As we said, Dolby itself feels that 5.1-channels are a sweet spot for surround audio. But the limits of what can be done with surround audio are being tested in what Dolby calls its "Sandbox." There are 24 speakers in this room -- 16 at ear level encircling the listener, a smaller ring of 6 above that, a single "voice of God" speaker is on the ceiling directly above the listener, and a subwoofer. Simply put, the goal of this setup is to be able to create sound anywhere in the upper hemisphere within a theater. The speakers are not perfectly arranged, to better mimic the varying speaker-listener interactions across a theater setting.
After doing some white noise pans, we were convinced that this array of 24 speakers can create a much more spatially continuous soundfield than a conventional 5.1 or 7.1-channel setup. Not a big surprise, right?
But here's the interesting part -- the Sandbox uses 5.1-channel encoding to upmix (expand) to 24-channels, and the results are stunning. The implications for this are pretty exciting -- a 5.1-channel mix that is compatible with everyone's existing surround sound setup can be upmixed to as many as 24-channels for dramatically better surround performance. As with our Pro Logic IIz demo, we didn't notice any ill effects, even when the original material was sourced from a 2-channel vinyl record -- and we believe our host's claims that improper 24-channel upmixing can make the listener seasick, change the tonality, or collapse the soundfield. Thankfully, we didn't lose our lunch, and we heard a dramatically improved sense of ambiance while the tonality of the sound made it immediately recognizable as the original 2-channel stereo recording.
Sure, finding room for 24 speakers is daunting at best and would push even our nonexistent sense of decor to the limits, but it's good to know that with some clever technology like that Dolby showed us in its Sandbox, we won't have to carry around audio files containing 24 discrete channels to create a holographic soundstage. And hey, with the onslaught of in-wall speakers, maybe this kind of sound will be possible in the living room one day. Until then, we'll be eager to see this technology find its way into the cinema space.Conclusion
As you can probably tell, spending a day at Dolby was like a run through a theme park for us. It was incredibly fun to dedicate an entire day to audio, and yet we feel we only scratched the surface. There's a reason that Dolby has managed to put its technology into so much of our media experiences -- simply put, the company develops great technology that enhances the end-user experience and avoids wandering into "gimmick" territory.
On several fronts, Dolby has more competition now than ever. DTS-HD MA
has more titles under its column than TrueHD, Audyssey's
Dynamic EQ and Dynamic Volume as well as THX's Loudness Plus
are aiming for the same sonic goals as Dolby Volume, and Audyssey DSX
is squared off against Pro Logic IIz. However, we're confident that Dolby is up to the challenge. With its deep roots in the cinema space, technical chops, pragmatic approach, and sheer brand familiarity, we've got no doubt that it will continue to impact the audio (and with Dolby HDR, video as well) landscape for years to come.
Although many decry the death of high-end audio, after our whirlwind tour and extensive demos, we'd say it's a great time to be into audio. There's a lot of great technology being thrown at every aspect of the home entertainment experience that not only makes things more convenient, but just plain better. Besides that, the fact that the tech is coming from a variety of companies ensures that the innovation won't stop and will make its way to us consumers faster.
We'd like to thank Dolby for letting us get a glimpse into its inner workings, and hope to stay appraised of more good things to come from that familiar logo.