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A Dolby Atmos Update with Impressions from THX

Dolby Atmos and DTS:X have been simmering in the back of our minds for quite some time. In fact, it’s easy to call Immersive Sound both ‘old news’ and ‘the hottest topic’ in the home theater world. While it has infiltrated some homes, many enthusiasts have delayed buying an Atmos enabled AVR simply because most new AVRs released during the last several product cycles are missing crucial pieces of future tech – think along the lines of HDCP 2.2, HDMI 2.0a, and DTS:X – many of which can’t be added with a simple firmware upgrade. That is changing, however, as companies (such as Onkyo and Yamaha) have recently announced AVR models that are fairly future proof. In fact, Yamaha’s soon-to-be-released AVENTAGE RX-A3050 appears to cover every base possible (including offering a 7.1.4 speaker configuration with the use of an external amplifier). This, of course, is good news and means that more enthusiasts will be upgrading in the coming months.




Today, I’ve pulled together an Immersive Sound State of the Union, if you will, touching on available media, equipment, new Atmos installation specifications, and relaying THX’s impressions of their in-house Dolby Atmos testing sessions as presented during an interview on AVForum’s June Podcast.


The Movies
The end of 2014 witnessed the industry’s first Atmos Blu-ray release in the form of Transformers: Age of Extinction; an ironically titled movie that marked the beginning of calling DTS-HD MA and TrueHD “legacy” codecs and – hopefully – the end of the Transformers series. As Home Theater Shack’s Sultan of Blu-ray Movies (Mike Edwards) said in his review, Age of Extinction’s storyline is “half star trash,” but the audio and visual qualities of the film hit ridiculous reference levels. So, when you assemble your Atmos enabled system, turn a blind eye to better judgement and add this disc to your collection for demo use.

Since the release of Transformers, thirteen other Atmos Blu-rays have hit store shelves, including: American Sniper, The Expendables 3, The Age of Adaline, Gravity, Insurgent, The Gunman, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1, Jupiter Ascending, John Wick, On Any Sunday: The Next Chapter, Step Up All In, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and Unbroken. According to THX, John Wick was the most impressive Atmos release as of early June, while Mike Edwards has told me that his favorite is Jupiter Ascending. Other review sources have given high marks to The Expendables 3, Unbroken, and Gravity. It is worthy to note that the first DTS:X encoded Blu-ray was released last week (Ex Machina).

The good news is that Atmos material is available and more is in the pipeline. The bad news is that we're unsure how movie-houses will choose to mix future releases. According to THX, the industry believes that most Atmos customers will deploy the technology using add-on Atmos enabled speakers that reflect sound off the ceiling of a room. The difficulty is that reflecting sound limits films to higher frequency effects (a gunshot) as opposed to sounds that also have low frequencies (such as a voice). THX says that Blu-rays will never carry two Atmos tracks (one mixed for Atmos enabled speakers and the other for discrete ceiling speaker configurations), so here’s hoping that mixers continue to pump thick and rich content to the presence channels and that manufacturers can tweak their module offerings to match.


The Equipment
As I stated in the intro, we’ve seen quite a few Atmos enable AVRs released over the last year-plus, but many are lacking in the future-proof department. The AV world has experienced a boom in new technologies in the last year alone, and AVR manufacturers simply can’t keep up…and they’re frustrated. This was evident in recent discussions I had with two key Onkyo marketing representatives, and painfully obvious in their company’s current receiver offerings. Take Onkyo’s flagship receiver (TX-NR303); it offers HDCP 2.2, but lacks both DTS:X and HDMI 2.0a (which, in my opinion, makes it extremely tough to recommend). Meanwhile, their best AVR release of 2015 (RZ900) can handle HDCP 2.2, has HDMI 2.0a, and can be upgraded with DTS:X…but….it only can playback Atmos with a 5.1.2 speaker array (keep reading and you’ll see why this might be a detriment).



Yamaha's new AVENTAGE RX-A3050 .


Onkyo isn’t alone. In fact, nearly every manufacturer has a top-of-the-line AVR offering that falls just short of meeting all of the new tech demands, with the exception of Yamaha. Yamaha’s new flagship AVENTAGE receiver can do it all while offering 7.1.4 sound. We’ll have a review of this unit published in September, so stay tuned for our take on how this model performs.

Soon enough, Yamaha won’t stand-alone and a plethora of flagship models will arrive lock-and-loaded to battle well into the future. The best advice, at this juncture, is to carefully read through spec sheets before buying. It might just save you a headache and a bundle of money down the road.


New Atmos Installation Guidelines
If you’ve been sleeping at the audio wheel, then you probably aren’t aware that Dolby released new speaker installation guidelines this past April. Atmos has ushered-in new speaker configuration jargon, but it’s easy to understand; a 7.1.4 channel system means there are 7 surround channels, 1 LFE channel, and 4 ceiling or presence channels. There are currently six published Atmos configurations for the home: 5.1.2, 5.1.4, 7.1.2, 7.1.4, 9.1.2, and 9.1.4 (of course, you could arguably add-in more configurations if including two LFE channels).

Dolby says that all surround speakers (front, side, and rear) should be at the same height (with the front speakers being a reference point). If it’s impractical to have the side and rear channels the same height, then Dolby says they can be elevated to be 1.25 times the height of the front speakers.



THX and Dolby disagree about optimal placement of presence channels in a 7.1.4 configuration.


In-ceiling speakers can be oriented either straight down or toward viewers. Speakers that have a wide dispersion pattern (speakers that can dip down to 100Hz and below) should be mounted facing directly downward. Otherwise, ceiling speakers should be angled toward the primary listening position. Optimally, presence channels should be at least two times the height of the listener’s ear level.

Non-ceiling Atmos enabled speaker modules should be placed above the height of the listener’s ears when seated. Ideally, they should be no closer than 5 feet away from any listening position within a room. Measured ceiling heights should range from 7.5-feet to 12-feet.

There are more fine details within their recommendations, including guidelines governing speaker angles and advanced system calibration. If you’re curious, you can read the complete guide, here.


THX’s Take on Atmos Modules, Speaker Configurations, and More
Last month, the AVForm Podcast interviewed Matt Severaid (Senior Manager of Integrated Technology) and Craig Buckley (Senior R&D Engineer, Audio Solutions) of THX, and tapped their impressions of Atmos to date. THX is intimately involved with seeking-out gear and system set-ups that faithfully recreate a director’s artistic intent, so it’s no surprise they’ve been busily putting various Dolby Atmos speaker configurations through the wringer. Their bottom-line take-home message is that, depending on the movie, a home theater Atmos experience using in-ceiling presence channels is “impressive.”

According to Buckley, Atmos enabled speaker modules offer a performance value with “drawbacks.” He bluntly says that modules don’t compare to discrete speakers placed on the ceiling, however he does say that they can add some semblance of elevation to a viewer’s experience. When asked if enthusiasts are truly better off with discrete speakers, Buckley says Atmos enabled modules can sound smeared and inaccurate when effects with low frequency sounds are bounced off a ceiling (as eluded to earlier in this article). His preference is decidedly slanted towards in-ceiling channels.

One of the more interesting aspects of the interview dealt with in-ceiling presence channel locations. In general, Buckley says users with an Atmos system consisting of two presence speakers should place the speakers directly over the seating position. This position, known as “Top Middle” creates the best effect. Systems with four presence channels should take advantage of the Top Front and Top Middle locations; Top Rear is the least desirable placement. Much of this is driven by the fact that THX feels that surround channels are still best when elevated (not as high as previous recommendations, but not as low as ear level), and Top Rear speakers tend to disappear when surround channels are elevated.

When it comes to Atmos speaker configurations, Buckley says “we wouldn’t recommend a 5.1.[2 or 4] scenario because we found if you don’t have rear speakers, you really do lose the whole fill of the space. In all configurations of a 5.1.2 or 4, we found that without getting that rearward pull, the sound field is much smaller.”

What does THX recommend?

They say that sticking with a 7.1 system is far more desirable than any 5.1.2 or 5.1.4 configuration. So, if you have a 9 channel Atmos receiver, your best option is to run a 7.1 or 7.1.2 set-up. This is a fairly sizable revelation from THX and one that certainly limits AVR options and possible speaker configurations for enthusiasts looking to install the very best in-home audio experience.

We’ll have more on Dolby Atmos and DTS:X at a later date. Home Theater Shack reviewers are currently at various stages of installing Atmos systems in their reference spaces, once a few systems are fully furnished, we’ll test some of THX’s conclusions and report our findings.


Image Credits: THX, DTS, Dolby, Lionsgate Films, Paramount Pictures, and Yamaha
Source Credit: AVForums Podcast, Episode 89
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post #2 of 19 Old 07-21-15, 06:16 PM
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Re: A Dolby Atmos Update with Impressions from THX

I was going to step down to a 5.2 setup and then add either 2 or 4 ceiling speakers...looks like I will be back to a 7.2 setup, and then add 4 channels for the ceiling.

tia,
Ron

My Home Theater
Yamaha CX-A5100, (3) JBL 2360A/EV DHA-1s, (3) 1/4 Pie bass bins, (2 pr) JBL 8340As, (2 pr) JBL 8320s, PS3, XBox One, (2) Intel NUCs, Redmere HDMI cables, Monster Signature HTPS7000, (2) Furman Power Conditioners, (2) DTS-10 subs, Panasonic AE8000, SeymourAV 180 (195" diag) scope screen, Darbee Darcet, Panamorph UH-480 lens, (2) Crest Audio 2208, Yamaha XM-4080 & P7000s, (2) MiniDSP DDRC-88M, Pioneer BDP-80DF
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post #3 of 19 Old 07-21-15, 06:21 PM
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Re: A Dolby Atmos Update with Impressions from THX

Quote:
Todd Anderson wrote: View Post
Dolby Atmos and DTS:X have been simmering in the back of our minds for quite some time. In fact, it’s easy to call Immersive Sound both ‘old news’ and ‘the hottest topic’ in the home theater world. While it has infiltrated some homes, many enthusiasts have delayed buying an Atmos enabled AVR simply because most new AVRs released during the last several product cycles are missing crucial pieces of future tech – think along the lines of HDCP 2.2, HDMI 2.0a, and DTS:X – many of which can’t be added with a simple firmware upgrade. That is changing, however, as companies (such as Onkyo and Yamaha) have recently announced AVR models that are fairly future proof. In fact, Yamaha’s soon-to-be-released AVENTAGE RX-A3050 appears to cover every base possible (including offering a 7.1.4 speaker configuration with the use of an external amplifier). This, of course, is good news and means that more enthusiasts will be upgrading in the coming months.




Today, I’ve pulled together an Immersive Sound State of the Union, if you will, touching on available media, equipment, new Atmos installation specifications, and relaying THX’s impressions of their in-house Dolby Atmos testing sessions as presented during an interview on AVForum’s June Podcast.


The Movies
The end of 2014 witnessed the industry’s first Atmos Blu-ray release in the form of Transformers: Age of Extinction; an ironically titled movie that marked the beginning of calling DTS-HD MA and TrueHD “legacy” codecs and – hopefully – the end of the Transformers series. As Home Theater Shack’s Sultan of Blu-ray Movies (Mike Edwards) said in his review, Age of Extinction’s storyline is “half star trash,” but the audio and visual qualities of the film hit ridiculous reference levels. So, when you assemble your Atmos enabled system, turn a blind eye to better judgement and add this disc to your collection for demo use.

Since the release of Transformers, thirteen other Atmos Blu-rays have hit store shelves, including: American Sniper, The Expendables 3, The Age of Adaline, Gravity, Insurgent, The Gunman, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1, Jupiter Ascending, John Wick, On Any Sunday: The Next Chapter, Step Up All In, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and Unbroken. According to THX, John Wick was the most impressive Atmos release as of early June, while Mike Edwards has told me that his favorite is Jupiter Ascending. Other review sources have given high marks to The Expendables 3, Unbroken, and Gravity. It is worthy to note that the first DTS:X encoded Blu-ray was released last week (Ex Machina).

The good news is that Atmos material is available and more is in the pipeline. The bad news is that we're unsure how movie-houses will choose to mix future releases. According to THX, the industry believes that most Atmos customers will deploy the technology using add-on Atmos enabled speakers that reflect sound off the ceiling of a room. The difficulty is that reflecting sound limits films to higher frequency effects (a gunshot) as opposed to sounds that also have low frequencies (such as a voice). THX says that Blu-rays will never carry two Atmos tracks (one mixed for Atmos enabled speakers and the other for discrete ceiling speaker configurations), so here’s hoping that mixers continue to pump thick and rich content to the presence channels and that manufacturers can tweak their module offerings to match.


The Equipment
As I stated in the intro, we’ve seen quite a few Atmos enable AVRs released over the last year-plus, but many are lacking in the future-proof department. The AV world has experienced a boom in new technologies in the last year alone, and AVR manufacturers simply can’t keep up…and they’re frustrated. This was evident in recent discussions I had with two key Onkyo marketing representatives, and painfully obvious in their company’s current receiver offerings. Take Onkyo’s flagship receiver (TX-NR303); it offers HDCP 2.2, but lacks both DTS:X and HDMI 2.0a (which, in my opinion, makes it extremely tough to recommend). Meanwhile, their best AVR release of 2015 (RZ900) can handle HDCP 2.2, has HDMI 2.0a, and can be upgraded with DTS:X…but….it only can playback Atmos with a 5.1.2 speaker array (keep reading and you’ll see why this might be a detriment).



Yamaha's new AVENTAGE RX-A3050 .


Onkyo isn’t alone. In fact, nearly every manufacturer has a top-of-the-line AVR offering that falls just short of meeting all of the new tech demands, with the exception of Yamaha. Yamaha’s new flagship AVENTAGE receiver can do it all while offering 7.1.4 sound. We’ll have a review of this unit published in September, so stay tuned for our take on how this model performs.

Soon enough, Yamaha won’t stand-alone and a plethora of flagship models will arrive lock-and-loaded to battle well into the future. The best advice, at this juncture, is to carefully read through spec sheets before buying. It might just save you a headache and a bundle of money down the road.


New Atmos Installation Guidelines
If you’ve been sleeping at the audio wheel, then you probably aren’t aware that Dolby released new speaker installation guidelines this past April. Atmos has ushered-in new speaker configuration jargon, but it’s easy to understand; a 7.1.4 channel system means there are 7 surround channels, 1 LFE channel, and 4 ceiling or presence channels. There are currently six published Atmos configurations for the home: 5.1.2, 5.1.4, 7.1.2, 7.1.4, 9.1.2, and 9.1.4 (of course, you could arguably add-in more configurations if including two LFE channels).

Dolby says that all surround speakers (front, side, and rear) should be at the same height (with the front speakers being a reference point). If it’s impractical to have the side and rear channels the same height, then Dolby says they can be elevated to be 1.25 times the height of the front speakers.



THX and Dolby don't agree on optimal placement of presence channels in a 7.1.4 configuration.


In-ceiling speakers can be oriented either straight down or toward viewers. Speakers that have a wide dispersion pattern (speakers that can dip down to 100Hz and below) should be mounted facing directly downward. Otherwise, ceiling speakers should be angled toward the primary listening position. Optimally, presence channels should be at least two times the height of the listener’s ear level.

Non-ceiling Atmos enabled speaker modules should be placed above the height of the listener’s ears when seated. Ideally, they should be no closer than 5 feet away from any listening position within a room. Measured ceiling heights should range from 7.5-feet to 12-feet.

There are more fine details within their recommendations, including guidelines governing speaker angles and advanced system calibration. If you’re curious, you can read the complete guide, here.


THX’s Take on Atmos Modules, Speaker Configurations, and More
Last month, the AVForm Podcast interviewed Matt Severaid (Senior Manager of Integrated Technology) and Craig Buckley (Senior R&D Engineer, Audio Solutions) of THX, and tapped their impressions of Atmos to date. THX is intimately involved with seeking-out gear and system set-ups that faithfully recreate a director’s artistic intent, so it’s no surprise they’ve been busily putting various Dolby Atmos speaker configurations through the wringer. Their bottom-line take-home message is that, depending on the movie, a home theater Atmos experience using in-ceiling presence channels is “impressive.”

According to Buckley, Atmos enabled speaker modules offer a performance value with “drawbacks.” He bluntly says that modules don’t compare to discrete speakers placed on the ceiling, however he does say that they can add some semblance of elevation to a viewer’s experience. When asked if enthusiasts are truly better off with discrete speakers, Buckley says Atmos enabled modules can sound smeared and inaccurate when effects with low frequency sounds are bounced off a ceiling (as eluded to earlier in this article). His preference is decidedly slanted towards in-ceiling channels.

One of the more interesting aspects of the interview dealt with in-ceiling presence channel locations. In general, Buckley says users with an Atmos system consisting of two presence speakers should place the speakers directly over the seating position. This position, known as “Top Middle” creates the best effect. Systems with four presence channels should take advantage of the Top Front and Top Middle locations; Top Rear is the least desirable placement. Much of this is driven by the fact that THX feels that surround channels are still best when elevated (not as high as previous recommendations, but not as low as ear level), and Top Rear speakers tend to disappear when surround channels are elevated.

When it comes to Atmos speaker configurations, Buckley says “we wouldn’t recommend a 5.1.[2 or 4] scenario because we found if you don’t have rear speakers, you really do lose the whole fill of the space. In all configurations of a 5.1.2 or 4, we found that without getting that rearward pull, the sound field is much smaller.”

What does THX recommend?

They say that sticking with a 7.1 system is far more desirable than any 5.1.2 or 5.1.4 configuration. So, if you have a 9 channel Atmos receiver, your best option is to run a 7.1 or 7.1.2 set-up. This is a fairly sizable revelation from THX and one that certainly limits AVR options and possible speaker configurations for enthusiasts looking to install the very best in-home audio experience.

We’ll have more on Dolby Atmos and DTS:X at a later date. Home Theater Shack reviewers are currently at various stages of installing Atmos systems in their reference spaces, once a few systems are fully furnished, we’ll test some of THX’s conclusions and report our findings.


Image Credits: THX, DTS, Dolby, Lionsgate Films, Paramount Pictures, and Yamaha
Source Credit: AVForums Podcast, Episode 89
I think, for this kind of outlay, it is a "wait-a-while" situation till receivers are fully future proof and more detail emerging from your HTF expert selves.

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post #4 of 19 Old 07-21-15, 06:30 PM Thread Starter
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Re: A Dolby Atmos Update with Impressions from THX

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ellisr63 wrote: View Post
I was going to step down to a 5.2 setup and then add either 2 or 4 ceiling speakers...looks like I will be back to a 7.2 setup, and then add 4 channels for the ceiling.
Ron, that's definitely looking like the right option if THX is on the money their assessment. Peter Loeser is running Atmos now...I'll be up and running within a month or so...hopefully Mike Edwards will be fully in the mix soon. It will be interesting to test some of THX's assertions.

I heard a 5.1.2 set-up at CE Week NYC, and thought it sounded good. However, it was a short 5 minute demo. I'd sure love to hear it again...
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post #5 of 19 Old 07-21-15, 08:26 PM
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Re: A Dolby Atmos Update with Impressions from THX

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Ron, that's definitely looking like the right option if THX is on the money their assessment. Peter Loeser is running Atmos now...I'll be up and running within a month or so...hopefully Mike Edwards will be fully in the mix soon. It will be interesting to test some of THX's assertions.

I heard a 5.1.2 set-up at CE Week NYC, and thought it sounded good. However, it was a short 5 minute demo. I'd sure love to hear it again...
I most likely will not do Atmos until next year at the earliest...even though I will have all the amps for it. I still need to buy 5 more JBLs (I currently have 3, but one needs a new woofer) for my rear surrounds, and ceiling channels, plus find a AVP that I am happy with. Most likely I will buy, and install all the speakers before I get the AVP. I want HDMI 2.0, HDCP 2.2, Atmos, and DTS-X before i make the jump on the AVP. When i get to that last step I will be done with the audio part for years to come (might swap out my 200wpc amp for another Lexicon though). Projector upgrade will be next most likely after tha AVP.

tia,
Ron

My Home Theater
Yamaha CX-A5100, (3) JBL 2360A/EV DHA-1s, (3) 1/4 Pie bass bins, (2 pr) JBL 8340As, (2 pr) JBL 8320s, PS3, XBox One, (2) Intel NUCs, Redmere HDMI cables, Monster Signature HTPS7000, (2) Furman Power Conditioners, (2) DTS-10 subs, Panasonic AE8000, SeymourAV 180 (195" diag) scope screen, Darbee Darcet, Panamorph UH-480 lens, (2) Crest Audio 2208, Yamaha XM-4080 & P7000s, (2) MiniDSP DDRC-88M, Pioneer BDP-80DF
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post #6 of 19 Old 07-22-15, 08:29 AM
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Re: A Dolby Atmos Update with Impressions from THX

Food for thought from THX
Although I agree that holding on makes sense to some, there comes a stage in life when time is not on your side.
I am 62 and prefer to embrace this new technology now while I still can, and as many say the Dolby Surround (DSU) Up-mixer makes the upgrade worthwhile.

I have just bought a Denon X-7200WA which seems to be the best affordable and future proof option at the moment.
I am running 7.1.4 (FH/RH)

I find the article very interesting that THX preference is for one set of Top Middle in ceiling (7.1.2) as if I went that route I could reinstate my wide's and go 9.1.2 and as the wide's are already used with Atmos its an added bonus.

Thanks for the article
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post #7 of 19 Old 07-22-15, 08:57 AM Thread Starter
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Re: A Dolby Atmos Update with Impressions from THX

Quote:
lesmor wrote: View Post
Food for thought from THX
Although I agree that holding on makes sense to some, there comes a stage in life when time is not on your side.
I am 62 and prefer to embrace this new technology now while I still can, and as many say the Dolby Surround (DSU) Up-mixer makes the upgrade worthwhile.

I have just bought a Denon X-7200WA which seems to be the best affordable and future proof option at the moment.
I am running 7.1.4 (FH/RH)

I find the article very interesting that THX preference is for one set of Top Middle in ceiling (7.1.2) as if I went that route I could reinstate my wide's and go 9.1.2 and as the wide's are already used with Atmos its an added bonus.

Thanks for the article
You're most welcome!

I'm in agreement with you. Waiting makes sense to a point and I believe there are now a handful of models that make sense (I'll feature another one tomorrow).

If you have the budget and installation flexibility, it might be interesting to wire-in Top Middle channels and do some in-room testing. It could be that your particular space plays differently than THX's demo room (although, it sounds like they have tested a plethora of arrangements and speaker proximities). If you make a change, let us know your impressions!

This weekend I'm cutting the ceiling of my theater room and installing 4 channels...they're going to be placed in the Top Middle and Top Front locations. I think that makes the most sense for my particular room dimensions and arrangement. If I had more wiggle room behind the seating configuration, I might be tempted to drop two speakers in the Top Rear, but we all have our own room limitations.
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post #8 of 19 Old 07-22-15, 08:58 AM Thread Starter
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Re: A Dolby Atmos Update with Impressions from THX

By the way, the next two confirmed Atmos Blu-ray releases are Mad Max and San Andreas... two epic action flicks that will probably play well.
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post #9 of 19 Old 07-22-15, 11:42 AM
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Re: A Dolby Atmos Update with Impressions from THX

Todd,
Thanks for the great run down, the article answered many of the questions I have been wondering about concerning the status of Atmos and whether to jump in the pool or not (staying on the patio for now).

Cheers,
XEagleDriver
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post #10 of 19 Old 07-22-15, 12:07 PM Thread Starter
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Re: A Dolby Atmos Update with Impressions from THX

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XEagleDriver wrote: View Post
Todd,
Thanks for the great run down, the article answered many of the questions I have been wondering about concerning the status of Atmos and whether to jump in the pool or not (staying on the patio for now).

Cheers,
XEagleDriver
How can you stay on the patio with an avatar like that? Looks like you have a pilot ready and willing to launch!

More seriously, we are definitely walking a fine line of "in" and "out" at the moment. There are definitely a few options that you can take into the pool now. But, if you're hesitant, I think you'll feel more comfortable next model year. CES 2016 is going to be very interesting.
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