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After a shaky start DTS:X is finally ready to take on Dolby Atmos

When it comes to the next generation of surround sound, DTS knows it’s behind competitor Dolby.

Dolby Atmos is fast becoming the “Q-tip” of atmospheric surround — also known as object-based audio — appearing in many new cinema titles and increasingly in people’s homes. And up till now it didn’t really have any competition.

That’s about to change. A year ago DTS outlined its competing object-based audio standard, DTS:X, and now the format is finally ready for the mainstream. Software updates are coming to compatible AV receivers, a handful of DTS:X encoded Blu-ray discs are now available, and people can now hear the soundtracks in their homes.

On the other hand Dolby still has a huge head start, and there are some significant hurdles for it DTS to overcome before it can match its success with previous surround formats.

Sow what is DTS doing to close the gap? What discs or hardware can support the format? Are there any major differences between thew two? We visited the headquarters of DTS in Calabasas, California, to find out.

Why object-based audio?

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Atmospheric home AV systems are designed to bounce height effects off your ceiling.


Dolby

Object-based audio soundtracks promise improved surround imaging compared with current Dolby Digital, DTS, Dolby TruHD and DTS Master formats found on many TV shows and movies today. The idea is to create a bubble of sound around by using dedicated height channels — in essence, speakers aimed straight up at the ceiling, not horizontally toward the listener. Both DTS:X and Dolby Atmos soundtracks are available on standard Blu-ray discs, as well as the newer 4K versions.

Rather than requiring cinemas and home users to install a set number of channels, object-based soundtracks are more akin to a globe as opposed to the “five points on a map” of a traditional 5.1 mix. Object-based soundtracks consist of a rendering in 3D space made of up to 128 channels, which are designed to adapt to whatever speakers are in a cinema in real time.

Although there is no “standard” theater, cinemas are typically subject to a system known as the X-curve Unfortunately, this can’t be directly translated to the home, so a cinema soundtrack can be too “harsh” when listened to in a home environment. Engineers spend a lot of time and money remixing soundtracks for home video release.

“The promise and the hope of the industry is that this object-based approach will eventually result in simplifying some of those issues,” said Fred Maher, senior engineer at DTS.

Producing movie soundtracks is a cutthroat business, and engineers are subject to increasing time crunches. They may have as little as a weekend to produce a cinema-ready mix.

“Mix facilities are really concentrated on cost and speed now, more than ever, so being able to drop something in and produce a publishable mix quickly is their number one concern,” said David McIntyre, SVP of corporate strategy, standards and business development at DTS.

In the early days of Blu-ray, the uncompressed soundtrack (PCM) was often included on the disc. This was joined by Dolby TrueHD and much later DTS-HD Master Audio, which promised “lossless” audio quality that sounds as good as something truly uncompressed. But as soundtracks become more complex, and as features like 3D, 4K and “deep color” eat up more space, there’s no way to include uncompressed audio any longer.

“You wouldn’t be able to put that on a disc in a meaningful way. So DTS:X and the other formats are designed to get that on a disc in a way that works,” said McIntyre.

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The main mixing stage at DTS in Calabasas.


Ty Pendlebury/CNET

Same compression, different costs

With current surround formats DTS and Dolby, it’s tough to say which one is objectively better. Some audiophiles, such as our own Audiophiliac, prefer DTS because of its typically higher bit rates, while others like Dolby. McIntyre says that word of mouth is also an important factor. “You know there’s also the marketing element, it’s always a key part,” he said.

While McIntyre acknowledges that both DTS:X and Dolby Atmos offer the same amount of compression, he claims cost savings to the studios is one of its most attractive features. He says it takes less time to produce a DTS:X mix than an Atmos one. Its implementation is also simpler, as it only involves a plug-in to the most popular mixing software, Pro Tools.

“Immersive mixing is still relatively new in general,” said Bill Neighbors, general manager of pro audio at DTS. “Us having a plug-in tool as opposed to a hardware- and software-based one is very interesting to our clients.”

The DTS facility at Calabasas, where the format was announced to the press in 2015, is home to several mixing stages used for mixing movie soundtracks, in addition to education and research.

We got a hands-on with the tool, which is a compass like ball controlled with mouse. It was fun zooming a helicopter around the main mixing stage at DTS. If one is feeling adventurous, all of the channels get their own tool, but 128 effects whizzing around the room at once is likely to make an audience confused, or worse.

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Ty Pendlebury/CNET

What you’ll need to hear DTS:X

Dolby Atmos had a three-year drop on DTS:X by announcing in 2012, but the good news is that most new equipment — save at least one sound bar — is designed to decode both formats. Both work in a similar fashion: they map sound effects or “objects” in 3D space and decoded them in way that’s optimized for your setup.

Both formats need speakers with height channels, or at least add-on speakers like the $200 Pioneer SP-T22A-LR, which are designed to sit atop existing speakers and fire upward. You’ll also need a new AV receiver that can actually support the formats. Many new receivers are billed as “DTS:X-ready,” meaning they need a firmware update to play the format.

One thing you won’t need is a new Blu-ray player. If your disc spinner can output Dolby TrueHD or DTS-HD, you’re already set.

I bought a DTS:X ready receiver; when will I get it?

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The 2015 Onkyo TX-NR646 is due for a DTS:X update in summer 2016.


Sarah Tew/CNET

While many 2015 receivers that bore the Dolby Atmos logo also carried DTS:X, it’s taken some time for firmware updates to become available. Jordan Miller, DTS’ director of global communications, says updates are currently in the hands of the hardware manufacturers.

While DTS:X was announced in April 2015, it took until February 2016 for the first receivers to become updated. So far the least expensive receiver that has received the update is the Yamaha Aventage RX-A1050 ($1,199).

At the time of writing the receivers that have been issued DTS:X firmware include:

  • Denon AVR-X4200W
  • Denon AVR-X6200W
  • Denon AVR-X7200W
  • Denon AVR-X7200WA
  • Marantz SR6010
  • Marantz SR7010
  • Marantz AV8802A
  • Marantz AV7702mkII
  • Yamaha CX-A5100 AV
  • Yamaha AVENTAGE RX-A1050
  • Yamaha AVENTAGE RX-A2050
  • Yamaha AVENTAGE RX-A3050

Onkyo released several “DTS:X ready” models in 2015, such as the $699 TX-NR646, and the company says that its updates will be coming this summer 2016. In addition, Onkyo-owned Pioneer says that its compatible receivers will be eligible to upgrade in fall 2016.

Which discs can you buy?

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Universal

DTS admits that it has a long way to go if it wants to catch up to Dolby’s Atmos. But the company seems to be content to share the stage with its competitor this time around.

“Right now there’s some good stuff in the marketplace that our competitor has done, so they’re out ahead,” McIntyre said. “Will we get back to the 80 or 90 percent? I’d love to. But we don’t have to, and I’m comfortable with a healthy balance in the marketplace.”

McIntyre says he can see the release of “hybrid” discs that carry both DTS:X and Dolby Atmos to be the most popular option in the near future. The same as is now the case with earlier soundtrack formats on many Blu-ray discs.

Currently there’s about 10 Blu-ray discs available with a DTS:X soundtrack onboard. Dolby Atmos has more than 50 (in addition to 4K Blu-ray and streaming).

Dolby has high-profile titles such as “Mad Max: Fury Road,” “American Sniper,” “Game of Thrones” and “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Parts 1 and 2,” DTS: X is still waiting to take off. The first disc to be announced was the moody sci-fi thriller “Ex Machina” in July 2015 and since then the number has only appreciated by about one a month. The full list, according to Big Picture Big Sound is “American Ultra,” “The Big Short,” “Crimson Peak,” “Daddy’s Home,” “Ex Machina,” “The Last Witch Hunter,” “Ip Man 3″ and “Zoolander 2.” Waiting in the wings are “Gods of Egypt,” “Independence Day” and “London Has Fallen.”

The object-based surround future

Given that many receivers support both DTS:X and Dolby Atmos, it’s not likely we’ll get a”format war” scenario where we have to choose one format or the other. While some enthusiasts seek out discs based on which audio format it supports, most of us will just buy the movie we want to watch and listen to the default format.

The lack of momentum, and lack of discs, has been a little frustrating for DTS fans, but later this year owners of compatible receivers, and height-enabled speakers, will finally be able to hear the format as intended. All we need now are some more exciting titles.

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