Dolby Atmos for Mobile Ears-On: Can You Really Get Immersive Surround Sound from Regular Headphones?

By Gerald Lynch on at

While mobile screen resolution races from one breakthrough to the next, smartphone and tablet audio has been somewhat left behind. Though some, like Neil Young with his Pono and Sony's recent high-resolution audio push, have looked to address this when it comes to music, Dolby is one of the few companies that's looking to work bringing solid audio to mobile movie viewing.

“What’s lagging behind [in mobile movie viewing] is the audio experience,” according to Dolby's Chief Marketing Officer, Bob Borchers.

“It’s no good having a razor-sharp image of Godzilla if his roar sounds like a mouse with a sore throat. And if the soldiers in your favourite war movie sound like they’re fighting with popguns, it doesn’t matter how well you can see their faces.

“And consumers notice. While 67 per cent of smartphone users were highly satisfied with their phone’s display, only 34 per cent were highly satisfied with its audio, according to the IDC research.”

The company teamed up with Lenovo at MWC 2015 to launch Dolby Atmos for mobile devices, an attempt at scaling down its flagship 51 speaker cinema tech into something a phone can understand and output in a way pleasing to a listener. Dolby Atmos uses object-based audio, allowing sound designers and audio mixers to manipulate and move individual sounds in a 3D space, giving the immersive experience that we've raved about in the past. In the home, Dolby Atmos effects can be achieved by bouncing sounds off the ceiling, but that can't be pulled off when out and about with earphones plugged in on a mobile.

So how has Dolby achieved mobile Atmos? Clever mind-bending trickery, of course. With only two channels to play with, Dolby has to trick your brain into thinking sounds are coming from all directions. It does this by sending sounds to your ears with split-second delays between them, and changing the tone as they travel from one virtual point to another. The tonality is particularly important – this emulates the bounce and reflection of sounds as they hit our body parts (shoulders, the outer ear, etc) and enter the ear canal.

Dolby hooked me up to a Lenovo A7000 smartphone and ran me through a series of Dolby Atmos-enabled demos (including one requiring a headset to view a VR trailer for Jaunt's Black Mass horror film). I listened in on some fairly swanky Sennheiser headphones, though Dolby assured that the experience would be comparable with any buds – as mobile Dolby Atmos is achieved in software and phone hardware, you won't need a mad 7.1 channel gaming headset to appreciate what's going on.

Though it obviously couldn't compare to Dolby's giant cinema set ups, the effect was noticeable and effective. While no sound ever truly felt as if it was coming from directly behind me, positional sounds from over the shoulder and to the sides were identified without problem, and individual sounds easily isolated too. There was a good sense of height as well, though I was disappointed that there was no sensation of sound coming from below – somewhere that mobile Dolby Atmos could even best its overhead progenitor.

What's worth noting however is that Dolby made sure I had a visual cue each time I listened in on a demo, be that the jumpy-jumpy bad men of the Black Mass trailer, or a bouncing ball moving around a circular arena, triggering the sounds as it went. This shouldn't be considered cheating – after all, Dolby is primarily aiming this at movie audio, and if a visual aid helps to trigger the illusion of enveloping surround sound in the brain, then the whole package has achieved its goal.

The problem is, at present there's basically no mobile content available in Dolby Atmos, aside from the aforementioned demoes. While 230 movies exist in the format for cinema consumption, less than 20 have made the jump to Atmos-enabled Blu-ray discs, and none have been made digitally available for mobiles.

Dolby's Atmos mobile sound can still work its magic on non-Atmos audio sources, adding depth to sound that may otherwise sound flat, but the effect will be less pronounced than with Atmos-tuned content. Impressive as it is, Dolby Atmos for mobile will need more content before it can be considered a killer feature in a smartphone or tablet. Perhaps Dolby's partnership with HTC for the HTC One M9's BoomSound audio will help – with HTC working on the Vive VR headset, a partnership there could reveal Atmos's natural home within virtual reality worlds.