Real-world impressions of Dolby Atmos surround sound (ears-on)

Ben Drawbaugh
B. Drawbaugh|07.03.12

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Ben Drawbaugh
July 3, 2012 11:05 AM
Real-world impressions of Dolby Atmos surround sound (ears-on)

Dolby and AMC are both marketing the latest in surround sound technology heavily this past weekend with the release of "Brave," the first movie mixed and presented in Dolby Atmos. There are only 14 theaters in the world with the setup right now and one of them, and with one just an hour away yours truly decided to make the trek and report back for those who can't. Read on to see if our impressions of this new tech live up to the hype.

Unlike with other ballyhooed movie theater technologies, there's no doubt here that when you buy a ticket you're getting exactly what was promised. Those pricey tickets ($16 for adults; $13 for kids) come stamped with the Atmos logo on it, and a Dolby employee even waited outside the entrance to give moviegoers a brief explanation of the technology. Looking around the theater, there were two rows of nine speakers above, from front to back, eight on each side and even more behind. We didn't count them individually, but we're confident that not another speaker could have been squeezed anywhere into that theater.

Before the start of "Brave" we were introduced to a new Dolby Atmos demo clip designed purely to flex the system's muscles. It was very nature-oriented, with leaves blowing about and sounds hitting you from all directions. Demos aside, we were there to see the movie and while the overall volume level during a few scenes was too loud for our tastes -- something we hardly ever say -- that was our only complaint (also rare).

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Merida's preferred weapon, the bow, was practically tailor-made for Atmos, as you could hear exactly what direction the arrows were whizzing and at what velocity, even. The sonic quality of the music and dialog didn't disappoint either -- Dolby didn't make any sacrifices in its more traditional audio system when developing Atmos. Even at its worst, the Atmos experience is a top-of-the-line surround sound experience, but at its best it can shower us with sounds from above, and from across the theater in alarmingly lifelike detail. That said, even after putting our ears to the test, we still have to question how useful this horsepower is. The unfortunate reality we're left with is that there may only be a few times during any movie where the difference in these effects can be truly appreciated.

The thing we find really exciting, however, isn't the fact that we can hear rain fall from above or that an arrow whizzes past us more evenly; it's that directors have one less restriction to abide by when crafting a masterpiece. At the end of the movie, we suspect many theatergoers will be left wondering what the big deal was -- heck, even we might not have given it a second thought had we not read up on the technology in advance. The positive takeaway is the assurance that we experienced the best surround sound available, and that we enjoyed the movie exactly as its creators wanted us to. Given the choice between a theater with Dolby Atmos and one without, we'll always choose the one with -- but it's unlikely we'll make an hour-plus road trip for it again.

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