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DTS announces DTS:X – sparks object-based audio war with Dolby

New multi-channel sound technology loves the speakers you already have

By Steve May, 16 Apr 2015

Breaking Fad In a move that could have far-reaching implications for home audio, multi-channel goliath DTS has announced an object-based sound system to rival Dolby Atmos (and the largely ignored Auro-3D). Dubbed DTS:X, the technology is somewhat different in that there’s no prescribed number of audio channels or speaker configuration to accommodate, and it offers content makers some cool new functionality.

RGD home entertainment 1949

DTS:X adapts to whatever your home system is made up of

DTS:X doesn’t just turn individual elements (a gunshot or explosion, for example), into an individual element, it can also treat the entire dialogue track as a single object, if the content creator wants to. Consequently, with DTS:X you could boost the dialogue level of a movie to suit specific listening conditions. This is apparently a much asked-for feature by users of surround systems.

The move away from a predefined speaker deployment will be a relief for many. For Dolby Atmos to do its immersive work effectively, you need a height channel with two or four dedicated speakers. These can be plumbed into your ceiling, or achieved with Dolby-enabled upwards firing reflective mini-speakers set at precise distances from the listening position.

DTS:X takes a rather more circumspect approach. The DTS:X renderer will simply remap a soundtrack to whatever layout is in use, within a hemispherical layout. If you’ve just installed a Dolby Atmos home cinema system, then happy days. Your DTS:X hardware will adapt to it. If your layout is a little less symmetrical, or indeed is a standard five or seven channel horizontal home cinema configuration, then it’ll accommodate that as well.

Metadata in the DTS:X bitstream will point sonic objects to whatever loudspeaker configuration the render’s been told you have. Of course, if you want to go overboard with enclosures you can. Incoming high-end AV receivers will support an 11.2 speaker array, but there will be support for up to 32 channels if you want to buy a processor and tower-of-power amps.

DTS:X is built atop MDA (Multi Dimensional Audio), an open platform for object-based audio that DTS has made available to content makers license fee-free. Not uncoincidentally, MDA plays nice with DTS:X. It’s an ecosystem. Creatives like that sort of thing.

DTS:X multichannel audio speaker array

DTS:X matches whatever multichannel audio speaker array you have set up

Significantly, there will be both theatrical and in-home iterations of DTS:X. The technology marks a return to the commercial cinema space for the brand, after it flogged off its Jurassic Park-inspired theatrical audio arm in 2008. For those too young to remember, it was in 1993 that upstart cinema audio start-up Digital Theatre Systems convinced director Steven Spielberg that its innovative multi-channel digital cinema sound format would be the perfect fit for his ambitious Jurassic Park dino-blockbuster project.

Spielberg became an enthusiastic advocate and got Universal to back the format, installing DTS playback systems into US cinemas in time for the Park’s theatrical opening. Not only did DTS change the sound of a stomping T-Rex forever, but it started an industry rivalry with Dolby Labs that continues to this day. The familiar DTS 5.1 audio codec for DVD was launched three years later. The theatrical division of DTS was later sold to UK-based Datasat.

HDMI Hi-Fi?

DTS will partner with GDC Technology, maker of digital cinema servers, pro-audio system provider QSC, and USL, manufacturer of motion picture audio equipment and sound processors, to engineer its big-screen return. GDC will act as worldwide DTS:X certification agent, making MDA firmware updates available to theatre owners, said to cover an installed server base of more than 40,000 screens.

DTS:X installation and certification for some 350 screens throughout Asia begins in May. Carmike Cinemas, one of the largest exhibitors in the US, has already announced a DTS:X upgrade for theatres this summer. At present there’s no word of any commercial DTS:X installations for Europe or the UK.

Yamaha Aventage AVR amp

A number of new Yamaha AVR amplifiers coming later this year will be DTS:X savvy. However, unlike more recent Denon kit, it's currently uncertain whether existing Aventage models will receive DTS:X firmware upgrades

Home hardware is going to be more widely accessible. AV receiver makers can hardly believe their luck. Having had Atmos to tout over the past 12 months, they can now expect to rekindle interest in AV receivers with a shiny new badge. Denon, Marantz, Onkyo, Integra, Yamaha and Pioneer are all prepping compatible new kit.

Denon and Marantz will offer firmware upgrades for their AVR-X7200W and AV8802 models this summer, a benefit of actually coming rather late to the Dolby Atmos party. Esoteric AV processor support will come from Steinway Lyngdorf, Theta Digital and Trinnov Audio. Cirrus Logic, Analog Devices and Texas Instruments are busy baking silicon for all.

As with Atmos, DTS:X is backwards compatible with previous codecs. The DTS:X soundtrack comprises the DTS Core element, plus DTS-HD MA and DTS:X residuals, the latter containing all object metadata. Stereo, 5.1 or 7.1 content can be remapped using a proprietary Neural:X spatial reformatting engine. This is basically an update of established Neo:X and Neural Surround modes now commonplace on home cinema kit.

Rather predictably, there’s no talk yet of DTS:X software, as seems to be the way with any new home entertainment tech. The company says only that its authoring tools are currently being evaluated by ten studio partners. It’s a fair assumption that those Hollywood heavy hitters who have yet to show any real enthusiasm for Dolby Atmos will have compatible Blu-rays on the slate before the year end.

DTS:X MDA plug-in

DTS:X MDA plug-in shows different addressable speaker arrays – click for a larger image

But object-based audio isn’t necessarily just about holographic home cinema. DTS:X also wants to be part of the high-res audio revolution, supporting lossless encoding in its highest-fidelity mode. When bitrates need to be managed, DTS:X can operate in a high-quality lossy mode. Object-based audio for music is an interesting idea.

A recent industry demo by Dolby of an Atmos-encoded choir was used to illustrate how effective 3D sound is for audio-only recordings. I was told by those present that it was spine-tingling, in a good way. One hi-fi manufacturer who shall remain nameless (not a pun), confided to me that it would probably only be a matter of time before two-channel hi-fi amplifiers began to sprout HDMI inputs to carry high-resolution, object-based audio content. Frankly, that sounds like a brilliant idea. The opportunities offered by the technology are just too good to squander on popcorn movies. ®

Steve May is a veteran AV journalist and senior editor at Inside CI.

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