With the launch of a new generation of video games consoles comes the expectation of a huge leap forward in technology. After all, a single console generation currently lasts around seven years. And yes, there were hardware revisions in the last generation to try and keep up with the world's technological advancements (namely 4K), but it's still just a new coat of shiny paint on the same house. And sometimes that paint doesn't even dry properly and instead looks a bit of a mess (Xbox's Dolby Atmos implementation, anyone?).
So, when Mark Cerny, the lead architect on Sony's new PlayStation 5, gave an online presentation called "The Road to PS5" in March, many video gamer/AV enthusiasts tuned in eagerly. The presentation was originally intended for the Game Developer's Conference (GDC) before COVID-19 changed the world, so I knew it would be a bit on the technical side and I was 100 percent there for it.
On the surface, revelations about the PlayStation 5's audio capabilities were very exciting. The PS5, we learned, will have a dedicated custom hardware unit, dubbed the Tempest engine, to handle all 3D sound. As a sound editor with an interest in game audio this was huge news to me. One of the challenges of designing and implementing audio for games is working within the constraints of available resources. On the current generation of consoles, all video and audio processing power is shared and, not surprisingly, the audio team only gets a small percentage of those shared resources to accomplish an immersive and convincing sound design. But PS5 comes with the promise of an incredibly powerful chip just for audio. The Tempest chip itself is as powerful as the entirety of processing in the PS4. The shackles have been taken off of game audio design teams.
Cerny gave a quick primer on psychoacoustics and then delved deep into Sony's 3D engine design and sound design philosophy. He emphasized the sheer power of the Tempest engine -- for instance being able to process around 5,000 sound sources -- before lamenting that "it would have been wonderful if a simpler strategy such as using Dolby Atmos peripherals could have achieved our goals, but we wanted 3D audio for all, not just those with licensed soundbars or the like."
Hold up. Did Mark Cerny just say that Sony was developing its own 3D sound solution and isn't going to license the use of any existing 3D sound encoding options? Because that's some Grade-A Bullshit (not USDA-certified) for home theater enthusiasts. We currently have three options for getting an immersive sound experience beyond 5.1: Dolby Atmos, DTS: X, and Auro-3D. There are, of course, virtual solutions that attempt to achieve a 3D soundfield, and while they do so admirably, they still aren't a replacement for a point-source system.
Cerny went on to say that, in addition to the licensing, another deciding factor of not going with Atmos is its limitation of only supporting 32 sound sources (also referred to as objects). Dolby refuted that two days later, clarifying that Atmos has the capability to support hundreds of simultaneous objects and is not limited to just 32. They also discuss the philosophy that having the ability to generate hundreds of sound objects isn't necessarily good practice, as it can muddy and confuse the sound field. With great power comes great responsibility, after all.
The real problem is by the end of the presentation, there weren't any solid answers about how, exactly, Sony's proprietary 3D sound would be implemented and delivered to end users. Most of the more concrete audio information was related to the utilization with headphones, which is easier to design and implement than bending physics in a home theater setup. At the moment, headphone implementation is largely completed according to Mark Cerny, and his team has begun work on virtual surround sound for TV speakers and soundbars. Once they get virtual surround to a standard that they're happy with, the plan is to start in on multi-speaker setups. So not only do we not know how an existing surround system will be utilized, seemingly the PS5 team doesn't yet know how an existing surround system will be utilized. Will our height speakers even be included in their 3D solution? There are far fewer answers than questions. Luckily, we're still months out from the release of the next-gen consoles (and who knows how COVID-19 will ultimately affect that timeline? Although, so far, we've been assured release dates are still on track).
We can speculate a little as to how they might get the 3D sound design to work with a home theater surround system, though. It could be that Sony ends up outputting PCM from the PS5 to your receiver with psychoacoustic cues to create the perception of immersive audio (in other words, a signal that has already been processed with something similar to Dolby Atmos Height Channel Virtualization). Otherwise, we might be required to update the firmware on our current AVRs (if the AVR company chooses to even support the new possible format), or worse yet purchase a brand new AVR.
And what's the possibility of Sony AVRs and soundbars getting preferential treatment? I could certainly see business executives thinking this would be a great way to drive their AV product sales. Maybe not necessarily limiting the technology to Sony products, but delaying the release of the decoding specifications so they get a head start over their AV competitors. For many companies, the bottom line drives all decisions, but gamers are usually the first to call out companies on such bullshit.
When it comes down to it, from a game audio design standpoint, the extra possibilities afforded by the processing power and 3D engine is staggering. But as a home theater enthusiast, will all that extra power matter if I'm required to spend hundreds of dollars extra on top of the cost of the console to experience it at a level to which I'm already accustomed?
This could be a serious misstep for Sony, as PlayStation 5's main competitor, the Xbox Series X, will almost certainly support Dolby Atmos (as mentioned earlier, the Xbox One S and X do already, albeit with issues). If there isn't an easily workable solution for the PS5's 3D audio, this could cost Sony some support from the home theater crowd. While there was some exciting information in the presentation, I came away with more questions than anything. There's still a lot we don't know, but what we do know is frustrating bordering on infuriating. Whatever the PlayStation team's beef is with Atmos (they didn't even bother adding gaming support for it on the PS4, although you can bitstream it out to your AVR for movies), it feels like home theater enthusiasts are the ones getting hurt by this. And if you hurt me enough, why would I bother coming back? For those of us with Atmos systems, it's starting to look like the Xbox Series X may be the better next-gen console purchase.
• When Video Gaming and Home Theater Collide at HomeTheaterReview.com.
• Why All AV Enthusiasts Should Be Upset About Roku Losing Twitch at HomeTheaterReview.com.
• Video Games Outsell Music and Movies, So Why Don't AV Stores Embrace Them? at HomeTheaterReview.com.