64 reasons to watch Dolby Atmos movies (how does it work?)

Dolby Atmos theatre setup

One year ago on July 2013 the first Dolby Atmos cinema in the Philippines opened its doors at the new Promenade Mall in Greenhills, San Juan. Back then the New Promenade mall had barely finished construction, but movie fans all over Metro Manila can already experience the latest and greatest cinematic experience that the audio world can offer.

The brand name Dolby needs no introduction. Almost a household term, Dolby is synonymous with high fidelity audio technology in filmmaking. Founded in the United Kingdom in 1933, they are a pioneer in the audio world primarily responsible for the clean and crisp sound of modern movies.

Ever heard of the term “noise reduction”? How about “surround sound”? Can you tell me who pioneered both technologies? You got it, none other than Dolby Labs.

Ever since movies like Star Wars came out in the 70’s, Dolby Surround or Dolby Digital has been the de facto standard for high fidelity audio encoding technology for filmmakers. Well, there’s also DTS or Digital Theatre Systems, which is Dolby’s main competitor – I will leave it to you to do more research on the two.

Suffice to say, it has been almost half a century since the last major advance in audio technology. Visual advancements have gone at a faster pace, going from 35mm reels to digital projectors and eventually onto digital 3D formats like RealD, Dolby 3D, and IMAX.

It’s high time for our cinemas to upgrade the audio experience, and that’s where Dolby Atmos comes in.

To help you understand how Dolby Atmos works, you must first familiarize yourself with the concept of audio channels. Think mono vs stereo. You how flat your AM stations sound compared to the FM channels? That’s because AM format is broadcast in mono or monophonic format, which means all sound is mixed and reproduced in a single channel. Stereo or stereophonic sound, on the other hand, uses two independent audio channels, the left and the right channel, which gives it a fuller, livelier sound.

Now thanks to technology, we now have multi-channel systems like 2.1, where the “2” part refers to the left and right channels, and the “.1” refers to the subwoofer. If you don’t know what a subwoofer is, just think of it as the one that generates sound that you can feel, or the “boom boom” or the “tugs tugs” part that makes party people want to crank up the volume.

Dolby Surround 7.1 vs 5.1 Surround sound theatre
Dolby Surround 7.1 vs 5.1 Surround sound theatre

The standard Dolby Surround has 7.1 channels, or two channels more than the standard 5.1 surround sound configuration. Just look at the diagram above to get a quick visual comparison.

Note that in a standard 5.1 setup, you have the following distinct sound channels: left (L), center (C), right (R), left surround (Ls), right surround (Rs), and of course, the subwoofer. Dolby Surround theatres have two more distinct sound channels, back surround left (Bsl), and back surround right (Bsr).

While you may think that more is always better, it also depends on the source. If your source audio was recorded in mono, it will still sound flat even if you play it in a stereo-capable system like your car radio. The same is true for films. If your source was recorded using only two channels and you watch it in a Dolby Surround theatre, it will not sound as rich or as lively as a film that was recorded with the intention of being played back on a 7.1 system.

Which brings us to Dolby Atmos. Compared to Dolby Surround, Dolby Atmos requires an additional four (4) channels for proper reproduction, effectively making it an 11.1 system. Compared to Dolby Surround this is huge, those four additional channels are no joke. Even more amazing how sound elements can be assigned to each individual speaker (take note that Dolby uses the term speaker as opposed to channel)! Mind you, this is all according to the official Dolby Atmos page, which we are just going to have to trust for now. In actual experience it all blends together to add a bit more realism. Unless you have the ears of a vampire, you may not be able to distinguish where the sound is actually coming from.

Let me just take a moment here to circle around and highlight what I previously wrote – i.e. that sound can be assigned to individual speakers. The Dolby Atmos page also adds that each speaker is individually addressable. Now if my understanding is correct this is potentially even bigger than the 11.1 vs 7.1 comparison we just made a while ago. The Dolby Atmos standard can produce up to 128 lossless audio channels which can be routed to up to 64 speakers. I’m trying my best to explain this in simple terms, but up until this point that kind of audio reproduction is relatively unheard of.

Now here’s where it starts to get amazing. If my understanding is correct, this means that a Dolby Atmos system has virtually 64 channels! I might be exaggerating a little, but that is just absolutely mind blowing. How many channels does the best Dolby Surround or home theatre have again? 7.1? 9.1? Forget it, Dolby Atmos gives you 64 freaking channels of surround sound. Talk about next-gen stuff. Are you hearing me loud and clear enough yet?

Dolby Atmos vs Dolby Surround 7.1 and 5.1 Theatre
Dolby Atmos vs Dolby Surround 7.1 and 5.1 Theatre

For a better visual, take a look at the above diagram straight from Dolby’s official website. In addition to the rear left and right zones, Dolby Atmos employs four additional zones – overhead, rear subwoofers, additional screen speakers, and additional surround speakers.

Dolby Atmos has very precise requirements that existing cinemas cannot just simply support the format without doing some sort of renovation.

Which is why Music Museum Group, the folks responsible for running Promenade Mall, had to build an entirely new set of movie houses just to support Dolby Atmos. Specifically, Cinemas 6, 7, and 8 at the New Promenade Mall are Dolby Atmos thatres.

There are some who may argue that movies are mostly dialogue, and surely there are those of us who can walk out of a regular theatre just as satisfied. Just like some people are content to watch a cam-corded VCD on a standard television set as opposed to say, a Blu-Ray movie on a full HD display.

Those who want the best cinematic experience, however, should definitely check out the Dolby Atmos theatres at the New Promenade mall. Of course, you also need to make sure you that the film you are planning to see supports the Dolby Atmos format. Unless you really don’t mind shelling out extra, just don’t expect to get the same “three-dimensional sound” experience as in a real Dolby Atmos film. A ticket at the Dolby Atmos theatre in Promenade costs 300 pesos, as opposed to 180 pesos for the regular theatre. If you’re going to watch with someone that’s still 120 pesos x 2 or 240 pesos which could better be spent on some snacks.

Do not worry, though, most likely the folks operating the theatre will only show Dolby Atmos films, but if you want to be 100 sure, there is an official list of movies supporting Dolby Atmos on the Dolby website that you can check.

So, what do you think of the Dolby Atmos theatre at Promenade? Were you satisfied with the experience?

For those who have watched the same movie in a non-Dolby Atmos theatre, did you notice any difference? Share your thoughts in the comments area below!