Dolby Brings the Surround Sound Experience to…EVERYTHING!

Posted Tue Oct 13, 2009 at 01:15 PM PDT by Mike Attebery

High-Def Digest's man in the field attends a Dolby Laboratories shindig in Los Angeles and leaves mighty impressed!

By Michael S. Palmer

Dolby Laboratories came to Los Angeles last week to demo, discuss, and display their current and emerging technologies. Keep in mind this wasn’t a specially designed lab. It was a few rooms in a hotel suite. Lots of glass. Wooden floors. Odd angles. About as far from sound-perfect as you can get. Just like my apartment, or your house. Yet Dolby sound soared.

As a company that’s existed since 1965, it’s too easy to think of Dolby as that logo, quietly stamped onto computers, audio receivers, music / video playback devices, and Blu-ray / DVD discs. Too easy to forget that Dolby and its employees, through a need to innovate and enhance consumer content, are continuously raising the bar of audio reproduction.

But what’s the difference between all their different brand names? How are they going to enrich my home entertainment experience?

That’s really the question, isn’t it? Content providers must give us access to their entertainment on every conceivable platform because the modern world is somehow both insanely connected, yet desperately segmented: Cine and audiophiles strive for home theatre perfection. Gamers compete and interact with others in a global environment. Tweens, Teens, and Twenty-somethings absorb digital content exclusively on phones and PCs. And our parents… well, they still don’t even know how to program the VCR (P.S. - What’s a “V-C-R?”).

Enter Dolby stage right. With a convenient set of products (based on Mensa-level mathematic algorithms) to help everyone get the fullest audio experience possible. Any where. Any time. On any platform.

[Author’s note: Now I know full well, some of you are already screaming, “what about DTS???” Feel free to continue the endless “which one is better” debate all you want. Our purpose here is simply to let you know what Dolby has to offer now (and in the near future). Cheers.]

For Traditional Home Theatre Enthusiasts

The king of Dolby’s formats remains TrueHD. Nothing new on this. But for those not in the know, TrueHD is lossless audio that gives you a bit-for-bit reproduction of the original studio matter, in 8 channels (7.1 if you will). A.K.A., exactly how the filmmaker, or music producer heard it, and intended it to sound.

Next up is Dolby Digital Plus, which was designed for times where there isn’t enough bandwidth for lossless audio. Dolby Digital Plus is capable of 7.1 surround sound, versus the 5.1 of standard Dolby Digital. It also has a wider bit rate, up to 1.5 Mbps.

You might be wondering, if we have Blu-ray, why would we ever want anything less than TrueHD? Well, Dolby Digital Plus was used for some HD-DVDs because of the limited room available on those discs, but currently Dolby has teamed with services like Vudu to stream surround sound online.

Vudu has movie rentals available in SD (480p, requiring an internet connection speed of 1 Mbps – check with your Internet service provider if you don’t know what you have), HD (720p, requiring 2.25 Mbps), and HDX (1080p, requiring 4.5 Mbps). Using a networked Blu-ray player (in our case the LG BD390), we checked out HDX scenes from ’X-Men Origins: Wolverine’ and ’Fast & Furious’ featuring 5.1 Dolby Digital Plus audio. Truthfully, Blu-ray may want to watch out, because on a 52-inch Toshiba LCD (model # 52XV645U), this HDX streaming was excellent, and easy to use. Pause, fast-forward, and rewind to any clip, and after a short buffer, the movie would play. High Def is absolutely the future regardless of format, and here’s a potentially legitimate successor – given enough bandwidth to match / include lossless audio – to Blu-ray’s resolution kingdom. Is there more compression / a lower bit rate on video streaming compared to what we have now in Blu? Of course. But much like the size of hard drives, Internet connection speeds are only going to increase and get less expensive over time. And to my picky-eye, the video looked sharp, clear, and unlike most streaming, which can be filled with blocks and banding. Anyone else out there using Vudu? Hit up the comments section to give your review; this was my first experience.

In order to keep up with the success of 5.1 Dolby Digital, Dolby developed Pro Logic II. To create 5.1 channels of audio out of any stereo source. Pro Logic’s newest incarnations are IIx and IIz. IIx has been around for a while, and its purpose is not only to up-convert stereo, but also full 5.1 mixes into 6.1 or 7.1 surround sound (if you have enough speakers). IIz takes surround one-step further, and allows up to 9.1 channels of audio. As shone above, in addition to 5.1 speakers at ear level (or 7.1 if you already have that), Pro Logic IIz adds two speakers above the front left and right speakers. This vertical component finds “nondirectional” ambience in movies and music, such as rain, to increase spaciousness and add dimension. This wasn’t on hand to demo, but it seems like a fantastic idea that fully supports my home theatre addictions check out Sound & Vision’s first look here. I can’t wait to try it out for myself (cough-sneeze-hint-HINT, Dolby). And the coolest thing about Pro Logic IIx or IIz? It’s compatible with any source. For example, my Playstation 3 decodes all audio, from Dolby Digital to DTS-MA, and sends it over to my receiver as PCM. I can then, using IIx tell my receiver to add the extra two channels (or four, using IIz).

What the helpful Dolby reps were able to point out is that music, movies, and television are mixed for what’s called “reference level.” The perfect volume at which to hear everything in their soundscapes. However, reference level is quite loud. And in normal situations, when one turns down the volume of their receivers, bass drops out and surround channels are less perceivable. To make up for the inability to always listen to content at deafening “reference levels”, Dolby created Dolby Volume (with much thanks from neighbors around the world). Volume allows you to listen to audio quietly, but still experience your content as it was meant to be heard. Crisp surround, and accurate bass depth at any level. Dolby Volume also stabilizes sound inputs. Hate it when the commercials come on (thanks to football season, even DVR connoisseurs are watching advertisements), and you have to grab the remote to lower the sound? Dolby Volume keeps your TV at one constant level, regardless of what’s thrown at it, whether it’s cable, Blu-ray, or even Internet streaming and downloads. One level. All sources.

For Laptop Owners (and Dorm Room Dwellers)

Oddly enough, I left the home theatre section of the tour, and was introduced to a product called Dolby Home Theater, which is available on Sony, HP, and Toshiba laptops / desktop PCs. With heavily compressed content downloaded onto on PCs, Dolby Home Theater’s job is to upgrade your computer into capable source of quality audio (Have you ever actually listened to your laptop’s built-in speakers? Rubbish!). Dolby Home Theater adds in lost high and low frequencies (common to MP3s) and improves the experience of using headphones, or even connecting your PC to a full surround sound system. My demo was ’Top Gun,’ downloaded off iTunes in SD. In Dolby Home Theater, wearing only headphones, the geniuses at Dolby, using Pro Logic IIx technology, tricked my brain into thinking I was watching a movie in 5.1. It was stunning.

For Mobile Phones Addicts

The surprise of the day, in regards to quality, was in the mobile department. Dolby reps informed me that stereo music is mixed with the idea that you hear both speakers in both ears at the same time. It’s that overlap, and distance from the speakers that gives it a three dimensional, stereophonic feel. But, when we listen to (highly compressed digital) music, and we separate the channels by putting one in each ear, we’re not hearing the music properly. Using suite of sound options built into the audio playback of a phone (in this case, the LG enV Touch), I listen to Radiohead both with Dolby Mobile on, and off. And the difference was startling. With no Dolby, the music felt like it was in the center of my brain, and though it was accurate, it was flat. With Dolby Mobile activated, it literally seamed as though I wasn’t wearing headphones at all, but rather sitting in a room, enjoying full sized speakers. Truly excellent. Also, I was able to demo a movie on a Nokia phone. Though ’House of Flying Daggers’ should never be seen on a 2” screen, I was again amazed as to how I could hear full surround out of stereo headphones.

For Gamers

Three words: Best. For. Last. I’ll openly admit to loving video games, yet I’m a terrible player. If Dolby Mobile was the biggest “quality not expected” surprise of the day, Dolby Digital Live and Dolby Axon are revolutionary and spellbinding.

First, Dolby Digital Live is already in use on many games (this room was outfitted with a PS3 and a fresh copy of “Batman: Arkham Asylum”). The way it works is that your favorite games have thousands of mono or stereo sounds files ready to fire on cue. The game also knows where you are in its universe. Mapping your position (where you stand, which direction you’re looking, your environment, etc), Dolby Digital Live mixes a 5.1 surround sound experience instantly and on the fly to immerse you in the action.

Dolby’s next thought was, okay, so these games sound fantastic, but what about online gaming? What is the next step?

Both consoles and PCs allow gamers to chat with teammates and enemies alike. Dolby next wants to mix players’ voices into full surround sound. Think about it. You’re playing Halo, and you not only hear your enemy stalking you from behind (from your left rear speaker), but also that he’s talking to his team, which answers (from the right rear). Having surround sound not only becomes immersive and exciting, but it’s also an advantage (well, until everyone gets surround sound at which point it’ll just be one of many gaming obstacles).

The challenge is that this audio, taken from low quality / various volume microphones, doesn’t measure up to professionally recorded files already in the game. Dolby AXON steps in to take all the audio from every person playing, whether it’s a handful or few hundred, send it to the host server, equalize it, and instantly send back a surround sound mix.

But what if it’s not just about the sound exhibiting the gaming? What if sound is plot? What if sound is strategy? For instance, take a “proximity mine.” Step too close and it explodes. In an unreleased, in-house Dolby demo, your proximity mine also has a speaker on it. Drop your trap, hide in safety and talk into your microphone to draw out enemies, whose own surround sound systems have told them where you should be. Or what if, as another example, you could leave behind a “bug” to hear conversations far away from where you’re playing? And, that these bugs would retain the environment’s ambience (perhaps a muffled sound if you were listening through a door)?

The future of gaming, for Dolby, for you and I, isn’t just sound serving the game, but sound, and surround sound, becoming an inseparable part of playing the game. This is simply revolutionary, and makes gaming even more life-like.

Well, that’s all, folks. An hour with Dolby, and tons of products for each and every one of us, in almost all aspects of audio-based entertainment. Everyone knows Dolby does surround sound well, but they’re growing beyond expectations. Evolving. A fascinating, dynamic company, unwilling to rest on their laurels, and instead, charging boldly into the future.

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Tags: Michael S. Palmer, Industry Trends, Dolby (all tags)