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DTS:X Surround Format Overview and First Listen

by April 20, 2015
DTS:X Speaker Configuration for First Listen

DTS:X Speaker Configuration for First Listen

After Audioholics was on-hand at DTS Headquarters for the official reveal of DTS:X, we came back to put together the most comprehensive coverage of this new technology available.  There’s no regurgitated press releases here, just true, first-hand perspectives.

There’s a lot to digest with this slew of recent technology announcements from DTS, so we’re going to do our best to break them down for you.  First, we’ll outline what we consider the four main applications of DTS:X: Production, Theater, Home, and Personal.  Then, we’ll take you through our experience at the demo and give you our listening notes.  Finally, we’ll address the main implications for individual consumers and answer some common questions.

Let's start out with DTS headquarters itself.  Now this is a place I could see myself working at!

DTS Lobby

The Lobby of the DTS Headquarters, complete with a live DJ

 DTS:X Home Theater, Cinema, Headphone Technology Details Emerge

Production: The Multi-dimensional Audio tool (DTS MDA)

MDA is DTS:X for the producer.  When a professional audio mixer is working on content in immersive audio, they have to choose an audio tool to specify which sounds go where in the overall mix.  Will the sound be in front of you, behind you, over your head, or all of the above?  All of that is determined by the initial mix, and DTS is proposing MDA as the best tool for making that mix.

Unlike Dolby with Atmos, DTS is making the MDA tool available for free to producers.

So, why would a producer choose MDA instead of another tool from another company?  DTS is hoping that they have made a compelling argument for choosing their tool as it is easy to use, free, and produces a file that is not locked in a proprietary format.

DTS MDA Interface

DTS:X Multi-dimensional Audio tool (MDA) Interface

Using the tool is as simple as dragging a sound object around a circle.  As you drag the object to the top of the circle, it comes from the front of your soundstage.  Dragging it around the sides moves it to your sides and dragging it to the bottom...you guessed it, has the sound coming from behind you.  The outside of the circle signifies ear-level, so as you drag the sound towards the center, it moves increasingly overhead until, at the center of the circle, the sound is positioned directly over the listening position.  It’s easy enough for a toddler to use, and powerful enough, in the right hands, to make a truly immersive mix.

And now I’ll put on my infomercial host voice:  “What would you expect to pay for this miracle product?  $49?  $19?  How about, absolutely nothing?!”  DTS is making the MDA tool available for free to producers in the hopes of spurring adoption at the head of the content production chain.  Because the resulting file is open and the immersive sound mix can be imported into third-party tools, there really doesn’t seem to be a downside for producers.  DTS MDA is well positioned to become a very popular content authoring tool.

Theater: The Return of DTS Cinemas

Who would have guessed that the company that provided the soundtrack for one of the biggest movies of all time, Jurassic Park, would find itself largely squeezed out of the commercial theater space?  Well, that’s exactly what happen to DTS, but they’re looking to come back in a big way.  The key to this will be blockbuster content and key partnerships, along with install flexibility.

DTS:X is adapable to Auro-3D or Dolby Atmos speaker layouts.

DTS is out of the gates with a few key partnerships.  GDC Technology boasts the largest install base of digital cinema servers in the Asia-Pacific region, and the second largest globally.  GDC will provide DTS:X installation and certification for approximately 350 screens throughout Asia beginning in May 2015.  In the U.S., Carmike Cinemas will upgrade selected theaters to DTS:X in spring of 2015.  Revealed at the demo event, IMAX theaters will also feature DTS:X technology and, on the content side, Avengers: Age of Ultron will be mixed in DTS MDA.

While this is a good start, DTS:X will still need to add more partners to become the dominating audio format.  Helping the adoption rate is the flexibility of DTS:X to adapt to numerous room designs thanks to speaker re-mapping.  If a theater has already made an investment in Dolby Atmos or Auro 3D upgrades and speaker placement, DTS:X can be adapted with minimal changes to speaker locations which will save cinemas money and eliminate the need to rip out and re-position existing speakers.

Home: Immersive Sound for Real Spaces

We here at Audioholics have been at the forefront of the conversation around object-based mixing formats like Dolby Atmos and Auro 3D in the home, and why wouldn't we be?  We are enthused at the promise of a more immersive surround experience where a 360 degree soundfield is matched with audio channels overhead to give a fully enveloping sonic environment.  However, many rooms in homes are simply not suited for overhead speakers, and the reflective speaker technology used to bounce sound overhead has been seemingly ill-conceived and underwhelming.

See: What are Dolby Atmos-enabled speakers? and Dolby Atmos In-ceiling vs Atmos-enable Speaker Demo Results

We've gotta be real: the need for more speakers, and the awkward location of those speakers, is perhaps the biggest sticking point in the adoption of these next-generation object.  Here's the issue: a standard 5.1 setup meets the requirements for speaker placement in both DTS and Dolby Surround.  You can switch between the formats and the two can peacefully co-exist.  No such congruence exists with Dolby Atmos and Auro 3D; those two formats have very different speaker layouts.  However, DTS:X claims to map to your front, surround, and height channels no matter where they are.  And let's face it, even with a 5.1 setup, most of us have had to diverge from the standard placement.  I know in my system, my front speakers are all spot on, but my surround speakers are mounted higher than what would be ideal.  With DTS:X, there is no recommended speaker placement, they just match what you have, or at least that was the underlying message at the presentation.  We’ll have to see if this holds true in a real world listening scenario, and if/how the manufacturers will implement this.

DTSX Channel Check

DTS:X Channel Check

When pushed, DTS noted that a standard 5.1 setup with an additional 2 fronts height and 2 rear height speakers would be a good place to start, but there were no specific angles in the horizontal or vertical plane given.  This is in contrast to Auro 3D's specific placement requirements, and Dolby's seemingly contradictory approaches of exactly placed ceiling speakers, or distinctly non-specific reflective speaker approach that bounces sound off the ceiling.  If object-based mixing is to take off in the home, it seems like DTS:X presents the best chance of success given it's ability to adapt to an almost infinite variety of speaker placements.

Personal: DTS Headphone:X Sounds Like Real Speakers On The Go

DTS Headphone:X using psychoacoustics to trick your brain into thinking it’s hearing speakers in front, behind, and overhead through a standard set of headphones.  I'm not going to bury the lead here: I was thoroughly impressed with DTS Headphone:X.  In the demo, we had just finished listening to a standard channel check where a pictures of the various speakers is displayed, a speaker is highlighted on screen, and the corresponding speaker plays a voice saying "left front", "right surround", and so forth.  So, after that channel check was played through real speakers in a real room, we were asked to put on headphones, and the channel check was played again.  I think I made it almost 3 speakers in before, in the middle of "center", I pulled off my headphones to make sure they hadn't accidentally left the real speakers on.  They hadn't.

DTS Headphone:X

DTS Headphone:X Logo on Display

Now, that's not to say that the headphones sounded as good at the real speakers in a real room that we had just heard, but DTS Headphone:X sounded more realistic, at least on that demo channel check, than any other headphone pseudo-surround that I've heard.

A follow up clip from the film "Divergent" was played.  It was a scene where one of the characters is escaping from a box filled with water.  Truthfully, I didn't find it a good clips for evaluation.  Sure there was a lot of info in the surround field, but it was all rather non-descript like bubbling water and cracking glass.  I would have preferred a clip with some dialog and distinct sound cues placed in familiar, realistic space to get a sense of how well DTS Headphone:X can transport the listener out of their head.  Nonetheless, the demo convinced me that DTS Headphone:X could be a real benefit for personal listening.

DTS Headphone:X sounded more realistic than any other headphone pseudo-surround that I've heard.

Speaking of preferences, DTS Headphone: X can be adjusted for listener preference.  The sound can be more on-ear, or more in-the-room, and the apparent size of the room adjusted.  For anyone who is regularly banished to headphone use when trying not to wake family members or disturb close neighbors, DTS Headphone:X will do a fantastic job of bringing the speakers-in-a-room experience to headphone users.  But, don't take my word for it, try it out today by visiting the DTS Headphone:X webpage for example clips, or download one of the smart phone apps that includes DTS Headphone:X technology.


About the author:
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Marshall is an Educator by trade, and currently lives in Oregon. He was lucky enough to grow up in a musical household, and though the AV equipment wasn't the greatest, it was always on. His dad introduced him to Queen, Paul Simon, and Sgt. Pepper's, and his mom played Lionel Richie and Disney Soundtracks. When Marshall was 14, his uncle passed down a pair of JBL towers and Marshall finally had his own system. Having enjoyed podcasting and video production over the past 10 years, Marshall is happy to be contributing at Audioholics.

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Recent Forum Posts:

Whiffer posts on April 22, 2015 09:09
I am excited by the news about DTS:X. I recently purchased a house where the previous owner wired Bose speakers in four corners of a “great room” near the ceiling. I replaced the rears with the Gallo A'Diva SEs that I had used as rear speakers in my previous home After reading about Dolby Atmos, I am in the process of replacing the front with the same and getting four more to place at ear level for surround and rear, so that I will have a 7.1.4 system ready to go as soon as a reasonably-priced receiver is available, hopefully sometime this year or next.
Javan posts on April 21, 2015 00:02
I'm really excited for all of this. Once again, it looks like Dolby may have gotten there first, but DTS is gonna show em what you can really do with the technology. It was Jurassic Park that made me a sound-nut and I hope they keep on trucking.

Oh, and if you all haven't heard how amazing DTS: Headphone X is, you can experience it with one of the Z+ apps. I've shown it to at least a dozen people and pretty every single person has their mind blown. The look on their faces when the demo starts is fantastic. It's more than just psuedo-“surround” sound, it actually makes the sounds like they are coming from “over there”. It's not just left, right, above, no it's the sense of depth that is truly astounding. It doesn't take any special hardware, it's just a special mix. The Mockingjay Pt 1 blu-ray has it on there and it sounds incredible on my phone, just like the demo.

And if you don't get it's so awesome to have that technology in headphones, I guess you aren't too excited about the leaps and bounds we're also going through in the VR world.
Javan posts on April 20, 2015 23:55
MrPirate2882, post: 1080242, member: 9342
I thought Atmos allows the same “place speakers anywhere”, and movie sound sources are mixed in realtime according to their 3D space coordinates?
They do… sorta. I'm not exactly sure what's going on with that on the licensing side of things but I asked one of the Atmos engineers about the ability for AVRs and pre-pros to do that and he was pretty tight lipped about it. As far as I know Trinnov (no surprise there as they've had directional microphones in their calibration process for some time now) and Yamaha are the only two that take into account the actual location of your speakers and adjust accordingly. Yamaha only does it for a few speakers though, not the whole set-up. Trinnov, I'm not sure.

I imagine one of the big differences that's been a topic of discussion ever since the start is that DTS is keeping everything open-source and Dolby is keeping everything proprietary.
shadyJ posts on April 20, 2015 20:10
Very nice report Audioholics, it was very informative. It looks like DTS:X is doing what I had hoped Atmos would have done, that is calibrating existing speaker layouts for the surround sound field. After all, in these kind of setups, the speakers are just objects like the individual sounds, so it shouldn't be too hard to do. I wonder if the reason it wasn't implemented in Home Atmos is because of the complexity of the mic? Like the video showed, it seems like you would need a multiple mic setup to triangulate the position of the speakers.

One thing which was interesting to note was DTS's setups was much like you see in a ‘7.1.4’ Atmos layout, that is, the side channels will be at ear height and the overhead speakers positioned much like you see where the ‘top’ channels in an Atmos setup are proscribed. That tells me that Dolby and DTS have come to the same conclusions about the most optimal layout for surround speakers are. It's interesting that you do not see a diagonally placed speaker in either setup, but at least DTS:X can accommodate that if that is what you already have.

I liked seeing that DTS MDA is going to be free! I looked into Atmos mixing software, but it is a plugin for Protools HD, so that is a fairly expensive software package. Hopefully I can mess around with DTA MDA and have some fun with it. I wonder if encoding DTS X soundtracks will be free too? At the moment, if you want to encode a DTS MA sound track, it will cost you.

DTS X headphone is interesting. Honestly though, I don't see it doing much that a conventional headphone mix can't do with some clever engineering, but it looks to make those tricks easier to accomplish. Hopefully it will put to bed the idiotic gimmick of ‘5.1’ or ‘7.1’ headphones. God those things are dumb!
andyblackcat posts on April 20, 2015 18:13
Live 90 piece orchestra and your sat in lower stalls listening to it. All those instruments are spread over a wide area and depth as well. Some instruments are nearer to you some are further away and all have own different frequency tone and range.

So why not record all instruments separately then play them all back on 90 small speakers placed at different positions in front of the room with one speaker slightly higher the other. Then play it back to see if it sounds like it has any dimensional depth. In theory. We all seen concerts and lol where camera goes nearer to part of the orchestra and shouldn't there be a few db increase? If I was walking around and between them all that is what I would hear, no ifs or buts about. But wife would say “I want a divorce” to 90 speakers in the front of the room.

If there is a crowed room and your walking between lots of people you hear some part of conversation for brief seconds then it fades away then you hear the next short but brief conversation. That's 3d sound with no boundaries not speakers placed on walls and further away. But a home cluttered with 500 same size small speakers wife would get the axe out the shed.
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