Dolby Atmos – a visit to Dolby’s new screening room in Soho

January 30, 2013
Dolby's creening room in Soho Square, London

Dolby’s screening room in Soho Square, London

Last week I had an opportunity to visit Dolby Labs new London home in Soho Square, the trip was mainly to visit one of our students from one of our audio engineering programmes at Salford University who is on placement there for 12 months. The screening room here is impressive in itself – a small cinema with near-perfect acoustics and a 4K projector, pretty much an ideal listening environment and as part of the visit I got to experience Dolby’s Atmos demos. I’ve been looking forward to this for quite a while…

Atmos is an exciting prospect for many of us involved in audio research as it is the first commercial object based audio system that has potential to go mainstream. Object based audio is a big leap forward from the channel based systems we are used to. In channel based audio – such as two channel stereo, 5.1, 7.1, 9.1 etc – the production (or the recording) is tailored for a specific loudspeaker configuration – this sound goes to this loudspeaker, this one goes between these two etc. In object based systems however each audio object, each sound, is defined not by its relationship to the loudspeakers and their placement but by a 3D coordinate location. In principal this means you can define your audio objects in production and render them across a wide variety of  loudspeaker configurations, everything from conventional 5.1 and 7.1 to more immersive systems with a height component provided by loudspeakers above your head.

The full Atmos system uses up to 64 loudspeaker tracks, there are speakers along the side walls of the room, behind you, a pair of subs for low frequency content suspended from the ceiling, 5 loudspeakers behind the screen (left, centre, right, left centre, right centre) and two rows of speakers running along the ceiling from the rear of the theatre to the screen. The basis of the mix is a 9.1 bed – so still familiar territory to sound engineers and mixers everywhere – but in addition there are up to 128 active audio objects which can be flown anywhere around the speaker setup and are added on top of this 9.1 bed. One of the drivers here is a produce-once-play-anywhere approach. It has parallels with the work we’ve been doing on the FascinatE research project where we are also working with object based audio but in the context of live event broadcast rather than movie production. Like in FascinatE (which I have written about before) each audio object has its own metadata that tells the system where to put it and how to manage it in different reproduction environments.

Mobile phone video of Dolby Atmos from projection room

You can see a short video I shot with my mobile of the back end of the system in the projection room here, there are meters for the 9.1 bed and a 3D representation of the cinema – the yellow circles are audio objects, many of which are animated. Please excuse the poor video quality but I think it gives a nice overview of the Atmos interface.

The possibility of avoiding having to make separate mixes for each reproduction system makes good commercial sense but it is the listening experience that impresses me most. Action scenes were rendered much more exciting and immersive and had a ‘WOW’ factor but the real power in the system is in more subtle application which, for me at least, places you inside the scene much more effectively than 3D video content ever has. A clip of The Woman in Black in particular (mixed for Atmos by Ian Tapp) was startling and quite unnerving with floorboards creaking overhead and the voice of a ghost coming from the rear of the cinema. Very very impressive indeed and I’m holding out on seeing The Hobbit until I can see it in Atmos. Sadly only one UK cinema has the system installed so far though, I suspect this may change.

Many thanks to the terrific folk at Dolby for running these great demos for me.


  1. […] Black showed how the improved sound from above and behind can increase scariness. As my colleague Ben Shirley blogged earlier this year ‘A clip of The Woman in Black in particular (mixed for Atmos by Ian Tapp) […]

  2. Which UK cinema has that? I might have to make a pilgrimage!

  3. […] correctly this is much more flexible. Also I want one 😉 See also Ben Shirley's post on the system https://benshirley.wordpress.com/2013/01/30/dolby-atmos-a-visit-to-dolbys-new-screening-room-in-soho/ ▶ No Responses /* 0) { jQuery('#comments').show('', change_location()); […]

  4. JBL loudspeakers ?

  5. Only flaw with atmos is. It doesn’t have stereo below surround and therefore sounds unconvincing.

    Rain sounds don’t sound above your head in the real world. Atmos has been bragging its “life like” heard that story all before with Dolby digital, dts SDDS.

    I have listened twice at empire 1, same day 9th May 2013, Star Trek into darkness, and it sounded dreadful.

    Eq on the stage and surrounds as usual was still set TOO DAMN HIGH for dogs cats and bats range. I had to cover my ears many times in past with that 56kw overrated dbx4800 badly designed JBL set-up,.

    funny how the original JBL THX sound system had stage bass authority over the new one and the older one sub bass really rattled vibrated the cinema with flashbacks of Sensurround.

    All this hype of overhead surround, lol I have worked at UCI cinema in 1989 that had all its EV surrounds mounted to the suspended ceiling. I guess that was overhead surround with Dolby Stereo A and SR.

    I have even seen overhead surrounds at another local cinema way back, December 1977 STAR WARS at the Guamount screen 2,with common arrays on side/back wall.

    I have a small cluster overhead in my home cinema, whoopee big deal. Its not a new idea at all. The only difference is discrete sound information can be poorly mixed by an engineer and its still going to sound like 5.1.

    Rain effects are really complicated to making any sound mix. real like? Need below surrounds and even my home has below surrounds underneath the cinema seats, and Dolby Stereo 424 and 5.1 and 7.1 even the George Lucas Kitchen THX sink does it for me.

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