Dolby Atmos Surround Sound Could Come to Living Rooms, But Many Challenges Stand in its Way

By Gerald Lynch on at

Once you've heard Atmos, there's no going back. Gradually rolling out to more and more cinema screens across the globe, Dolby's Atmos surround sound system is so immersive it makes even the most elaborate home cinema speaker array seem puny by comparison. So far the reserve of multiplexes, could Atmos ever make its way into homes? Quite possibly, but not without clearing many a hurdle first.

"If I stood here now and told you we're not doing anything, I'd be lying", Andy Dowell, Regional Director, Northern Europe at Dolby Laboratories, told Gizmodo. "We've drip fed a few technologies so far into the market that give an indication that something is afoot."

As we've detailed before, Atmos is a complex, expensive technology for even cinema owners to install. Supporting as many as 64 independent speaker outputs, it gives movie sound mixers the potential to move 128 individual sound elements around a listener -- including above them as well as to the sides -- with a fidelity and fluidity not possible with a traditional channel array.

There's been talk of replicating Atmos's overhead speakers in the home through additional speakers that would sit on top of a listener's own existing 5.1 set-up, pointed at the ceiling to bounce audio back down to movie fans. But this rumoured solution would be inelegant, and lacking the positional precision that makes Atmos so special. Aside from the hardware complications, Dowell noted other barriers that would need to be overcome before the technology could grace an episode of Eastenders.

"When you bring something like this into the cinema space it has its challenges, but we've managed to overcome all of those," said Dowell.

"But when you think about Atmos in the home you have to consider first 'What's the market going to think about it?' Are consumers going to think it's just a super-high end solution for the rich and famous?

"Secondly, the idea of delivering potentially 128 individual sound objects in a mix in a consumer space simultaneously, whether that's pressed onto a disc or being streamed is just not feasible. It's feasible in the cinema space because it's all on a hard disc -- I don't think even the transfer rates on a blu-laser could currently pull the information off fast enough."

All this, Dowell adds, is before you even consider the interconnects of passing sounds from one consumer AV product to another, and the complications that standards organisations might bring by adding their involvement. But Dowell stresses that it's "safe to say [Dolby] is interested in object audio for the home."

The clearest indication of the company's intentions comes from its recent showing at the NAB B2B Media conference. There the company demoed technologies similar to Atmos that could use object-based audio to deliver an interactive broadcast. With it, control over individual audio objects in a mix could be handed over to the viewer -- Dowell gives the example of watching a football match, and being able to be more immersed in the game by switching off a particularly chatty commentator while leaving the stadium sounds intact.

The demand for Atmos in the home though is only set to increase as Dolby's technology makes further inroads in the cinema industry. There are now more than 600 screens around the world either already equipped with Atmos or in line to get the upgrade, with seven in the UK and two in Ireland. A host of this summer's blockbusters are already mixed in it, including Godzilla, X-Men: Days of Future Past and The Amazing Spider-Man 2. Seeing them at an Atmos screen will only make their DVD or Blu-ray second screenings back at home a sore disappointment.