NOTE: This article covers Dolby Atmos for the home, the new Dolby Surround up-mixing, and a few different Pioneer products. It's designed to recreate what it would be like to test out Atmos in your home for the very first time after purchasing the necessary gear upgrades. If you are not already up to speed on the Atmos basics -- no worries at all -- just make sure to read these articles first:
High-Def Digest's Dolby Atmos Home Theater Guide
by Steven Cohen
Three weeks ago, I was in a bit of a pickle. Supposed to review the very first Blu-ray disc encoded with the all new home theatre version of my favorite theatrical surround sound format, Dolby Atmos. One problem. I haven't been able to upgrade my home theatre yet.
Luckily, Dolby put me in touch with Pioneer to set up a demo to watch 'Transformers: Age of Extinction - 3D' in Dolby Atmos for the first time.
Down in the port city of Long Beach, tucked in behind a sea of corporate cubicles, lies a warehouse reminiscent of the closing shot from 'Raiders of the Lost Ark'. Here too you will find relics... of things no longer sold in stores. Apparently, replacement units and spare parts must be kept seven or eight years after any product is sold. It was like walking into mad scientist's genetic experiment where he crossed a Best Buy with a Home Depot. And there they were -- shelves and shelves teaming with infamous KURO plasma HDTVs. [note: if there's a "heist" at this warehouse in the not too distant future, it totally wasn't me, I swear]. If you're into Pioneer gear, this would have been your elysium.
The Elite System
In the back of the warehouse, Pioneer has a few demo rooms. Mine was a rectangular space about twelve feet wide by twenty or so feet long with a ten-foot flat ceiling and a few base traps other acoustic panels on the walls. While much more of a dedicated home theatre space, it was quite close in dimensions to my apartment's living room.
Other than the display -- a 65-inch Panasonic TC-L65WT600 LED 4K UHDTV -- the rest of the gear was, of course, all Pioneer Elite. The only difference between what I used and what you can purchase is the AVR firmware wasn't the final version that will be released shortly (I believe in time for 'Age of Extinction'). Pioneer set up a 5.1.4 system to demonstrate the maximum capabilities of their nine-channel Atmos AVRs.
The flagship $2,999 Elite SC-89 9.2 channel AV Receiver powered the system. It features 8 HDMI 2.0 inputs (2 outputs), dual subwoofer outs, MCACC Pro calibration, 140 watts of power for all nine channels, and is capable of being set up in more traditional 5.1, 7.1, or 9.1, as well as 5.1.2, 5.1.4, or 7.1.2 Dolby Atmos and DTS Neo:X configurations.
While the SC-89 is the most powerful and most expensive in the series line, the $1,599 SC-85 and the $1,999 SC-87 use the exact same Texas Instruments processor to decode Atmos. As Pioneer's most affordable Atmos AVR, the SC-85 provides seven channels of amplification, allowing for a 5.1.2 Atmos configuration. The company hopes to get down to the sub-$1000 price point for next year, as some of its competitors are offering seven-channel Atmos AVRs at around $600.
Speakers included one SP-EC73 Elite Center Channel Speaker ($399), one SW-E10 Elite Subwoofer ($599), and four Dolby Atmos enabled SP-EFS73 Elite Floorstanding Speakers -- two up front and two behind my seating position. The EFS73s cost $699 each and consist of three 5 1/4" aluminum woofers and one 4" concentric alumni mid-range with a 1" tweeter, as well as one top-firing 4" concentric alumni mid-range with a 1" soft dome tweeter. The two mid-range/tweeter combos use the same driver with slightly different crossovers. The vertically firing Dolby speaker cuts off everything below 180hz. However, while most of the other manufacturers' AVRs apparently route these lower frequencies to the subwoofer, Pioneer AVRs route them into the non-Atmos part of the same speaker. Smart.
This demonstration 5.1.4 setup would cost you -- not including a display, necessary cables, and BD Player -- just under $6800. Swap in an SC-87 and one pair of SP-EBS73-LR Elite Concentric Bookself Speakers ($749/pair), and you have a 5.1.4 Atmos surround experience for just under $5150. Stick to four ESBS73-LR bookshelves and you're good to go for under $4,700.
I don't know if I'd trade in my KEF iQ-series speakers just yet, even though Andrew Jones also designed these, but overall this systems sounds terrific. The sub produced voluminous and punchy bass, while the towers admirably handled decent low notes, clean mid tones, and screaming highs. I've always wanted to do an all-floorstanding surround set up, and we played this system at just under reference. They handled it easily. My only thought is that some folks may find them a wee bit on the bright side of things.
I did not review Atmos with any in-ceiling speakers.
The CEDIA 2014 Demo Disc
I popped in a new Dolby Atmos demo disc, which some of you may have seen at this year's CEDIA. We started with a few Dolby Atmos trailers, including 'Amaze', 'Leaf', 'Conductor', and the original 'Unfold'. 'Amaze' instantly proved the potential Dolby Atmos in the home using upwards firing speakers, transporting me into the heart of a stormy rain forrest. 'Leaf' is, oddly enough, my least favorite Atmos trailer when it plays in my local Atmos auditorium, but with the Pioneer 5.1.4 set up, it came alive, revealing nuances and details I had never noticed before. As we rolled through the other trailers, and an on/off comparison (Atmos vs. No Atmos) of a thunder storm, I was pretty excited. But my hosts had saved the best for last.
No, not the movie tracks. The Enrique Iglesias music video, 'Bailando'. Hearing multi-channel Dolby remixes is always a pleasure -- they alter the music only slightly while enhancing the arrangement to reveal surround sound flourishes. 'Bailando' is a catchy tune with spanish guitars, a heavy beat, and even a choral element. The song soared in Atmos, enveloping the entire room, creating an ultra wide soundstage.
Simply put, Dolby along with its content and hardware partners like Pioneer have managed to make Atmos for the home an identical experience to it theatrical ancestor. In fact, for some of you with high-end gear, Dolby Atmos for the home may even surpass some professional auditoriums.
As such, I don't feel the need to qualify Dolby Atmos "for the home" anymore.
Let's call it what it really is and aspires to be: Dolby Atmos.
The First Dolby Atmos Blu-ray
After the CEDIA 2014 Demo Disc, I watched 'Transformers: Age of Extinction' (again). As a bonus, Pioneer had the 3D IMAX cut I had not yet received. Skip over to the Atmos portion of the review to get the full details, but it boils down to this:
'Transformers: Age of Extinction' sounds wonderful in Dolby Atmos and even improves on the 7.1 mix in a few places. But it isn't an overwhelmingly different surround experience. Seeing how capable Atmos is at recreating a theatrical experience, and since I've heard better Atmos theatrical mixes, I'm going to assume Atmos on Blu-ray can do a little better.
However, in the review, what I did not say was that I'm open to being proven wrong. How, you ask? Atmos is so new and so customizable, there are a few variables at play. First, what would a 7.1.4 configuration sound like? After spending four hours listening to Atmos in 5.1.4, I began to miss my 7.1 system's side surrounds, which I feel close the sonic gap from front to rear channels. Second, what would this mix have sounded like with in-ceiling overhead speakers (I'm less concerned with this variable as the Atmos Trailers proved enveloping)? Perhaps the experience would be more precise. It should be the same, but I'm not sure.
Atmos 5.1.4 vs. 5.1.2
After finishing the film, I compared 5.1.4 and 5.1.2 to contrast the potential benefit of four height channels over two channels. Tucked into the menu (pictured above and below), under speaker settings, Pioneer AVRs allow you to choose between Top Front (TF), Top Middle (TM), and Top Back (TB) height channels. In each of those areas, you can choose either in-ceiling or Dolby Atmos enabled Speakers ("Dolby Sp"). If you select Dolby Speakers, you will also be prompted, during EQ, to tell the AVR how tall your speakers are and your ceiling's height. My two takeaways...
1. you can mix and match pairs in-ceiling and Dolby Speakers if you so choose (or need).
2. To activate 5.1.2, even when using Atmos enabled
front channel speakers, you turn those on by selecting Top Middle.
To my ears, dropping down from 5.1.4 to 5.1.2 (utilizing the front floorstanders' top-firing speakers) was a bit of a let down. Again, I can't speak to what it would be like to have in-ceiling speakers directly over your seating position (I suspect it would work quite well), but it definitely reduced immersion. The leaf in 'Leaf' didn't swirl as high; the thunder in 'Amaze' didn't boom as loudly behind.
I'll have to conduct a few more demos (Onkyo, Denon, Marantz, Yamaha, Integra -- if you're reading this and can help, please reach out to say hello), but after a few quick comparisons, I can see why Dolby calls 7.1.4 an optimum Atmos configuration.
That said, stepping up to a nine-channel AVR is expensive enough, let alone an eleven-channel model (or a nine-channel AVR with pre-outs to an extra amplifier). Basically, those who go to the full 5.1.4 and 7.1.4 are more likely to be a niche market unless prices drop. I can't specify to what degree, but I know Pioneer is looking to get prices down on their AVRs for next year, though they will be sticking with nine-channel AVRs due to size and weight considerations.
Atmos vs 7.1
For various reasons like cost, layout, and room size, many people currently have 5.1 setups. If I didn't already own (and love) a 7.1 system, I'd probably be asking myself this: entry-level Atmos AVRs have seven channels of amplification, so what's a better home cinema experience -- 7.1 or 5.1.2?
I honestly don't have a recommendation yet. Still need to spend more time with the format. Height channels are exciting and new, but having been less impressed by 5.1.2 than 5.1.4, I wonder if it's worth it with only two height channels. From my very first 7.1 demo, I felt the four rear channels pulling me closer to the screen. Atmos has a provable wow factor, but I'm reticent to trade down from 7.1 ear-level channels.
Hopefully some of you will try out 5.1.2, or maybe I'll get a chance to hear some 7.1.2 to get a sense of what that sounds like. Still, to make that jump up to a nine-channel AVR, it's going to raise costs. One option to get an entry level AVR and Atmos enabled speakers, and wire it BOTH for 7.1 and Atmos 5.1.2, though that could be annoying, having to change menu settings (and possibly recalibrating the room?) and plug and play wires every time you swap formats.
I wish I had an exact answer on this one, but I think it's going to be dependent on individual listeners and home theatre environments for me to say what's Best (money not withstanding).
Dolby Surround ~ Atmos Up-Mixing
I was pretty thrilled to test out Atmos in the home, but to be honest, I was even more excited to demo the new post-processing element built into Atmos enabled AVRs -- "Dolby Surround." I know the Pioneer team tested 'Captain America: The Winter Soldier' at CEDIA 2014, but I don't think anyone has reviewed this feature yet.
First, I can confirm that Dolby ProLogic IIx / IIz has been put to pasture (on Pioneer gear), along with its ability to select variations of the mode for music, movies, or gaming. In Pro Logic's place, Dolby Surround turns stereo, 5.1, or 7.1 mixes into full fledged Dolby Atmos.
Or, at least, it's supposed to.
I hit a couple snags here. As mentioned, I wasn't using the final firmware on this AVR and while Dolby Surround does work with non-Dolby codecs, in a masterstroke of corporate sabotage a stroke of bad luck, my SC-89 would not play any DTS-HD MA titles. So I wasn't able to find out if 'Gravity' could be turned from 5.1 back into Atmos by up-mixing alone. Boo.
Luckily, I had a TrueHD demo disc with 5.1 and 7.1 clips from 'The Dark Knight', 'Batman Begins', 'Star Trek', and 'Super 8'. I immediately selected 'Super 8' for its absolutely epic train crash, listening with and without Dolby Surround while walking around the room to hear the top-firing speakers at work. Sadly, the rail disaster didn't sound any better in Dolby Surround; in fact, on this 5.1 system, it may have sounded a little weaker compared to native 7.1. Trying out a few other movie selections, Dolby Surround didn't alter the mixes in a big way (a good thing, for sure), but didn't live up to it to the potential hype (a disappointment, for sure). Though not all hope is lost. Thanks to the DTS-HD MA snafu, I wasn't able to pop in 'Jurassic Park' or 'Road to Perdition' to check out some stormy, rainy scenes that should work pretty well in Dolby Surround.
My last demo was multichannel (Dolby TrueHD) and stereo (CDs) music piped through Dolby Surround. The results here were more obvious, definitely making the music taller, but the center channel was a little loud for my liking. Dolby Surround treated the music more like Dolby ProLogic IIx: Cinema than my prefered music Pro Logic IIx: Music, which prioritizes front left and right channels (as they would for a stereo recording). It's a shame to see the Music option gone, as the DTS Neo: Music clearly adds too much extra bass.
EDIT (9/30/2014): Dolby sent me a small correction. Dolby Surround does, in fact, include "a control known as Center Spread, which will soften the center speaker focused content, as is often desirable when listening to musical content. Center Spread can also be of benefit for enthusiasts that have a large wide screen display (think projection screen) and seek to spread the dialogue and center channel effects wider across the sound stage for a more natural presentation." Clearly I did not find this feature in my limited time with the product. Thanks to Dolby for the clarification.
From this very short demo with limited material, Dolby Surround is much less impressive in the way it adds height than what Pro Logic IIx does when adding extra rear channel speakers, but it's probably an upgrade over Pro Logic IIz's height channels. I look forward to more, long-term testing.
The Final Chapter
There we have it, dear readers. My first dive into what I used to call Dolby Atmos in the home, but will now only call Dolby Atmos. Bottom line: with the right mix, Dolby Atmos has the demonstrable ability to treat home cinema enthusiasts to an experience identical to the one we have in our favorite commercial theatres.
Customizable to almost every listening environment, with options for all sorts of budget ranges, some of us will be configuring Atmos with seven-channels of processing and amplification; others will be reaching towards 32 channels... All from the same disc or digital stream.
Thanks again to Pioneer and Dolby for arranging this demo. It was tons of fun and only fanned the flames of my enthusiasm, even if Dolby Surround wasn't able to create Atmos-quality mixes out of thin air. I just don't know if anything less than 7.1.4 will work for my ears even though wiring / powering eleven channels may prove to be a significant financial hurtle. Hopefully prices will come down, and I look forward to testing out 7.1.2 as well.
What about you?
Have you gotten to hear any Dolby Atmos Demos? Are you already planning to upgrade? If so, have you decided on in-ceiling speakers, or are you waiting to hear the Atmos-enabled speakers?
Showrooms will be rolling the format out to public ears in the coming weeks and months as studios begin to announce more Blu-ray and HD streaming titles (I can't say what rumors I've heard, but I think we're going to see some BIG titles). I highly suggest listening to Atmos for yourself and let us know what you think in the forums. Cheers and thanks for reading.