First impressions of Dolby Atmos [UPDATED]
Well I finally got to see a film in Dolby’s new positional audio format Dolby Atmos. Village Cinemas have installed it into screens 5 & 6 at Crown Casino, which as far as the company’s VMax branded cinemas go must be amongst their smallest. VMax at Crown equals a pretty standard auditorium size at other complexes. And considering Atmos seems ideally suited to large auditorium, I was curious if this would compromise the impact. I’ve never really been a fan of Village Crown Casino cinemas, and have usually avoided going to them because of various problems with their presentation. When I ran a website reviewing Melbourne cinemas for technical performance, my overall view of the complex was pretty scathing.
But back to Atmos, which was the reason I made a return to Crown. I won’t go into a description of the technology behind Dolby Atmos – that’s what the rest of the internet is for. Suffice to say that Dolby Atmos changes the paradigm of cinema surround sound from being channel specific to being object/position. So the soundtrack that ships with the film actually contains separate audio stems which are also given positional automation information. The cinemas processor effectively does a live realtime mix by steering these audio objects around that specific cinema’s speaker setup. So the number of speakers in the auditorium is determined by the size and scale of the installation. The system supports a maximum of 64 channels or speakers.
Going into the cinema, I was pleasantly surprised by the number of ceiling speakers that were installed, considering the smaller size of the auditorium. More information on the technical specifics of Crown’s Atmos sound systems can be found here, but in short there are 5 speakers behind the screen (Left, Inner-Left, Centre, Inner-Right, Right) a layout that hasn’t been seen in cinemas since the ill-faited (but sonically gorgeous) SDDS 8 Channel format, and before it, the original spec of TODD-AO’s mag-strip 70mm. There are 34 surround sound speakers, arranged along the back and sides of the auditorium, and in two strips overhead. Or basically 8 on either side, two strips of 7 overhead, and 4 across the back. In addition to the usual sub woofers behind the screen, there are two sub woofers mounted near the roof on the left and right of the auditorium.
Or in old discrete terminology you could call this entire setup 39.3 surround (.3 being the 3 subwoofer channels). Or in the way that they’re describing it now for home: 25.3.14 (where the overhead channels are the 14 last).
This is my best attempt at a technical diagram of the Crown Casino Dolby Atmos setup, using both information online and my own observations. The sweet spot the cinema is calibrated to is highlighted in yellow.
I thought this was supposed to be a review. How did it sound?
Yes OK sorry, got distracted by tech. But in essence that gives an idea of the problem with Atmos – it’s an inherently technical advance, one that is difficult to communicate to an audience in a pithy way.
The first thing we heard in the cinema was an audio-only demo. It featured some gentle music with vocalist and guitar, starting dead centre, and then slowly panning around the auditorium in a true 360 degree wraparound. This was fairly impressive to me, as I was listening to the blend between the individual speakers, and there really was no audible change in colour or timbre as it moved. Pretty impressive, and goes to show that the calibration works. But to an average audience member, there was nothing really impressive about this. And I don’t know how many people would appreciate that this specific kind of effect was not possible in any prior surround sound format. So what people most often notice (and what is really being sold with Atmos) are the overhead speakers. And they weren’t featured at all in this demo.
They then showed the Dolby Atmos ‘Amaze’ trailer, which I was already familiar with having downloaded a high def Dolby True HD file of it, and played it on my own home 5.1 system.
Being familiar with the sound material is always useful when auditioning a cinema. And I have to say, I was a little disappointed. Sure, it was fucking loud. The ability of the system to produce huge dB ratings without distortion is impressive, but being deafened is not the reason I attend the cinema. I was expecting Atmos to actually be more impressive in its subtlety, but in this trailer everything just felt loud. I didn’t remember this from my own listening at home – I was looking forward to hearing the subtle rendering of rain overhead, punctuated by the “Powerful Bass” moment (which nearly dismantled my fronts and sub at home) but the whole thing was already so saturated in booming bass, that this particular moment didn’t really seem to increase. There’s a point of loudness when you’re already being overwhelmed, so getting again louder doesn’t really make a difference at that point.
And that was the same feeling I had with the next demo they played, the Dolby Atmos ‘Unfold’ trailer.
This was so fucking loud it was actually painful. And when things are that loud, the precise placement in the room becomes harder to focus on. Because your ears are being assaulted. And that’s really why I found this experienced so disappointing. I was looking forward to a new level of subtlety and dimensionality, and instead all I got was really really loud sound coming from all directions.
Before the movie started they showed the Amaze trailer again, which was good so I could have a second listen to it, but my feeling was no different. And if a sound nerd like me is straining to hear the new features, heaven help the average cinema goer, who would really have only noticed how loud everything was.
The film itself was Ridley Scott’s Exodus, which due to its fairly silly nature was an ideal choice as there wasn’t much of an immersion in storytelling to distract me from the sound. But this too was startlingly unsubtle. Even whispered scenes seemed mixed phenomenally loudly, and again disappointed me in what I was expecting from Dolby Atmos. It was like listening to a surround system with the dynamic range compression set to night-mode, and then turned all the way up to reference level. There were no soft sections, there was no delicate placement of surround content. Everything was just in-your-face.
After that experience, I went home and fired up the Dolby Amaze and Unfold trailers on my system. And I have to say that I found them more impressive here then I did at the cinema. The change in dynamics and the dimensionality was truly awesome, and equalled my current favour audio demo – Tron Legacy.
I don’t know if this is something specific to the Crown Casino cinemas – if they are being played back above reference level, or there is something wrong with the calibration of the dynamic curves, but I didn’t feel like I wanted to return to this cinema. I’ve heard more impressive sound at Hoyts Victoria Gardens or Hoyts Melbourne Central’s Dolby 7.1 screens, and I don’t know how much I would miss the overhead channels. Maybe it’s also a function of this being a fairly small auditorium (especially considering it’s marketed as a premium presentation experience, with a ticket surcharge to match) and you are simply too close to the speakers.
But I also know that I need to hear Dolby Atmos more, preferably at different screens. There aren’t too many option in Melbourne yet. Hoyts Chadstone is currently closed, but will reopen in 2016 with Atmos screens. And I don’t know if Exodus was a good film to audition Atmos with. I heard that Brave and Godzilla sounded awesome but sadly I didn’t get an opportunity to hear them.
I’ll do an update once I’ve had an opportunity to listen some more – this is really just a first impression. But so far I was more than a little underwhelmed. I also think that Dolby needs to rethink its strategy for selling this format. Audience have already been deafened by Digital Sound trailers way back in 1993 with DTS’ The Digital Experience slamathon.
UPDATE 28/4/15: Having seen another film at this cinema, this time the Australian production Canopy, and spoken to members of the sound team after, it was confirmed to me that this cinema is indeed using some pretty aggressive dynamic compression, presumably to save speakers from being overloaded. The system wasn’t anywhere near as loud this time, and in fact was apparently missing out on some of the louder dynamics in the soundtrack.
I’ve also had the pleasure of hearing Dolby Atmos now at the Craigieburn United Cinema complex. I saw Avengers there in one of the two GMAX cinemas, and I was very very very pleasantly surprised. The auditorium was big, the screen truly wall to wall and bright, with proper constant height projection. Looked like a 4K projector to me, and was nice and bright to the corners as well. And the sound was pretty magnificent. Huge bass, fantastic surround separation, and from what I could see, 44 seperate surround channels (and presumably 5 behind the screen).
Only gripe would be a surprisingly loud air conditioning system, which was noticeable during the quiet scenes. But very impressive, and much more impressive than Village’s efforts at Crown. This is how the format is supposed to sound.