The first time I remember hearing surround sound was early 1977, in a cinema showing King Kong – the version with Jeff Bridges and Jessica Lange. So far as I recall, it was used only near the end, when Kong plunged from the Twin Towers and lay dying; his heartbeat was pumped around the auditorium.
Although the immediate effect was to remove you from the moment by way of amazement at this new sonic immersion, it certainly made its mark on the 12-year-old kid who had bussed to the Redditch Classic Cinema and handed over his pocket money for the bigscreen Kong experience.
A decade and a bit later, I was working at What Hi-Fi? magazine at just the time when consumer surround sound began its assault on the world’s living rooms. It was all Dolby Pro-Logic at first, with two mono rears and a centre added to the conventional stereo pair. I recall plugging up an early Yamaha unit which powered just those three additional channels, leaving the main stereo system unaffected while decoding the extra channels magically from the Hi-Fi stereo track of a VCR – or, for the lucky few, LaserDisc.
Dolby Digital was next, and shortly thereafter a competitor: DTS. Championed by Spielberg, who used it for Jurassic Park, DTS seemed at first to threaten yet another format war for video, just as we’d all got over the whole VHS vs Betamax thing. But soon enough equipment arrived which could decode either format, so that for consumers, it didn’t much matter what format was on the tape, or thereafter on the disc. If it translated into effective surround sound, all was good.
That’s an important point – it has never much mattered to the consumer which surround format accompanies a movie, even multiple ones, so long as equipment caters for it, although discerning audiophiles in the video world might express a preference, which back then was more often than not for DTS.
Dolby Digital compressed its 5.1 channels into a total bit-rate of 448kb/s on DVDs, less than half that required for stereo CD quality, let alone six channels. DTS was less compressed, up to 768kb/s, but stereo tracks might be included up to 24-bit/96kHz high-res. If you have a stash of old music DVDs (as do I), then it’s always worth checking if there’s an additional DTS track on there. The mixes can differ significantly, and the alternate DTS track can sound significantly better, if often also quieter.
Dolby versus DTS
But all in all, soundtracks continued along their parallel tracks. When Dolby and THX came up with surround EX in 6.1, DTS introduced two separate 6.1 versions, DTS-ES Discrete and DTS-ES Matrix. Then there was Dolby Digital Plus (compressed 7.1) and Dolby TrueHD (uncompressed 7.1), alongside DTS-HD (lossy 7.1) and DTS-Master HD (lossless 7.1).
We’ll pass over the return of Pro Logic in its II, IIx and IIz variants, otherwise we may lose the will to live, but the next advance is the one we are living with today – the object-based formats of Dolby Atmos, and the sexy-sounding DTS:X (“you can’t say DTS:X without saying ‘sex’ ” is one of the great unused promotional slogans of our time).
I won’t explain object-based audio here (because it’s explained well enough here), but suffice to say that both Dolby Atmos and DTS:X have changed the game by moving the decoding and processing to the replay device.
So instead of having an inherent number of channels, your receiver/soundbar etc uses the object-based information to deliver sound to however many speakers are available – from mono, indeed, up to as many as you want, really, with 24.1.10 initially envisioned as a domestic upper limit for Atmos, including all the new joys of height information, using ceiling speakers.
Which is great, except that the ability to match your system has enabled all manner of equipment to arrive proclaiming itself Dolby Atmos or DTS:X compatible, which many prospective purchasers may believe to imply delivery of height information, when they do nothing of the kind. As noted, the formats scale to whatever you’ve got, so stereo Atmos (witness Atmos delivery on headphones) can be a thing.
Both companies have further encouraged this by creating ‘virtualised’ sound functions that promise a surround or height delivery even when you don’t have surround or height speakers. In 30 years I’ve yet to hear a virtualised system that really works, or that can create real immersion without also destroying something in the process, usually vocal intelligibility. There’s simply no substitute for real drivers.
But here’s the thing. The balance of success between Dolby formats and DTS formats has been variable; it’s always been a competition. And it’s not a verdict that can really be decided by consumers; it’s down to the content providers. In the old days these were the movie companies picking the format for the cinemas and by extension usually for the DVDs and Blu-rays that followed.
But we’re all aware of the death of physical media in recent years, vinyl excepted, while every kind of optical disc – CD, DVD, Blu-ray – has seen sales shattered by the almighty onslaught of first downloading, and now the new streaming paradigm.
Streaming has changed everything, and it has certainly changed the relative success of Dolby and DTS.
How many streaming services offer Dolby Atmos? Netflix, Disney+, Prime – all the major ones. Those that don't have Atmos usually have some lesser form of Dolby for 5.1.
And how many streaming services offer DTS?
Glad you asked. I only realised the answer to that after sitting in on an online launch for Bowers & Wilkins’ new soundbar, the Panorama 3. After the launch, with pics and specs received by email, I realised there was no DTS support listed for the Panorama 3. I sent a quick email to double-check this, and the reply (from or via Sound United in Australia) was:
“The reason for this is that DTS is not used by any of the streaming service companies and therefore is limited to people watching DVD/Blu-ray connected to the TV with the audio passed through the ARC/eARC. However the vast majority of TV companies do not support this on the ARC/eARC.”
No DTS streaming anywhere at all? Could that be right? I flipped an email back to Sound United, pointing out that Disney+ has started carrying some Marvel movies in ‘IMAX Enhanced’, a relatively new presentation format from the same company as DTS (Xperi).
DTS audio is a fundamental part of IMAX Enhanced; indeed one might suggest that the purpose of IMAX Enhanced is as a trojan horse for getting more DTS and DTS:X audio out there, within IMAX Enhanced.
I’m drawn to that interpretation because otherwise it’s hard to see what else IMAX Enhanced brings to the party. Of course the IMAX brand has kudos for its cinemas and the large-format movies it makes (initially on 70mm film turned sideways for a larger frame), but a normal movie streaming in IMAX Enhanced isn’t going to come with a projection screen five storeys high.
The goal, according to FAQs on the IMAX Enhanced website, is to create “a premium streaming experience”. There’s talk of optimising sound and image, to “present the movie as the director intended”. But that’s what everybody says and does; there’s no differentiation there.
The only real difference is that the aspect ratio of the film may change during some specific ‘Enhanced’ sections. DTS's PR company (which contacted me after this piece went live) informs me that these are taken from the changes made for presentation in IMAX theatres. To my mind that’s still not really “as the director intended”; it's a change someone made specifically for IMAX presentation on a screen five storeys high. I've asked the PR company which directors (other than Christopher Nolan, whose IMAX aspect changes go back to The Dark Knight) are really personally involved in ratio changes, or if it happens further down the chain. More info when I get it.
So that leaves the other unique thing about IMAX Enhanced – which is DTS audio. It is, says the FAQs, “the only way to experience IMAX’s signature picture, sound and scale outside of the theater—with exclusive, digitally remastered 4K HDR content and immersive audio by DTS.”
Except… head to Disney+, and along with ‘IMAX Enhanced’ you’ll see the sound format listing – and it’s Dolby Atmos. IMAX Enhanced visuals, with Dolby Atmos sound. That shows how much Xperi needs to get a foothold in streaming: they’re letting Disney+ run IMAX Enhanced video with the Atmos soundtrack from the non-IMAX version, in the hope they will switch over later.
"We are looking forward to unlocking more exciting technology for Disney+ subscribers in the future, which will include immersive IMAX signature sound by DTS," said Jon Kirchner, CEO of Xperi in November 2021. We approached Xperi for an update on this; no reply, but we have heard from a UK PR company for DTS which says it is "on the Disney+ roadmap". Of course they would say that; Disney itself says only that “other IMAX Enhanced features and functionality are not currently available on Disney+.” No promises there.
So I sent another email quickly back to Sound United after checking the Disney+ soundtracks via both an AppleTV 4K and a 2021 Samsung TV. You might be right, I said, I can’t find any DTS streaming anywhere.
And I started sending emails to other contacts in the industry.
One who responded in depth was Boyd Gill from Yamaha Music Australia, noting that “DTS has always been (at least in my experience) regarded as the superior format in terms of sound performance, especially in the Blu-ray HD audio war of DTS Master-HD vs True HD… Most seem to theorise that it’s this dedication to quality, resulting in file size or high bandwidth requirements that makes it far less suitable for the low-bandwidth streaming world of highly compressed and efficient audio delivery required by all streaming services. Dolby seem to have successfully captured this market by developing a pretty robust streaming codec in DD+.”
Has a previous DTS focus on quality been its undoing in the streaming market? How alarmingly unfair that would seem.
None of those who responded to me could point to any DTS streaming services. But after this piece went live, the UK PR company for DTS confirmed that "there is DTS/IMAX Enhanced support on TenCent Video in China, plus iQiyi (SE Asia), Rakuten TV (Europe) and Tsutaya TV (Japan)." They also note that there is DTS/IMAX Enhanced support on Bravia Core Sony TVs in 78 countries, although in countries without DTS/IMAX streaming (like Australia), this will be of limited use.
UPDATE: My thanks to Vincent in France, who has emailed me about the Rakuten video service in Europe. He sent this image (right), showing IMAX Enhanced content listing Dolby Atmos but also a DTS Core. The 'core' is part of the compressed version of Dolby Atmos used for streaming, and is usually 'Dolby Digital Plus JOC' (Joint Object Coding), where the full Atmos soundtrack has been rendered to 5.1 (or to 7.1, then downmixed to 5.1) with additional metadata included from the Dolby Atmos master to allow reconstruction for Atmos delivery.
So is Ratuken (and potentially others) serving a DTS core rather than a Dolby Digital Plus core, with this being reconstructed as a Dolby Atmos delivery based on an original DTS soundtrack? Or will it actually emerge as full-blown in DTS or DTS:X? We've now asked DTS's UK PR company to get us an answer.
Meanwhile if anyone in Europe can try these Rakuten's DTS-cored soundtracks into an AV receiver and let me know what emerges, I'll update this update! Meanwhile this is an indication of some DTS presence on streaming services, so we must revise its score from 'zero' to 'something we haven't quite worked out yet, but not much'. And of course it applies only to the small percentage of movies which are available in IMAX Enhanced, primarily (entirely?) Marvel titles.
Another pillar of IMAX Enhanced, according to those FAQs, is “differentiation: Helping consumers seamlessly identify best-in-class consumer electronics products” – by which they mean those products which have an IMAX Enhanced badge on them.
That’s what every format war is about in the end – the licence fees that are paid on every device that supports the format. Manufacturers, especially small ones, have often moaned to me about how much such licences add to the price of a product, and the development delays they can cause. When you see those dozens of logos on a box or on an instruction manual, it’s a double-edged sword – the product supports all these things, great, but hey, you’re paying for them, and probably for a good many you’ll never need.
It’s a sign of the scale of these things that Dolby’s licence fee revenue for the year to September 21 was a staggering US$1.2bn, up 12% on the previous year, and 18 times the revenue it makes from all its other products and services.
So Xperi, of course, wants to sell IMAX Enhanced licences, presumably including a DTS licence. But at the same time manufacturers want to minimise their licence payments, and clearly in this case Bowers & Wilkins just doesn’t see the need to pay for DTS, initially at least. They’ll get by just fine without it – precisely because there is no DTS on streaming services, and streaming services are now the vast majority of the video market for those buying their Panorama 3 soundbar.
Indeed I began to receive replies from others indicating – off the record, at present – that Bowers & Wilkins is not alone. You can expect more soundbars in particular to arrive without DTS support in the near future. Bang & Olufsen’s ‘Stage’ soundbars already don’t support DTS. The Sonos Arc is promoted as “the top-selling Dolby Atmos soundbar in the US” and though it mentions it can play “DTS Digital Surround”, it then notes “This is not an indication of a licensed decoder”.
So as things stand, Dolby has domination of the streaming video market with Atmos, and is further doubling down through the rise of music in Dolby Atmos, with no lesser supporter than Apple. Play it on your headphones, play it on your soundbar. (I play it on a full 5.1.2 Atmos rig, and I like it.)
There's no DTS answer to Atmos music, leaving IMAX Enhanced the only streaming hope for DTS, with no guarantee that trojan horse trick is going to work, given it has already been compromised.
As more kit arrives without DTS support, streaming companies will be even less keen to switch formats from Atmos to DTS. The Disney+ delivery of IMAX Enhanced with Dolby Atmos couldn’t be a more clear slap in the face in that regard.
As discs continue to die, Sony Pictures Entertainment’s promise to churn out more IMAX Enhanced/DTS:X UHD Blu-ray titles isn’t going to make a dent in the current situation, and one wonders how long Sony will continue to persist with them. (Although an additional incentive to do so is that the wider Sony has its own format war against Dolby Atmos in the music arena with its ‘360 Reality Audio’ format.)
Ding ding, end of round 8
Of course, that’s only for this round of the great format wars. As we’ve seen, the only certainty in audio formats is change. What’s next, and who will get there first? I don’t know. (If I did, I’d stop writing and form an audio format company.)
One other point is that it’s rarely good to have a monopoly in these things, because then the incumbent can charge what they like for their licence fees, or stop caring so much about audio quality, and then we all suffer.
But then DTS is not going to disappear as a brand, no matter its performance in the video streaming arena. There’s more to DTS than movie sound; the multiroom music platform DTS Play-Fi seems resurgent, and its parent Xperi has other strong brands under its belt, including TiVO.
So I’m sure battle will continue on whatever new fronts develop, and come the next audio revolution, perhaps DTS will storm the barricades and amaze us all with some new miraculously expanded immersive experience. There’s still room for additional speakers in the floor, after all.
Apologies to Auro-3D for not including that format in the discussion above. Auro-3D is great, but relatively obscure, and certainly not for streaming (yet, anyway). Find out more here.
DisappointingIy, I can find absolutely no reference anywhere to Kong’s 1976 heartbeat being in surround; the home video release eventually came out in 5.1, but the Panavision release went to cinemas in 6-Track Stereo. (The magnificent Logan’s Run, released earlier in 1976, was one of the earliest appearances of six-track Dolby Stereo using the Todd-AO 70mm film format encoded with Dolby noise reduction. But I wasn’t allowed in to see that.)
So maybe the Redditch cinema just had its sound wonky, or I was sitting nearer to some rear-enhancement speakers than I was to the front delivery.
Still, it seems that I was not alone in remembering the experience. In 2019 the Reddit group /MovieDetails spotted that in Godzilla: King of the Monsters (2019), the sound effect of Godzilla's dorsal fins charging up before his ‘atomic breath’ is an altered version of King Kong's dying heartbeat from 1976. This was later confirmed in the Blu-ray commentary. I’m delighted that poor Kong got this audio resurrection, at least. While writing this piece I watched the ending of the film on YouTube, and even with a small screen I was quite upset by the poor ape being machine-gunned by bastards in helicopters while Jessica Lange clung screaming at his ankle. And I cheered again when he swatted one of the helicopters out of the sky.
Good movies never die. Soundtrack formats though? We must wait and see.
One thing I hate about the fact these companies don't pay for the DTS license, is that even if its use is getting more and more niche (bluray, or listening to blurays as remux files on plex, etc.), is that these soundbars or home theather products are sometimes high end. If I pay 2000 USD for a soundbar, you better pay the 10$ required to provide me the DTS:X format, even if I only use it once per year, because there is no way in my mind an expensive product like this shouldn't tick ALL the boxes.
This is why I'm happy with my Samsung Q950A and LG B9, both can still process dts:x
Dialogue as object based volume control.
DTS has better backwards compatibility, but I guess there are few situations where that would be necessary today, unless perhaps for the Logitech THX branded surround systems, that are the best really cheap surround systems, but they only offer optical input or 5.1 analog inputs for surround, limited to DD and DTS, in their basic spec.
Back to the dialogue feature.
Mixing of dialogue has several of issues.
One, the rooms they do it in, are nothing like home cinemas, and not even anything like actual cinemas. It isn't uncommon to mostly use nearfield monitors either.
But even worse than that, the people doing the mixing will hear, the dialogue over and over, until they know it, at least partly, and when you know what someone is saying, you will hear it more clearly.
So they don't know how bad dialogue is mixed.
And on many early listening events, the people in the room are familiar with the dialogue, or aren't really engaged in the experience at all. And the "outside" people that have issues hearing the dialogue, also likely aren't people in a position to complain about it.
Object based audio, with ability to tag it, opened a whole new opportunity when it came to consumers finally getting control over dialogue volume, but only the DTS team understood it, but even they allowed it to be a choice.
Even if we would pretend that issues hearing dialogue only came down to the bad off axis response of the center-speaker in combination with issues with room reflections, so it could be blamed on the consumer, still, why wouldn't you want to give the consumer the option to increase the dialogue level so that they can actually hear the performance of the actors, without missing out of content or having to enable subtitles that get in the way of screen content. The business is filled with egos.
The music business has a lot of egos as well, with a lot of harsh sounding mixes out there, probably due to hearing issues, bad playback rooms, or the selection of monitoring speakers or amplifier.
And this weird idea that bass should have a boost or saturation above 100 Hz, so that phone speakers and similar will at least give a hint of a bass sound being there, while most people have access to headphones that are capable of some bass playback at least, and those who don't bother listening with headphones or at least a semi capable speaker, probably don't care enough about the music to really notice elements of it missing.
We also have panned bass, unintentionally, that creates an issue when played back on headphones, as in a room you can't tell the direction of low end content, but with the isolation of headphones you can. There are other weird issues when missing the crosstalk of each speaker sound reaching the opposite ear (stereo reverb reflections and actual positioning of audio that differs a lot when experienced through headphones).
In theory with a complex object based sound format, it would actually be possible to deal with the crosstalk and bass issues, by instructing the equipment how to decode depending on the playback, I guess it would even in theory be possible to add objects that are muted on proper playback, to add that bass bump, when needed.
I guess that is one place where the next format could actually offer something that Dolby does not do, or at least not well at this point. It tries to do surround in headphones, with a few issues on how it affects the mix and reverb sounds. But it doesn't take advantage of being object based to differ the decoding on stereo material or mostly stereo material, for headphones vs speakers, and as most people (perhaps 50/50 among hifi nerds these days, but a clear majority among the general population) do their serious listening on headphones, having a good sounding headphone mix is more important than the speaker mix really, but going full headphone as opposed to todays full speaker focus, is not right either, as it will have similar issues, though not the bass one, as dead center bass-frequencies will work well in a room as well, as we can't tell direction of them anyway.
Being able to tag audio, could open up further possibilities for music, where the listener could mute certain instruments or the vocal track, to practice songs along with the original audio.
So it is possible to get a false surround experience through a stereo system, if the situation is just right.
That then also means that it is possible to create the experience of surround from a soundbar, but due to the limited set of situations where it would work well, and for the limited sweet-spot it would work for, it mostly doesn't work that well at all in actual home situations.
But I'm curious now that the technology of creating sound-beams actually are on its way to the market, I remember reading first about it in the 90s or early 00s. A soundbar would still be a bit limiting, but a limited numbers of actual boxes placed in a room, would be able to create pin-pointed sources of sound in many more locations, and we might actually see solutions where object data in the surround format could be used to create a moving sound-beam, to replace jumping between speakers.
If we are talking dying formats, I'm a bit sad to see 3D passed on. I mean with the VR glasses market growing, it would have been a perfect opportunity to offer good 3D experience finally. I mean soon we will be able to buy high framerate dual 4K OLED "HDR- experience" VR glasses, for a reasonable price, but with no actual film-media to take advantage of it, and no copyright protocol to handle distribution to several of VR glasses from a single source at the same time... what was sony and the rest thinking when they developed UHD bluray format, they should have been able to predict this, there were signs of it, back then, and if they had decided on specs for Download UHD expansion of the BluRay format, any limitations of disc space would not have been an issue, they could even made it so that the BluRay disc was the key to unlock playback of the downloaded version or extension of the format. Yes 3D TVs did not have any success back then and the projector market in relation to the higher end TV market was probably shrinking. But there were a lot of buzz surrounding VR and AR... even if the rollout has been slower than expected at the time (bluray support might have sped it up a bit though), they should have still realized that there would be a day when people would have the option of getting Dual 4K, high framerate screens in their VR/AR glasses and having a lot of material recorded by then, could open up for a real opportunity, I mean Sony witht their playstation would have had a golden opporunity to sell units even to people that weren't in to gaming if they would have allowed high framerate, dual 4K, 3D, for their users (they would not have been able to predict the shortage of components, so they would have been able to expect to sell boatloads of units, as the best bluray for people who would have wanted to watch 3D in full... and they would have probably launched two sets of glasses, the Pro version with dual 4K and all... I don't think their regular new Playstation VR glasses has quite that resolution, but movie fans would be willing to pay extra, if it could offer the experience of a large screen with 3D, hdr and hifh framerate).
I agree with the lower bandwidth making sense to push Atmos. But this is further proof this Atmos offering is a lie to consumers saying you are getting the next generation development when really your getting the cheapest low effort mix you possibly could get.
I really hope you are wrong and we can get some services to stream the many movies that have DTS:X tracks available and perhaps more adoption will come as people start realizing it's often a better indicator of quality.
Many thanks for your kind words - yes, the Q950A is about as good as soundbars get; that's a Sound+Image award-winner! Nice kit pairing there; never be afraid to mix brands, even fierce competitors! And good point, the higher the kit, the more you need the codecs, as the better you can differentiate. B&W may not be supporting DTS on its soundbar, but the parent Sound United certainly continues to do so on its Denon/Marantz receivers etc. Jez
Woah there, your reply is long than my article! Some great stuff in there. I was perhaps too dismissive of psychoacoustic surround; some of the side-firing soundbars etc can certainly push things very wide; Sennheiser's Ambeo is the prime example, but I had a fairly lowly Hisense bar in for review recently which managed the trick with certain sounds. I just meant it's no substitute for real surround speakers, and I dislike the fact that so many companies pretend it is.
Beam-forming - I must read up! Yamaha was king of the beamformers with its 22-driver bars a few years back, but I haven't seen what's coming. The question may then be how critical round boundaries are for bouncing them effectively. Alway something new to play with! Cheers, Jez
Cheers, and yes, this was by no means a pro-Dolby article; there's much love among both consumers and industry for the efforts of DTS in quality terms... it's just struggling on quantity in the streaming market at present. Thanks for posting. Cheers, Jez
2.1 = Stereo Speakers + Mono Subwoofer = Nirvana
7.1 or 5.1 format is better for cinematic realm of audio but when I'm listening to music I revert it back to 5 channel analogue audio.