PAYING $20 TO watch a movie in a modern cineplex doesn’t just get you access to a 4K projector, a recliner, and a Coca-Cola Freestyle machine. You get a killer soundtrack too.
Next time you go to a movie, look at how many dang speakers are around you. The ultimate theater setups, called DTS:X and Dolby Atmos, employ what’s known as object-oriented sound; dozens of speakers are embedded in the ceiling, behind the screen, mounted on the walls, and behind the audience. The films’ soundtracks are also specially encoded so the speakers can properly represent birds flapping overhead or noises coming from offscreen locations. It all adds up to a fully immersive experience with a heavy dose of realism.
You can simulate movie-theater sound at home with five, seven, or a dozen speakers. Companies are also getting better at approximating the surround-sound effect with soundbars that have upward-firing drivers that bounce sound off the walls and ceiling. It gets you close, but certain room geometries are far more effective than others, and at around $1,500, the prices for these systems are prohibitive.
Starting next year, soundbars will take a collective leap forward in quality—even the cheap ones. A new audio-processing technology for soundbars and receivers from industry giant DTS can trick your brain into thinking it’s hearing sound coming from multiple speakers around the room, even though it’s just coming from a single soundbar under your TV.
Make Some Noise
The post-processing technology is called DTS Virtual:X, and it uses psychoacoustic sound tricks to virtualize the effects of having overhead and satellite speakers. It’s also a lot more open-ended than those pricier systems: It doesn’t have to bounce soundwaves off walls to make it sound like they’re coming from certain locations, and it works with content that isn’t directly encoded for it.
DTS is vague on the technical explanation of how the processing pipeline tweaks soundwaves to make it sound like audio is coming from midair. “The human brain determines the location of sound sources in 3-D space using location cues,” says a DTS spokesperson. “Spatial audio techniques using location cues can virtualize sound sources that are perceptually comparable to the signals being originated from arbitrary location in a 3-D space.”
Whatever that means. To my understanding, it basically massages the channel separation and the soundwaves to make your ears think there are invisible speakers floating around the room. I sat through a demo, and I can tell you: it works. Is it as immersive as sitting in a modern movie theater? No. But it makes cheap soundbars sound impossibly good, and that’s probably more important.
Listen to the Future
My demo session featured the LG SH5B soundbar, a $200-range 2.1 soundbar-and-sub combo with no satellites—about as bare-bones as you can get. The soundbar was hooked up to a computer running the new audio-processing engine, but that was just for the demo; DTS licenses its tech to manufacturers, so starting early next year, the consumer market will start seeing speakers, receivers, and other home theater electronics with DTS Virtual:X already baked in.
While the low-end system couldn’t make it sound like I was sitting in an DTS:X or Atmos theater, it was immersive enough to make me check for hidden speakers. The soundbar and subwoofer were directly in front of me, right below the television. With Virtual:X in effect, it sounded like there were extra satellite speakers—a pair about six feet on either side of the TV, as well as more speakers slightly above the screen.
It translates to a much wider soundstage than you’d expect out of a cheap, under-the-TV soundbar. You’re not getting modern-movie-theater audio, but sounds travel very convincingly: During the demo, a jet plane sounded like it was approaching me and then flying (slightly) overhead, and a scene from The Jungle Book sounded like insects were chirping around the room. If it has a weakness in such a simple setup, it’s the vertical virtualization: The overhead audio effects weren’t too convincing, but it did a much better job at creating a super-wide swath of sound.
While DTS says Virtual:X processing will work even better with higher-end, 3.1 or 5.1-speaker setups, it’s a system designed to improve the soundstages of simpler systems. Perhaps best of all, you don’t need to go out and buy a bunch of specially encoded content to get results out of Virtual:X: The post-processing technology works best with legacy DTS content, but the demo even involved a Mad Max Blu-ray encoded for Dolby Atmos, and it sounded great.
Even if you don’t have to seek out new content, you will need new hardware. While DTS announced and demoed the new technology at CEDIA this week, we’ll have to wait until CES 2017 in January to see the gear with Virtual:X processing engines built in.