In 2012, Dolby introduced its Dolby Atmos surround sound technology in movie theatres with the release of the Pixar movie, ‘Brave’, and support for the system was first demonstrated on equipment for home theatres in 2014. However, in spite of the fact that it has been 10 years since its introduction, it still helps to offer an introductory explanation to what, exactly, Dolby Atmos is. For more in-depth explanations, https://www.dolby.com/technologies/dolby-atmos is a good place to start and https://www.dolby.com/about/support/guide/speaker-setup-guides has a wide range of options for loudspeaker configuration recommendations.
From the perspective of audio / video systems for the home, Dolby Atmos can most easily be thought of as a collection of different things:
- a set of recommendations for loudspeaker configuration that can include loudspeakers located above the listening position
- a method of supplying audio signals to those loudspeakers that not only use audio channels that are intended to be played by a single loudspeaker (e.g. Left Front or Right Surround), but also audio objects whose intended spatial positions are set by the mixing engineer, but whose actual spatial position is ‘rendered’ based on the actual loudspeaker configuration in the customer’s listening room.
- a method of simulating the spatial positions of ‘virtual’ loudspeakers
- the option to use loudspeakers that are intentionally directed away from the listening position, potentially increasing the spatial effects in the mix. These are typically called ‘up-firing’ and ‘side-firing’ loudspeakers.
In addition to this, Dolby has other technologies that have been enhanced to be used in conjunction with Dolby Atmos-encoded signals. Arguably, the most significant of these is an upmixing / downmixing algorithm that can adapt the input signal’s configuration to the output channels.
Note that many online sites state that Dolby’s upmixing / downmixing processor is part of the Dolby Atmos system. This is incorrect. It’s a separate processor.
1. Loudspeaker configurations
Dolby’s Atmos recommendations allow for a large number of different options when choosing the locations of the loudspeakers in your listening room. These range from a simple 2.0.0, traditional two-channel stereo loudspeaker configuration up to a 24.1.10 large-scale loudspeaker array for movie theatres. The figures below show a small sampling of the most common options. (see https://www.dolby.com/about/support/guide/speaker-setup-guides/ for many more possibilities and recommendations.)
Standard loudspeaker configuration for 5.x multichannel audio. The actual angles of the surround loudspeakers at 110 degrees shows the reference placement used at Bang & Olufsen for testing and tuning. Note that the placement of the subwoofer is better determined by your listening room’s acoustics, but it is advisable to begin with a location near the centre front loudspeaker.
Loudspeaker positions associated with the speaker roles available in the Beosound Theatre, showing a full 7.x.4 configuration.
2. Channels and Objects
Typically, when you listen to audio, regardless of whether it’s monophonic or a stereo (remember that ‘stereo’ merely implies ‘more than one channel’) signal, you are reproducing some number of audio channels that were mixed in a studio. For example, a recording engineer placed a large number of microphones around a symphony orchestra or a jazz ensemble, and then decided on the mix (or relative balance) of those signals that should be sent to a loudspeakers in the left front and right front positions. They did this by listening to the mix through loudspeakers in a standard configuration with the intention that you place your loudspeakers similarly and sit in the correct location.
Consequently, each loudspeaker’s input can be thought of as receiving a ‘pre-packaged’ audio channel of information.
However, in the early 2000s, a new system for delivering audio to listeners was introduced with the advent of powerful gaming consoles. In these systems, it was impossible for the recording engineer to know where a sound should be coming from at any given moment in a game with moving players. So, instead of pre-mixing sound effects (like footsteps, for example) in a fixed position, a monophonic recording of the effect (the footsteps) was stored in the game’s software, and then the spatial position could be set at the moment of playback. So, if the footsteps should appear on the player’s left, then the game console would play them on the left. If the player then turned, the footsteps could be moved to appear in the centre or on the right. In this way different sound objects could be ‘rendered’ instead of merely being reproduced. Of course, the output of these systems was still either loudspeakers or headphones; so the rendered sound objects were mixed with the audio channels (e.g. background music) before being sent to the outputs.
The advantage of a channel-based system is that there is (at least theoretically) a 1:1 match between what the recording or mastering engineer heard in the studio, and what you are able to hear at home. The advantage of an object-based system is that it can not only adapt to the listener’s spatial changes (e.g. the location and rotation of a player inside a game environment) but also to changes in loudspeaker configurations. Change the loudspeakers, and you merely tell the system to render the output differently.
Dolby’s Atmos system merges these two strategies, delivering audio content using both channel-based and object-based streams. By delivering audio channels that match older systems, it becomes possible to have a mix on a newly-released movie that is compatible with older playback systems. However, newer Dolby Atmos-compatible systems can render the object-based content as well, optimising the output for the particular configuration of the loudspeakers.
3. Virtual Loudspeakers
Dolby’s Atmos processing includes the option to simulate loudspeakers in ‘virtual’ locations using ‘real’ loudspeakers placed in known locations. Beosound Theatre uses this Dolby Atmos processing to generate the signals used to create four virtual outputs. (This is discussed in detail in another posting.)
4. Up-firing and Side-firing Loudspeakers
A Dolby Atmos-compatible soundbar or loudspeaker can also include output beams that are aimed away from instead of towards the listening position; either to the sides or above the loudspeakers.
These are commonly known as ‘up-firing’ and ‘side-firing’ loudspeakers. Although Beosound Theatre gives you the option of using a similar concept, it is not merely implemented with a single loudspeaker driver, but with a version of the Beam Width and Beam Direction control used in other high-end Bang & Olufsen loudspeakers. This means that, when using the up-firing and side-firing outputs, more than a single loudspeaker driver is being used to produce the sound. This helps to reduce the beam width, reducing the level of the direct sound at the listening position, which, in turn can help to enhance the spatial effects that can be encoded in a Dolby Atmos mix.
Upmixing and Downmixing
There are cases where an incoming audio signal was intended to be played by a different number of loudspeakers than are available in the playback system. In some cases, the playback uses fewer loudspeakers (e.g. when listening to a two-channel stereo recording on the single loudspeaker on a mobile phone). In other cases, the playback system has more loudspeakers (e.g. when listening to a monophonic news broadcast on a 5.1 surround sound system). When the number of input channels is larger than the number of outputs (typically loudspeakers), the signals have to be downmixed so that you are at least able to hear all the content, albeit at the price of spatially-distorted reproduction. (For example, instruments will appear to be located in incorrect locations, and the spaciousness of a room’s reverberation may be lost.) When the number of output channels (loudspeakers) is larger than the number of input channels, then the system may be used to upmix the signal.
The Dolby processor in a standard playback device has the capability of performing both of these tasks: either upmixing or downmixing when required (according to both the preferences of the listener). One particular feature included in this processing is the option for a mixing engineer to ‘tell’ the playback system exactly how to behave when doing this. For example, when downmixing a 5.1-channel movie to a two-channel output, it may be desirable to increase the level of the centre channel to increase the level of the dialogue to help make it more intelligible. Dolby’s encoding system gives the mixing engineer this option using ‘metadata’; a set of instructions defining the playback system’s behaviour so that it behaves as intended by the artist (the mixing engineer). Consequently, the Beosound Theatre gives you the option of choosing the Downmix mode, where this processing is done exclusively in the Dolby processor.
However, there are also cases where you may also wish to upmix the signal to more loudspeakers than there are input channels from the source material. For these situations, Bang & Olufsen has developed its own up-/down-mixing processor called True Image, which I’ll discuss in more detail in another posting.