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Dolby’s beautiful noise

August 24th, 2016
The future of sound is here, as Dolby brings “sound objects” to the living room, writes ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK.
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We tend to be so captivated by the dazzling visuals on the latest high-defintion TV screens, it is easy to miss a key element in bringing the moving images to life: realistic sound. And it’s about to be taken to a higher level.

Already, the quality of sound and video available on high-end TV sets makes for a feast of the senses.

The machine that encapsulates the current state of the art, the LG EG960T, is a 55-inch curved beauty that is as much a piece of futuristic furniture as it is futuristic technology. It is the front end of a new range of TV sets from LG that use OLED, or Organic Light-Emiting Diodes, to provide the sharpest images ever seen on screen.

It is almost incidental that these sets also support 4K: video with 4000 pixels horizontally and 2000 vertically, offering almost 4 times the resolution of high-definition video – regarded as the ultimate viewing experience just a few years ago. The main problem with 4K is that little content has been made in that resolution until recently.

The sets also use Dolby Vision, a technology that combines a wide range of colours and high dynamic range (HDR). HDR means multiple images made with different exposures are combined into a single image to make for more realistic scenes, containing higher contrast, brighter highlights and more colour than was possible before.

It all adds up to breathtaking quality that is still referred to as the future of TV. That future has already arrived, but helped along by dramatic improvements in sound technology. And in this case it is just the beginning.

The EG9600 includes a sound bar – usually something bought separately to create a home theatre experience – developed with audio pioneers Harman/Kardon. It’s described as a “front-firing” sound bar speaker system, since the speakers point forward, as opposed to downward on many flat-screen TVs.

This eliminates much of the sound distortion and reflection that usually comes from TV sets, resulting in far cleaner and “detailed” audio, as LG describes it. Extra woofers – low-frequency speakers – are included in the sound bar to boost the output.

Now add Dolby Digital, the audio compression format that introduced the world to surround sound, and the set comes close to the pinnacle of home theatre. However, to bring surround sound into its own, one needs to position up to five additional speakers that take advantage of the sound channels that Dolby Digital creates in a configuration known as 5:1, which denotes five different directions from which the sound appears to emanate.

The sound bar addresses this to some extent, and the combination of Dolby Vision and Dolby Digital – even without the additional speakers – will convince many users they don’t need to add home theatre accessories.

Until, that is, the next phase in the evolution of sound arrives. It’s called Dolby Atmos and, already, it is spreading through cinemas globally.  A cinema’s own set-up allows for a 7.1.4 format, meaning the equivalent of a regular seven channel format along with four overhead speakers.

However, it is not dependent on seven distinct sound sources. The technology is entirely in the software of the device, and understands the way a human hears, and how sound arrives in the brain. As a result, “sound objects” are created and “positioned” virtually in any location relative to the audience.

The best recent example of a movie screened with Atmos capability is Gravity, in which the sound seems to revolve around the viewer. However, it will come into its own in virtual reality movies, games and content. It is little wonder, then that the technology is arriving in consumer technology devices.

At Lenovo Tech World in San Francisco in June,  Lenovo unveiled three new Yoga 3 tablets in different formats, as well as a 6.4-inch phablet, the Phab 2 Pro, all equipped with Dolby Atmos. This means that, when listening to any content with Atmos output through speakers, a similar surround experience is delivered.

Soon,  Atmos will be built into TV sets as well.

“For us, Atmos is the future of sound, from home cinemas to video games,” said Brett Crockett, vice president in charge of sound technology research and development at Dolby’s Advanced Technology Group, during a demo at the Dolby Laboratories headquarters in San Francisco.

“The challenge I gave the team was to make it sound better than it has ever sounded before and make it easier than it’s ever been before. That’s why we invented a new type of soundbar and new type of speaker: so that you can have the Atmos experience out of the box.”

The beauty of the technology is that it adapts automatically to the capabilities of the user’s set-up.

“The sound is only rendered when it hits your system, and as it renders it knows your system’s capability. So, as you add speakers, you get a better experience.”

Crockett points out that film studios are embracing Dolby Vision as well as a Atmos “in a major way”.

“That helps the pipeline for home distribution as well. We’re working with all the majors on mastering and remastering new and library movies for home distribution. Netflix is streaming in Dolby Vision worldwide, as well as in Dolby Cinema format, which combines Dolby Vision projection technology and Dolby Atmos.”

LG is Dolby’s first worldwide partner, hence its 4K OLED sets are the first to roll-out Dolby Vision. The next generation of TV sets will probably also include Atmos. But that’s not where the story ends, either.

“We’re ready for 9.1.6,” says Crockett of a format that will have nine sound sources around the viewer, along with six speakers in the ceiling. “When the next generation of receivers comes out, we’ll be ready for it.”

  • Arthur Goldstuck is founder of World Wide Worx and editor-in-chief of Gadget.co.za. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram on @art2gee

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