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A few thoughts about my visit to Dolby Laboratories

Discussion in 'Blu-ray and UHD' started by Ronald Epstein, Nov 15, 2010.

  1. Ronald Epstein

    Ronald Epstein Administrator
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    When the words Dolby Digital are uttered, most people immediately associate them as "that company that does sound for theaters and receivers." Well, while that may be true there is a whole other side of the company that I was about ready to explore. This past week I was fortunate to be part of a small group of individuals invited out to Dolby Laboratories in San Francisco. The group consisted of owners and writers from various Home Theater websites. There was no press. Dolby specifically noted that they were not looking for any coverage. It seemed that the true intent of inviting us out was to gauge our opinions of where Dolby stands today in the market and in what ways we thought they could better themselves.









    Upon arrival we were greeted by Craig Eggers (center white striped shirt), Senior Manager of Consumer Electronics Partner Marketing. We were immediately led into their state-of-the-art theater which also serves as the facility sound laboratory. The entire theater rests on small blocks, suspending it from the rest of the building. What this does is isolate the sound acoustically. The chairs are specially designed so that whether the theater is full or empty the acoustics never change. Air conditioning is silently ventilated through the side walls. When the doors are shut and the room is completely silent you can hear the beating of your own heart. For laboratory use, the side walls easily open to reveal speakers that can be swapped out or reconfigured for research purposes.


    Suffice to say, with the addition of rear surround left and rear surround right zones in the theater there was an added sense of directionality that I was unaccustomed to hearing. Dolby is pushing 7.1 to theaters as added entertainment value for their audience. They are also pushing the technology to the filmmakers giving them the opportunity to do more with their mixing, having the ability to place sounds in areas they previously did not have available to them. I was quite pleased with the immersive sound experience.


    We then had the opportunity to watch Dolby 3D trailers of Tron Legacy as well as some footage of Avatar. Dolby 3D is promising theater owners an easy upgrade to the format via a simple filter for the projector. The eyewear is not only much lighter than any I have previously worn but it is also reusable. Dolby 3D promises exceptional picture clarity from any seat at any angle of the auditorium.








    Many people rarely have the opportunity to sit in a sound mixing room. This was perhaps one of the most exciting moments of my visit. We had the opportunity to sit in with John Loose, Senior Manager of Prints and A/V production at Dolby. We were all shown how a recent YouTube viral video with a simple stereo track had been completely remixed for multi-channel audio including the addition of foley effects. It was pretty cool to have the channels broken down for us so we could hear exactly where sounds were being placed. On hand was a very special guest, Jack Vad of the San Francisco Symphony (pictured just above) who explained the challenges of mixing classical music and preserving the acoustic integrity of the sound hall. Really cool stuff!





    Our next visit was to their Home Theater room which they use to replicate the experience of what we have in our homes. It was here we met Jamie Goodyear. We were shown a demo of Dolby Pro Logic IIz which greatly expands upon the 5.1 and 7.1 experience with two heightened speakers on either side of the viewing area. You can see one of the speakers at the top of the picture above. What this does is add more spaciousness to the sound field as well as giving the viewer the sense of height. For example, during a rainstorm you will hear the rain coming from above you. During a plane flyby the sound will appear to come overhead rather than from the sides. The whole demonstration seemed effective but it doesn't seem to be a technology that I would be in a hurry to upgrade to.


    Where the heightened speakers seem to be even more effective is in gaming. We saw a demo of a combat game where an enemy helicopter was flying overhead. With the heightened speakers you really got the feeling that the helicopter was situated above you.


    Our final Home Theater demo involved the incorporation of Dolby Digital Plus 5.1 and 7.1 for Netflix streaming which was announced over the past few weeks. We watched a clip directly from Netflix and I was surprised as to how indistinguishable the experience was from watching a standard DVD. Certainly the addition of Dolby Surround sound enhances the overall streaming experience. Unfortunately there is no way to find Dolby Digital content on Netflix using a standard search. That information can only be obtained when you bring up the programming information.







    This brings me to perhaps the two biggest questions Home Theater enthusiasts have been asking about Dolby these days....."What happened to Dolby TrueHD" and "Is Dolby still in the Blu-ray Market?"


    The reason Dolby TrueHD was dropped from Blu-ray in favor of DTS had nothing to do with one format being better than the other, which sadly became the misconception. It had everything to do with workflow. The studios were finding that during final disc sound mixing phase the encoding process was taking far longer on Dolby TrueHD than DTS. When time is money the studios decided that they needed to go with the faster process. This was truly regrettable for Dolby Labs. Since then they have greatly improved upon the encoding process and now they are going back to the studios and showing them that they have a product that they can be competitive with. It is their hope that Dolby TrueHD will find its way back to becoming a standard format on Blu-ray.





    One of the messages I wanted to bring to Dolby Laboratories was that there was a need to incorporate better sound into portable devices. What if I could watch a movie on my iPad and through normal headphones be able to experience simulated surround sound? There used to be a very effective sound codec named Dolby Headphone. However, haven't heard much more about it over the years.

    It seems that Dolby Laboratories were already several steps ahead of me. They are working to introduce enhanced sound into more portable devices. Will it come to Apple products? Dolby would not provide an answer to that.


    What some of you may or may not find quite impressive here is the results of Dolby Digital's partnership with Nokia and the introduction of their N8 smartphone. You can now store movies on the 16GB (expandable to 48GB) drive and via the built-in HDMI connector be able to plug it into your television to experience 720p HD content with Dolby Digital Plus surround sound. For the most part, the quality of what came off of this phone looked great. Did notice some slight jerkiness in the video. The surround was easily noticeable. For me personally, I don't think I have any need to store movies on my phone to play back on any display. There are flash drives that enable you to do that. However, there does seem to be a selling point for someone and it's great to see that Dolby is making headway into the phone market.









    Our day ended with a visit to perhaps what may be the future. We were introduced to the "sandbox," a place where all the rules applied to normal sound technology is thrown aside in favor of playing to your hearts content in an effort to hopefully produce something totally out of the box. In this case we found ourselves in a padded sound room encircled with 16 speakers on stands, 6 surround speakers suspended in the air via ropes, and one overhead center speaker named "The voice of God." We were given a demonstration of what 24.1 discrete channels would sound like. One of the most effective examples was a soundfile of an airplane taking off. You not only got the sense that you were sitting in the middle of the takeoff but as the plane rose so did its sound. No doubt, a completely engrossing sonic experience but the reality is that there is no real world application for this technology right now and nobody is going to invest in having this many speakers in their home. Still, it's this kind of experimentation that drives Dolby to come up with exciting new sound formats.


    I would like to thank everyone at Dolby Laboratories for rolling out the red carpet for our group. I never felt as if they were looking for any kind of coverage. That feeling was solidified with a roundtable discussion at the end of the event where we met with their technology team who were most interested in learning what sort of things we felt Dolby should invest their time in. It was a real learning experience for me and I am grateful to have been given the opportunity to spend a day with the team.
     
  2. Serega_M

    Serega_M Agent

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    Thanks for the interesting report, man, especially the Dolby TrueHD part ;)
     
  3. Mike Frezon

    Mike Frezon Moderator
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    Ron:


    That must have been one fun visit.

    That would have been a dream-come-true for an audio geek wanna-be like me.


    And I agree with Serega that the part about Dolby True-HD vs. DTS-HD MA was quite informative.


    Mike
     
  4. DaveF

    DaveF Moderator
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    That sounds really fun! What's your impression of 7.1 (rears) vs 7.1 (front height)? When I was shopping for speakers I read some interesting essays explaining that extra front speakers is a much better use of extra speakers than in the rear. My room barely accommodates 5.1 so I'm there for a while. But Im intrigued by future possibilities.
     
  5. Ronald Epstein

    Ronald Epstein Administrator
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    Dave,


    That's a subject for quite a bit of deliberation.


    Rarely do I ever get to hear anything in 7.1. The

    visit to Dolby was the first time I sampled the height

    speakers. We weren't told about them in advance
    and I didn't sense them in the video demo. The
    gaming demo was much different as I sensed the

    presence of a helicopter up high rather than at the

    sides.


    The 7.1 demo we were given in their theater had

    much more of an effect on me as I was easily able

    to better sense the added directionality in the rears.


    ...but time and time again I have heard many professionals

    recommend putting the extra speakers above the fronts

    in a home theater environment.
     
  6. AaronMK

    AaronMK Supporting Actor

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    When professionals recommend two extra speakers above the fronts, is that just something that they feel would have been a better configuration for 7.1, instead of what we ended up with? Would they go as far to suggest that if you have eight speakers, you're better of putting them at the front for a Pro Logic IIz, than the back for a traditional 7.1 configuration, even though there is no IIz material on Blu-ray?


    From what I understand TrueHD (and DTS-HD MA) maxes out at 8 channels, and that while the 7.1 configuration with additional speakers in the rear is what won out for Blu-ray, they still have additional channels to play with for digital cinema.
     
  7. Adam Gregorich

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  8. JohnS

    JohnS Producer

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    I might just have to try this with my new receiver and see what Front wides will do.
     
  9. DaveF

    DaveF Moderator
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    Edit: thanks Ron. (i missed your reply and made the following comments thinking you hadnt replied yet) I had considered doing front heights but it's an awkward setup and , on a fixed budget, decided I'd rather have five great speakers than seven good speakers. But FH is intriguing because it's the only 7.1 system I could do in my room. ***** The argument is: we're more sensitive to sound in front of us than behind us. So if you've got two additional speakers to enhance a 5.1 system, the should be incorporated in front rather than rear.. I've no experience with any of these configurations, so I don't know. And every review says that the Front Height effects are mostly subtle. Ron, having just had a top flight demo at Dolby, might have some real-world opinion on this. :)
     
  10. Ronald Epstein

    Ronald Epstein Administrator
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    The front height effects are supposed to be subtle.

    They certainly were in the demo that we were given.


    Now I have a question for all of you....


    I have never had a 7.1 system. I was quite surprised

    the first time a speaker expert suggested I use the two

    additional speakers in the front.


    Isn't the information being sent to those two speakers

    in the mix rear material? If that is the case, aren't

    you throwing rear material forward by placing the speakers

    up front? I am guessing there is a setting on the receiver

    for front or rear placement.


    This may turn out to be a completely silly question but

    like most of you, I have no experience with 7.1.
     
  11. AaronMK

    AaronMK Supporting Actor

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    Quote:


    If my understanding of Pro-logic IIz is correct, information for the two "height" speakers isn't in the mix, it is just the receiver running a post process of the soundtrack on the disc to extrapolate information for those "height" speakers. Maybe for 7.1 tracks, it will take the rear content into account (I'd imagine that is a trade secret), but it is not just "throwing rear material forward".


    Quote:


    My receiver does have speaker outs that it will let you set as "Presence" for additional fronts (Pro Logic IIz configuration, but Yamaha's on processing), or as a separate room. For the additional rears, it has dedicated outputs.


    I had a "Blu-ray" 7.1 setup for a while (never tried the "Presence" configuration since I don't trust manufacturer specific processing), but have since moved to a place where those two additional rears just are not practical, and sold them. I found that judging the merits of 7.1 was really hard because there were no REAL 7.1 soundtracks, just 5.1 tracks that had been "up-mixed" for Blu-ray. I'd imagine it is even harder for "front" 7.1 since it is an algorithm's best guess, and there is no human involved. I think having additional surrounds did help fill the space in the rear, but it felt like diminishing returns. I have always been impressed by the ability of a good 5.1 soundtrack to place sounds quite transparently throughout the sound stage, and I think lossless audio was a bigger step up in that regard than the addition of two rears on the 7.1 tracks I sampled.



    Maybe hearing soundtracks designed from the ground up for 7.1 would change my perception of diminishing returns. (Which it seems like there are a few these days on Blu-ray.) I think a really interesting demo would be a 7.1 soundtrack mixed for Pro Logic IIz decoding, just like 2.0 tracks were mixed for standard Pro Logic decoding.
     
  12. DaveF

    DaveF Moderator
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    DPL IIz 7.1 Front Height is not directly encoded. As with Dolby Pro Logic IIx, the surround information is extracted from the 5.1 signal. Given what can be done by DPL IIx to extract 5.1 signals from a 2.0 stereo signal, I've no doubt they can do some impressive things to expand a 5.1 signal to a 7.1 output.


    Regarding the Wii: like its GameCube predecessor, it doesn't have digital audio surround output. But game designers can encode the audio with DPL IIx in mind so a receiver can effectively extract a pseudo 5.1 signal from its stereo output. And when the game is done right, it's very impressive.
     
  13. TonyD

    TonyD Who do we think I am?

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    What was the clip from Netflix?
     
  14. Ronald Epstein

    Ronald Epstein Administrator
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    We watched Lost on Netflix and Avatar on Vudu.
     
  15. gene c

    gene c Producer

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    Can you tell us what speakers and BluRay player they were using? Would be interesting to know what the big boys have to play with. Looks like an Onkyo receiver.
     
  16. Ronald Epstein

    Ronald Epstein Administrator
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    You know what? I have no idea but I can attempt

    to find out for you.
     
  17. gene c

    gene c Producer

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    I would have peeked .


    Back in the mid 80's I was working for a delivery service and I was waiting in their lobby for one reason or another. I remember hearing a gentleman with an English accent describing a new sound system for use in theaters to a couple of other people. Dolby ProLogic maybe? Went right over my head, that's for sure. I was still trying to figure out why Dolby C was so much better than Dolby B.
     
  18. Ronald Epstein

    Ronald Epstein Administrator
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    Gene,


    Just heard back from Dolby....


    "We used an Oppo BD83 and LG BD590 for Blu-ray playback.
    Speakers were Focal."
     
  19. gene c

    gene c Producer

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    Thanks for the info. I guess I was hoping for something more exotic (Meridian?, Genelec? Eggleston?) but maybe it helps to confirm what the rest of us have. I guess Focal falls into the category of very good speakers that don't get mentioned often enough like Canton, Pinnacle, etc.
     
  20. FatherMurphy

    FatherMurphy Auditioning

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    It saddens me a bit to read this report.


    Dolby ...Perhaps it is time to Start developing a way to allow for Audiophile sound, that we can download onto our portable listening devices to take with us?




    192 kHz / 24 bit audio.

    The source material is there...we saw that with SACD and DVD-A.


    But then those formats disappeared.

    Lossy MP3 quality audio has saturated the market.

    For the audiophiles out their like myself, there is no way to listen to 96kHz/24bit-192kHz/24bit portably.

    iPods currently cap your audio quality at 48kHz 16bit.

    iTunes is the standard, and they don't offer this option as of yet.


    High resolution lossless audio should become an option.


    All of “The Beatles” recordings just became available on iTunes as MP3 (41kHz/192kbps). If you download from The Beatles web site, you can get all the albums on a 16GB USB Flash Drive as 41kHz/24bit (4800kbps) audio files.

    the sound is stunning,

    You cannot listen to this quality on your iPods, because iPods cannot pay back audio content over approx. 48kHz/16 bit (1700kbps).


    Could Dolby?

    Work out a way to allow this media to be played on our portable listening devices,
    allow us to listen to this stuff on the go...

    Maybe its just tweaking the Dolby Headphone idea a bit more?

    develop a way for 96kHz/24bit-192kHz/24bit to be able to be played on these devices...


    Working with the artists and Apple, tons of artists would jump behind this having their music available in multiple formats if people were ready to listen and buy.
    I'm sure, and if Apple and Dolby worked on developing the ability, then marketing it to consumers and providing us the option of purchasing the music in standard mp3 or high resolution audio and by use of a DOLBY technology enabled this on the portable devices?


    Maybe Get back to the basic idea of sound

    My 2 cents.


    Lossless is the future,
    Pro Dolby Baby.
     

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