High-Def Digest's DTS:X Home Theater Guide

Posted Fri Apr 10, 2015 at 05:00 PM PDT by
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This week, High-Def Digest was invited to attend the official unveiling of DTS' new object-based surround sound platform. Nestled within their comfortable Calabasas headquarters, we were treated to several demos and a Q&A session, giving us a great idea of what to expect from the new technology. 

Dubbed DTS:X, the upcoming audio tech does away with traditional channel-based encoding, mixing sounds as individual objects that can be adapted to any speaker setup. But just how does this new audio format perform and, perhaps much more importantly, how does it compare to Dolby's eerily similar Atmos platform? Is DTS:X now poised to become the immersive audio experience to beat? Or this just a case of audio format Deja vu? Well, let's start with the basics...

The Basics

Note: Portions of this section originally appeared in our Dolby Atmos Home Theater Guide… yes, they are that similar…

Like Dolby Atmos, DTS:X is a surround sound technology that utilizes object-based mixing over traditional channel based sound design. Previously, movie tracks were created with audio designated directionally to specific speakers through a predetermined number of discrete channels. For instance, in a 5.1 setup, sounds are only placed in the left, center, right, surround, and LFE channels. With DTS:X, however, there are no channels. Instead, the individual audio objects are mixed in a virtual environment using the MDA Creator (DTS' license fee-free, open platform for the creation of object-based immersive audio), allowing sound designers to place sounds anywhere in the room at any given time -- not just within a select number of fixed channels and locations.

This means that DTS:X soundtracks are not mixed to fit the rigid limitations of a 5.1 or 7.1 system. The sounds themselves exist as distinct objects in the room that can be scaled and adapted to be played back directionally under a wide variety of speaker configurations with support for up to 32 speaker locations (up to 11.2 speaker setups on 2015 AVRs). Likewise, this also means that audio can now come from locations previously unavailable in traditional surround sound setups -- most notably from above. With that in mind, for many, the most immediate and substantial benefit of DTS:X in the home will be through the addition of overhead speakers.  

In order to add overhead sound, users can mount traditional speakers on their ceiling. While this is the most effective method, it won't be suitable for everyone's home and setup. To combat this issue, competitor Dolby has worked with manufacturers to release special Dolby Atmos speakers which feature an additional driver mounted on top in order to reflect sound off of the ceiling. This simulates the effect of audio coming from above. Unfortunately, DTS has no plans to develop specific DTS:X upward firing speakers at this time, and there is some confusion about whether or not current Atmos-enabled speakers will be compatible with DTS:X processing. DTS claims that there is nothing on their end that would prevent Atmos speakers from working with their technology, but specific manufacturers might have integrated limitations that could make such a pairing incompatible.

Though customers will need to purchase a new DTS:X-enabled receiver (or upgrade select existing models) to take advantage of the object-based technology, DTS:X soundtracks will be delivered through an extension of the existing DTS format, making them backwards compatible with current hardware. Likewise, current Blu-ray players will be able to play DTS:X movies, but the soundtracks need to be played back through the bitstream option in order to get the object-based sound.

The DTS Difference?

Now that the similarities are out of the way, let's answer the question that's been on every home theater enthusiast's mind since DTS:X was first announced: "How does this technology differ from Dolby Atmos?" Well, for the most part, it turns out that the answer is... not a whole lot. In simplest terms, both technologies achieve the same end result: an object-based audio mix that can be scaled to a variety of speaker setups, including those with overhead sound. With that said, there are a few variations in philosophy and features between both formats that should be of interest to consumers.

First up, unlike Dolby, DTS has a less rigid take on speaker placement. Rather than emphasize specific recommended setups, DTS has chosen to highlight their object-based system's extreme scalability, placing layout decisions squarely in the hands of consumers and manufacturers. Though this flexibility is technically also possible with Atmos, Dolby recommends certain configurations with additional height speakers (5.1.4, 7.1.2, etc.) and some manufacturers require exact measurements pertaining to angles and positioning. On the other hand, DTS' approach is much more free-form. In their eyes, one of the main benefits of object-based audio is its adaptability to any configuration, so why would they want to dictate setups? In other words, there are no official DTS:X speaker arrangements at this time. With that said, it is up to manufacturers to implement their own calibration systems and to decide if they want to design their gear to suit pre-established immersive audio setups -- making it likely that many initial DTS:X products will be configured with current Atmos arrangements in mind.

Next, DTS:X also differentiates itself with a potentially handy or potentially controversial new feature: the option to completely isolate dialogue as a separate object in a soundtrack. This means that users can adjust the volume of speech independent from the rest of the track, alleviating some customers' issues with pesky hard to hear dialogue. Still, while the technology to offer this feature is in place, it's up to content creators to decide whether this option can be used, and some directors might object to audiences being able to fiddle with their deliberately arranged sound mixes to such a degree. After all, Michael Bay surely puts great care into just how loud Mark Wahlberg sounds when he's yelling at all those giant robots! And who are you to tamper with the volume of Liam Neeson's whispery threats? And how dare anyone attempt to turn down Al Pacino's trademark rants! I mean, seriously, why mess with perfection?! 

What might prove to be the most distinguishing difference between both technologies, however, is their particular implementation of spatial remapping and reformatting. This process allows DTS:X and Atmos receivers to upmix traditional surround sound tracks to simulate immersive audio with additional speaker placements. DTS calls its take on this process "Neural:X," but it remains to be seen just how well this feature enhances existing tracks. We were given a brief demo (more on that later), but future direct comparisons between DTS and Dolby's processes could end up giving one audio format a distinct edge over the other.

Theater Demos

Now that all of the basics are out of the way, we can finally get to the real fun stuff. You know, when things get loud and rumbly! To demo DTS:X, the company whisked us away to one of their dark and cozy R&D labs, free from the nuisances of sunlight and outside noise. With a total of 55 speakers (including 6 subwoofers), the lab features two audio setups: an inner ring and an outer ring. For the first portion of the demo, the company used the outer box of speakers featuring an impressive 28.1 surround sound setup (including one "voice of God" speaker directly above the listening position) to give us a feel for a true theatrical presentation. Content was played with MDA audio tracks just like those that will be used in a full cinema environment.

The theatrical demos included a science fiction short film titled 'Telescope,' which was marked by elaborate space travel effects, and a charming animated short called 'Locked Up' that focused on distinct nature sounds. Both pieces provided an impressive experience with seamless audio from all directions, including overhead. Overall, I'd say the demonstration was comparable to similar Atmos mixes and exhibited the same pinpoint accuracy and aural transparency as Dolby's tech. It truly felt like I was surrounded by a dome of audio with no real sense of individual speakers -- just an organically swirling cloud of sounds. 

MDA Creator Demo

After the initial theatrical demos, we switched to the inner ring of speakers for a demonstration of the MDA Creator mixing tools that filmmakers use to design DTS:X tracks. This inner setup uses an 11.1 (or 7.1.4) speaker configuration with four height speakers positioned above and tilted down toward the listening position (two in front, two in back).

Once again, the DTS engineers loaded up the 'Locked Up' short, but this time they pulled up the MDA sound design template in Pro Tools, demonstrating all of the audio objects represented in the virtual environment. From there, the designer was able to move a specific sound of a buzzing fly in real-time throughout the room, revealing the nearly limitless control creators have over every element of audio. 

Home Theater Demos

For the next set of demos, we switched gears to a true DTS:X home theater presentation. Using the inner ring of speakers again (11.1/7.1.4), the company showed a few sample clips played through a standard Panasonic Blu-ray player and a Trinnov Altitude 32 pre-amplifier.

First, we were shown an example of the Neural:X spatial remapping technology used to turn traditional surround sound tracks into more immersive audio experiences. A clip from 'Dawn of the Planet of the Apes' was shown using the disc's standard DTS-HD MA 7.1 track upmixed to simulate a full 11.1 presentation. Though not Earth-shattering or as distinct as native object-based material, the demo was pretty cool, and there was indeed a vague sense of overheard sound. Unfortunately, DTS did not provide a direct comparison between the standard 7.1 presentation and 11.1 Neural:X version.

Next, we were shown a clip from the film 'Divergent' in full native DTS:X audio. As one would expect, this sample was much more engaging, with truly distinct sounds from all angles. Likewise, I was also able to listen to a few more native DTS:X clips in a separate demo room with a similar 7.1.4 speaker arrangement later in the day, including a scene from 'Rio' and a few more shorts. Again, the experience was comparable to similar demos shown for Dolby's Atmos home theater technology, and I came away equally impressed, gaining an extra layer of audio immersion that I never realized I was missing before.

DTS Headphone:X Demo

Finally, DTS also chose to show off its current DTS Headphone:X technology that is capable of bringing a 7.1.4 experience to any pair of headphones. First, we listened to standard speaker placement test tones in the actual 11.1 speaker setup. Then, we put the headphones on and listened to the same test tones through the Headphone:X process. The results were quite astonishing, creating such a convincing sense of surround sound that it was almost indistinguishable from the actual speaker setup. From there, we were shown the same clip from 'Divergent' that we watched before, and though placement wasn't as distinguished as on the real speaker layout, the Headphone:X effect was incredibly immersive.

Gear and Content

Of course, even the most impressive audio technology is ultimately worthless if there isn't any gear to support it -- and even more importantly, any content that uses it. For now, DTS has not revealed any specific Blu-ray titles that will use DTS:X, but the company is working with studios and expects that initial DTS:X Blu-ray discs will start hitting stores before the end of the year. DTS also confirmed that it is possible for Dolby Atmos theatrical mixes to be converted to DTS:X for home releases, leaving it up to studios (and specific negotiations) to decide what encode they want to use on Blu-rays.  In addition, support for streaming services and OTT platforms is also planned, but again, there are no details to announce at this time. Sadly, however, DTS confirmed that they have withdrawn the DTS:X format from consideration for the new ATSC 3.0 broadcast spec.

On the gear front, the company has announced a few current and upcoming A/V models that will have integrated or upgradeable DTS:X support. The current list of announced devices includes:

Denon - AVR-X7200W available now / DTS:X firmware upgrade later in 2015 ($2,999)
Integra - launching several models by Fall 2015
Marantz - AV8802 available now / DTS:X firmware upgrade later in 2015 ($3,999)
Onkyo - launching several models by Fall 2015
Pioneer - details to follow
Outlaw – details to follow
Steinway Lyngdorf - P200 Surround Sound Processor available Summer 2015 / DTS:X firmware upgrade in Fall 2015
Theta Digital - Casablanca IVa available Summer 2015 ($17,995)
Trinnov Audio - Altitude32 available now / DTS:X firmware upgrade Summer 2015
Yamaha - launching DTS:X ready models in Fall 2015 

Theatrical Releases

Though our emphasis is on the home theater side of things, there are some noteworthy details regarding DTS:X cinema implementation as well. First up, is the news that Marvel's upcoming IMAX release of 'The Avengers: Age of Ultron' will use an immersive audio mix designed through DTS' MDA Creator tools. Though the proprietary IMAX track won't be branded as DTS:X, it will give a good example of what the technology has to offer in a theatrical setting.

In addition, Carmike Theaters has announced plans to upgrade select theaters to DTS:X setups starting this spring. The full list of theaters set for upgrading includes:

Carmike 15 (Columbus, Ga.)
Carmike Movies ATL 278 (Atlanta, Ga.)
Chapel Hills 13 (Colorado Springs, Colo.)
Rosemont 18 (Rosemont, Ill.)
Thoroughbred 20 (Franklin, Tenn.)
Thousand Oaks 14 (Thousand Oaks, Calif.)
Valley Bend 18 (Huntsville, Ala.)

Outside of the latest 'Avengers,' flick no other theatrical releases using the MDA mixing process have been announced, but titles are in the works.

The Future

With their emphasis on supporting audio setups both "small and grand," DTS hopes that the DTS:X platform will allow consumers to experience immersive audio in any setup without being hindered by previous speaker placement limitations. It remains to be seen if manufacturers will follow through with that goal in their specific implementations, but the future looks good for audiophiles. Likewise, the company hinted at even more DTS:X related innovations in the future, including possible soundbars and speakers that provide virtualization similar to the Headphone:X process, bringing simulated height audio to traditional speaker systems.

As DTS:X, Dolby Atmos, and Auro-3D now ramp up to compete for the next-generation audio crown, consumers will have to make some tough decisions. Can there really only be one? Or will these formats find a way to coexist peacefully? Though it's likely that many receivers will be released that support all of these technologies, there is no guarantee that a DTS:X device will also offer Atmos processing (or vice versa). While both technologies are mightily impressive, consumers are probably better off taking a wait-and-see approach. In the end, the most enticing option will likely be determined by the content selection, and it remains to be seen (or is it heard?) which technology will be paired with the most appealing titles.

For now, when it comes to next-gen audio things look like a virtual draw between Dolby and DTS. For all intents and purposes, both technologies sound equally immersive and offer a very similar set of features. But... when it comes to workspace environments, I think DTS has to have a slight edge... I mean really, check out that game room. Who wouldn't want to work there? They have Space Invaders! And Foosball!

Retro arcade machines notwithstanding, what do you think about DTS' latest audio advancements? Does the new object-based audio tech make you want to upgrade? Will you be investing in DTS:X or Dolby Atmos? Maybe both? Or will you play it safe and take a wait-and-see approach? Let us know your thoughts in the forums!

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Tags: DTS, DTS:X, Surround Sound, Object-based mixing, Home Audio, Receivers, Dolby Atmos, Denon, Marantz, The Avengers, Age of Ultron, Marvel (all tags)