This past weekend, I was invited to participate in a special IGN/Dolby screening of Disney/Pixar's latest animated epic, Brave. The reason for the screening was to help promote Dolby's new theatrical surround sound technology, or format, Dolby Atmos. Dolby Atmos takes Dolby's already stellar reputation and technology for theatrical surround sound performance "to 11" by increasing the number of configurable channels to 64. That number is NOT a typo. Dolby Atmos endeavors to place up to 64 channels of control at mixers' fingertips to aurally enhance your theater-going experience.
Atmos increases the number of available channels by not only adding new ones, specifically ceiling and behind the screen channels, but also by handling each speaker found along a theater's side and rear walls discretely. In the past, side and rear speakers have been treated and viewed as one giant speaker array, whereas with Atmos, they're given individual attention. What this means, in theory, is that mixers will now have more control over a film's sound and sound effects, thus making mixes more like what theatergoers would expect in a more intimate home theater setting, as opposed to a large venue. Sound pans can now travel along walls and ceiling with finer precision and with more point source accuracy, instead of the old methods, where elements would often move decisively from side to rear or side to side. Now, if the mix calls for the sound to travel mid-theater then transition upwards to the ceiling and then back to the screen, those in charge of the mix have the freedom and the tools to allow the sound to do precisely that. From a professional standpoint, this means that Atmos provide more flexibility at the mixing console. It also simplifies the deliverables, for Atmos is not only a new standard (despite not all theaters being Atmos equipped yet), but it is also backwards-compatible with legacy Dolby formats. This is a huge plus for content creators, for no longer will they be forced to mix multiple soundtracks for different venues and/or deliverables.
While there is a lot to get excited, about Dolby Atmos is still in its infancy, as currently only a handful of theater nationwide, twelve to be exact, are Atmos-ready, with a few more residing outside of our borders. Furthermore, the only film currently released in Dolby Atmos is Disney/Pixar's Brave, though more Atmos-mixed films are coming soon. So how did it all sound? In a word, amazing. While I have nothing to compare it to, the Atmos presentation of Brave was among one the finer theatrical experiences I've had in a long while in terms of sound quality (the visuals were quite stunning, too). The ceiling channels are definitely noticeable but not in a "look at me" sort of way. Instead, they enhance the sense of ambience and aural emersion. There were a few moments in the film when the heightened abilities of Atmos were highlighted, specifically during some of the film's rain scenes, where the rain did sound as if it were coming from above rather than simply around you, which was nice indeed. Sound pans and other surround sound effects were seamless in their presentation and transitions. The entire experience was simply fuller, more enveloping and thus enriching throughout. Again, with nothing to compare it to, I still feel confident in saying that I believe the Dolby Atmos presentation of Brave was one of the finer-sounding theatrical experiences I've ever had.
So if you live in the Southern California area and can make it to AMC's Burbank 16 theater, make sure you buy a ticket to Brave in ETX Theater 14 so that you can hear for yourself what Atmos brings to the table. I don't believe that you'll be disappointed. One quick disclaimer: since it was a special guest/press screening, I do not know if there is an up-charge, à la 3D, for Dolby Atmos or not. If there is, I can't imagine it being outlandish. Honestly, if it's an extra $5, it's well worth it, for any theater with Atmos capability is bound to be state of the art in other areas as well.