people into buying both copies – one for the bonus features and another for the DTS sound.

        • William Henley

          That is what I thought, but I was not 100% certain.

          As far as CSM’s comment about dropping bonus features, many of the DTS Movie discs I remember were also Superbits. But DTS on DVD is 1.5Mbps versus DD’s 640kbps (many were encoded 512kbps or even 320kbps), so a DTS audio track could easily be over a gig in size, versus a few hundred meg for the DD file. With a disc only able to hold 9 gig, and with superbit increasing video bitrates to 6-8Mbps from the 3-5 Mbps in earlier discs, yeah, bonus features were dropped.

          • William Henley

            Doesn’t surprise me – full bitrate Dolby Digital was rarely used. But even at 754kbps, that is still about twice what many DVDs were encoded at. (I think bitrates are 128, 256, 320, 448, 512 and 640, and I think most encoded stereo at 256 and surround was usually encoded at 320 or 448). So you are still talking about a file that is about twice the size of a Dolby Digital file, and this was in addition to having to include a Dolby Digital track.

            Yeah, if you encode a movie at 3-4Mbps and throw in an audio track of 320kbps, you can fit about 3 hours of video onto a DVD (and fit about 4 if you dropped your video bitrate to about 2.5 Mbps, which some movies did). Your audio file for a single track would be about 300 meg. However, if you have a DTS and a Dolby Digital track, your audio tracks are going to be about a gig in size even at the half-bitrate DTS that Sony used. Increase your bitrate to 6-8Mbps, and you are at about 2-3 hours of video on a disc. So pretty much, on a Superbit, you would have room for your movie, a Dolby Digital track and DTS track, and not much else. You might be able to throw couple of trailers on the disc, and maybe an audio commentary if you chose to encode it at 128 or 256kbps, but pretty much, anything else would either have to be dropped or put on a second disc.

            I still have issues when I author DVDs, trying to decide how much I can let the quality slip before it becomes unbearable. DVD Recorders say you can get 120 minutes on a DVD-R. I usually aim for about 3 hours, although I can push 4 hours at low quality.

      • There are tons of Blu-rays that have only DTS-HD MA and no TrueHD. (I’d guess 80% of the title I own). Dolby they admitted they dropped the ball on the mastering software so studios went with DTS for most titles.

        Given that ATMOS seems to be leading by a long way in the theaters and titles are coming out, I thing DTS will be an also ran. I’m prepared to take the plunge and upgrade my AVR and buy overhead speakers. If I had a 5 figure budget for an AVR, Aura may be an interest, but I don’t.

        • Josh Zyber
          Author

          Word now is that Denon’s new receivers will be upgraded to support Auro-3D with a firmware update in the next few months. Since DTS doesn’t even have a new format finalized yet, support for that may be unlikely.

          • Josh Zyber
            Author

            Denon has confirmed that this year’s Atmos receivers will be able to support Auro-3D with a firmware update available in December. However, there will be an upgrade fee for the firmware (pricing to be determined). Even after December, Auro-3D will be considered an add-on upgrade. It will not come standard in the receivers.

          • How will this Auro work? What discs, if any, would carry this or is it a streaming thing? Who’s excited about it? Have they been around a long time? In a nutshell, what the fuck is it?

          • Josh Zyber
            Author

            Auro-3D is a 13.1 sound format that has been available in theaters for a couple years now. The first movie with an Auro sound mix was Red Tails. Auro-3D is similar to Atmos in that it uses a layer of ground-level speakers plus a layer of overhead speakers above them. The main difference is that, in a full 13.1 configuration, Auro incorporates a “Voice of God” channel directly centered overhead, whereas the Atmos overhead speakers typically run along the sides of the room. Also, Auro-3D is not an object-based sound format. It uses traditional discrete channels.

            Only a relatively small number of movies have been mixed into Auro-3D, but the processor has the ability to “upmix” standard 5.1 and 7.1 soundtracks. (So does the Atmos processor.)

            If Auro-3D is being rolled out to the home market, I have to assume that Barco (the company behind it) has secured some deals to bring movies with the format to Blu-ray. How many this will be is undetermined. I expect that it will be a small niche.

            Nonetheless, it’s nice to know that Atmos receivers (at least those from Denon) can be upgraded to support Auro-3D should you want it.

  5. William Henley

    There really wasn’t an appropriate option for me – I took the “wait and see” option, but that doesn’t fit really at all. I WILL upgrade to Atmos, but it won’t be soon, I am looking at probably 2-3 years – ie, wait for more support to come out and wait for prices to fall, and to see if any new features come out (next reciever I buy had better support HDMI 2). However, I will probably go ahead and start picking up discs with Atmos soundtracks. I usually start buying content for future hardware months if not years in advance. I owned 3 DVDs before I bought my first DVD player, 2 Blu-Rays before I bought my PS3, two NES games before I bought my NES, and probably 2 dozen DTS DVDs before I had a receiver that could decode them. Usually, I start buying content for something around October or November, then buy the hardware in like march when Tax Returns arrive. But with Atmos, I do not plan to upgrade before 2016

    • Josh Zyber
      Author

      “There really wasn’t an appropriate option for me.” There never is, William. There never is. 🙂

      However, the “I’m taking a wait-and-see approach for at least another year or more.” option seems to be about a 99% match.

      • William Henley

        LOL, the point is, I am not waiting to see if hte format is going to take off, I am waiting for prices to drop. I knew in 1998 that I was going to go to HDTV, but it was not until 2006 that prices dropped to a point I could afford one. Now with Atmos, I COULD upgrade in the next couple of months, but I would have almost nothing to run on it. Might as well just wait until early 2016 – prices will drop and there will be more content available.

        I assume the “wait and see” option is for people who are on the fence about it.

        Very few things am I an early adopter on (Blu-Ray being the exception), but it is not because I am waiting to see what is going to happen with the technology, it is because I am waiting for prices to come down.

  6. Do you think it could be possible with 4k discs supposedly coming out next year, that one of these surround formats would become exclusive to 4k discs? Maybe to get the ball rolling on UHD?

    • William Henley

      Exclusive to 4k disks? That sounds like it could be death to said audio format. This isn’t like when Blu-Ray came out and DVD didn’t have the space or bandwidth for HD audio – there is plenty of room on a Blu-Ray for that. 4k is going to be such a niche market that I don’t see one being exclusive to 4k

      • I sure as hell hope not, but I’ve grown paranoid about companies trying to strong arm consumers into something. Bluray exclusive features are a good example. I hope it doesn’t happen, but wouldn’t be surprised.

        • William Henley

          Well, 4k exclusive features, I can see. But to have a sound format be exclussive to 4k, you are talking about taking one niche market and making it dependant on something that is even more of a niche market. That is horrible marketing, and not something you want to do to gain market acceptance.

          Besides, Dobly Atmos is already on Blu-Ray. How short sited would a company like DTS have to be if they are going to wait even longer for 4k to become availabe?

  7. Chapz Kilud

    The cheapest Dolby Atmos receiver is Onkyo TX-NR636 which is on sale right now for $599 with a $100 gift card from Amazon. But I don’t see Dolby Atmos becoming mainstream. How many people live in homes with home theater spacious enough to accommodate the extra speaker placements? We’re getting into similar situation with 4K TV where very few people can buy the 70″ or 80″ TV that will make 4K matter at normal distance.

    The bright side is this technology started off with reasonable price, and there are already Dolby Atmos discs out there (Transformers 4, upcoming Hercules).

  8. Think DTS-HD MA and Dolby Tru HD if you think it’s safe to buy now.
    Early receivers supported just one of the formats and there were no upgrades available to make the same receiver do both.

    • Josh Zyber
      Author

      TrueHD and DTS-HD MA debuted within a few months of one another. Although there were issues with first-gen Blu-ray player compatibility, I don’t recall any receivers that could only handle one audio format without the other.

      You may be thinking back to the original rollouts for Dolby Digital and DTS on DVD.

      • There indeed were receivers that did only one but not both. I am not going crazy. About the time I bought my Denon I passed on a few due to not indicating they decoded both.

        There are far more players though that will/would not decode and stream them out as well.

  9. I have an 11’x13′ x 8′ high room to set up a home theatre. What do I need for an Atmos theatre? I would just add the 3d speakers at this point and buy a new receiver, as mine is about 15 years old now.

    • Josh Zyber
      Author

      If you plan to buy Atmos-enabled speakers with the upfiring modules to bounce sounds off your ceiling, you’ll need at least two of those (four for a bigger room), plus a new receiver with Atmos decoding.

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