Imagine a chaotic world where you realize the water sprinkler you just bought doesn’t fit on your hose. Or the propane coupling on your grill won’t hook connect to the canister. How frustrated and annoyed would you be?
For nearly all Americans, the answer would be “very.” On the other hand a custom electronics professional would shrug and likely explain, “It’s just a format issue. They’re not shaking hands. I’ve got a work around and an adapter for it.” It’s the irritating little secret of CE we try not to tell the public—over 100 years of incompatible format wars.
I’m reluctant to state unequivocally that this just doesn’t happen in other industries but I’ll go on the record and say I’m fairly certain it doesn’t happen as much in the rest of world’s commerce. Oh sure, you need one of those little electric plug adapter kits if you leave North America. Then there’s the gas/diesel/hybrid/electric automobile conundrum. Or even gas vs. electric cooking and heating (or wood and pellets for you few Luddites out there.) But these choices all pale to what goes on in our industry seemingly ad infinitum.
This unfortunate phenomenon of ours goes back well over a century with Edison’s wax cylinder record vs. Berliner’s disc. Notables include 45 rpm or 33 1/3; Beta or VHS, Apple vs. Microsoft and Blu-ray against HD DVD. All the while, there were less public and more technical battles over TV screen resolution and active vs. passive 3D among many others.
Dolby, DTS Battle Goes Back 20 Years
Small technical battles continue to be waged today including a new one involving Dolby Laboratories and Digital Theater Systems (DTS). Although neither will say much in public, their spats have been going on for over 20 years.
I recall it began in the mid 1990s. I was representing Marantz in New England at the time. That spring Marantz announced its strongest-to-date lineup of home theater receivers. Tremendous build quality, great watts per dollar and all the gadgets, gizmos and buttons for the quintessential home theater experience. Except one.
Yamaha, Marantz’s prime competitor, announced its new models later than usual that year. Once they were introduced, we found out why. Yamaha had managed to slip in a brand new chip from DTS. That chip was said to be more complex, faster and produce a more authentic and realistic home theater experience than the Dolby Digital chip that was the standard at the time.
Thanks to a fledgling but vocal and then totally unrestrained Internet, a legion of the day’s audio bloggers proclaimed that Dolby was dead—long live DTS. It was the shiny new David challenging the long established Goliath. Marantz sales became collateral damage in this battle and suffered throughout that product cycle. All in spite of the fact that throughout that year in the marketplace not a single piece of DTS encoded software (movies, e.g.) ever appeared for sale.
Let’s fast forward nearly two decades and past a number of Dolby/DTS battles to right now. Many audio pundits and enthusiasts hailed the announcement of Dolby Atmos for home theater in 2014. Although the software title availability is still somewhat sparse (about 40 titles as I write this), the process was a much-needed shot in the arm for the somewhat stale home theater genre.
Without going too deep into the weeds of algorithms, audio mixing, metadata and spatial relationships, Dolby Atmos replaces channel-based sound assignments (like the helicopter moving from the left rear speaker to the right front speaker with nothing in-between) to an sound-object based system where the helicopter is its own sound moving three-dimensionally (up, down, side-to-side, in circles) in what has been called a dome of sound.
Also, everything else that is creating a noise in any given scene is its own what Dolby calls a “sound-object” audibly moving in a manner that matches its visual movement on the screen. The effect is like nothing you’ve ever heard outside of real life.
That said, a true Dolby Atmos system will require a new receiver (or processor/power amp set up for higher-end systems) and at least four more speakers to really experience what Atmos can do. The good news is your customers will be able to keep their current five or seven speakers, subwoofer(s) and Blu-ray player.
Then in the spring of 2015, not to be outdone or outprocessed (let alone left out in the cold on such a watershed event) DTS debuted a competing system, DTS:X. The announcement came about three years after Dolby Atmos was first introduced to commercial movie theaters. With, at least on paper, 36 months or more R&D DTS:X one ups Atmos in a number of specifications although the basics are similar.
The most significant advance DTS:X has over Atmos is the company’s claim that the format is flexible, and will work with “any speaker configuration within a hemispherical layout.” In other words, it doesn’t require more speakers but the more you add (up to 32) the better the effect will be.
According to the legendary British audiophile magazine What Hi-Fi, another neat trick is DTS:X’s ability to make it possible for users to adjust the volume of just the voices on a soundtrack, making once hard-to-hear dialogue a lot easier to understand.
When DTS:X was first announced last spring the plan was to be available in residential systems before it showed up in commercial movie theaters. It was also scheduled to begin appearing in home theater receivers long before last Christmas. The holidays have come and gone while the licensed electronics vendors are still waiting on firmware upgrades to just test the format. To date, there are just three movies with a DTS:X soundtrack.
I have a hunch that the licensed vendors will continue to put both Dolby Atmos and DTS:X chips in their receivers and pre-amps in order to hedge their bets. (D+M Group, or Denon/Marantz, also has the European Auro-3D-ready chip in a good number of products.) Many of these folks, like me, still bare the battle scars of the first Dolby/DTS fight in the 1990s. That said, I also reckon that the speaker vendors are going to side with Dolby simply because they want to sell more speakers which are required for an effective Atmos experience.
Time will tell, although likely not before I have to water my lawn or get a new tank for my grill. By that time, who knows. We could be in the middle of another format fight. Would you bet against me?