Letter from America: Listen Up, Audio is Changing!


By Michael Heiss, HiddenWires. With the intense focus on 4K/UHD in the past 24 months it seems as though video has gotten most of the ...

Michael HeissBy Michael Heiss, HiddenWires. With the intense focus on 4K/UHD in the past 24 months it seems as though video has gotten most of the attention of late, not only for consumers and video displays, but for content providers such as streaming/IP-based delivery services, physical media distribution, cable, satellite and broadcasters it might seem that audio may have gotten somewhat of the short end of the stick. Does that mean that no one is paying attention to audio anymore? No, not quite, but sometimes you have to look—and listen—closely. On the cinema side of the market there is an ever increasing number of theatres equipped for Dolby Atmos to deliver immersive, object-based audio in parallel with the installation of Auro3D in others, albeit it in smaller numbers at least here in the US. It is also certainly true that since last fall we’ve had commercial availability of home theatre products with Atmos and some of those models are also upgradeable to Auro3D. Blu-ray discs encoded with Atmos data are also increasing in number with high-profile titles such as “Unforgiven” and “Gravity” now available along with titles such as “Expendables 3” that, while perhaps not exactly great cinematic art, have great soundtracks with which to demo the benefits of object-based audio to clients and prospects. [caption id="attachment_8745" align="alignleft" width="400"]Heiss_AC-4 Summ As presented by Dolby in this slide from October’s SMPTE Conference, the next generation of audio for broadcast will deliver much more than object-based audio.[/caption] Adding to the fray, April 9th will see the unveiling of additional details of DTS:X, that company’s entry into the “object-based audio/immersive sound” market. To say the least, it will be an interesting format battle to watch as the contenders fight for the hearts and minds of a variety of constituencies including obvious parties of interest. They are many and include the movie studios and other content providers who must release content with a selected format and semiconductor manufacturers who must make certain that their DSP chips can handle the requirements brought on by the increased processor power needed to decode and render both the underlying base streams as well as the metadata used to tell the system where to send the various object sounds based on calculations taking into account the number of speakers installed in a given system. Oh, and once the code gets written and the processor chips certified, the hardware manufacturers have to implement the new format(s) in their AVRs, surround processors and other products. Having worked that side of the fence for various manufacturers over the years, I assure you that is not a simple task. Indeed, none of these things are. They all take time and the pitches from the IP licensors such as Dolby, DTS and Auro have to take place in an increasingly competitive marketplace where price compression is the order of the day. Is the increased complexity and associated component cost worth it? You can be sure that question is on the minds of many brands as they wrestle the issue of whether or not to adopt the new sound technologies. Can we recoup the added cost when a price increase is almost impossible or do we have to drop some other costly licensed IP or feature? If we do that will we lose market share? Those questions, more than anything, are hot topics with the brands. Time will tell how this all shakes out. [caption id="attachment_8747" align="aligncenter" width="1024"]Heiss_DTS 4 Bcst DTS, as shown here in a slide from a Hollywood AES meeting, plans to deliver the benefits of new audio features from a common “MDA” standard used on the production workflow via their new DTS:X consumer format suite.[/caption] Of course, you’ll have similar questions when confronting questions from your consumer market base. To a public still somewhat feeling “taken” by all the hype a few years ago over 3D and now perhaps somewhat sceptical about the benefits for UHD/4K displays you can’t blame a client or prospect if they ask you to justify why they should replace the perfectly good audio system they have now with not only a new AVR or processor with additional channels and amplification, but also add two to four or more new speakers that might, HORRORS, have to be placed IN THE CEILING! “You’re kidding, correct?” is a likely response from those not on the cutting edge of home theatre audio. Presuming that you already know what object-based/immersive audio is all about we’ll eschew the explanations here and instead provide the reasoned argumentation we’ve seen work some outstanding specialty retailer/custom installation firms here in the US. The first rule is written in stone, and has been a mantra since we first sold products with the original matrix-based version Dolby ProLogic oh, so many years ago: “DEMO OR DIE!” Object-based audio just won’t sell itself on name value. If you have a showroom make certain it is fitted with the latest kit so that you can put action to the phrase, “You have to hear it to believe it.” Pick the demo material carefully and be prepared to play the selection a few times while turning the Atmos or Auro3D on and off. Better still, let the customer do the switching. They will hear why they should make an investment in the new gear, and if they don’t at this time perhaps the best path is to not push the issue and wait. Much as is the case in some respects with UHD, this isn’t something you can push and expect everyone to like. Forcing the sale is foolish, as they’ll only end up with a bad case of buyer’s remorse that won’t do much for their word-of-mouth about your business. Take a measured approach and wait. They will come around sooner than later. Just as those who don’t see the value in UHD now for resolution alone will most certainly see the difference and come back with an open wallet when HDR and higher-frame rate displays and content come around, a similar thing will take place with object-based/immersive audio. The sale you will make when they do hear the difference as the number of Atmos and Auro3D cinemas and blockbuster titles continues to grow. The sale you’ll get when they want the technology is likely to be greater when the customer asks for the upgrade as opposed to when you are pushing heard to sell it. Consider the likely bigger sale as the interest you’re getting on the demo investment now. Our experience with this to date says you might want to think about this as three different sales approaches. For upgrade sales, where the existing system is out of date and the customer perhaps comes to you for new gear, by all means do the demo, explain why and how these new audio techniques bring increased realism to movies and music. For those sales, and specifically for total “big theatre” system rebuilds, you have an even more potent sales arrow to launch. If the room is being rebuilt and the components changed, why not take the step to make an upgrade now that will last long into the future rather than scrimp only to have to come back sooner than preferred to add what is already available now? That is a logical approach that is hard to ignore. For new customer sales or with first-time buyers of full HT systems, there is a variation: The reality is that the electronics most consumers will consider may well have the new audio formats on-board, at least in the electronics. The customer may well end up buying it even if they don’t use it. However, don’t let that stand in the way of pitching the added speakers required for Atmos and Auro3D and, soon, for DTS:X. Can’t sell the speakers now? Don’t fret. A good and proper explanation of the new audio formats should at least lead to pre-wiring for the speakers when they are added at a later date. No need to push too hard, this should hopefully sell itself with the right demo and equipment package. So far, the attention on object-based audio has been powered for the most part by theatrical movie content, with some audio recordings. It should be noted here that along with new, purpose-mixed object-based content, a major benefit of the new systems is their “upmixers” that to many observers to a splendid job of creating the immersive sound from existing content. Think of these as what Dolby ProLogic IIx, DTS Neo:6 and similar proprietary algorithms have long done in creating multi-channel content form two-channel mixes but with a hefty dose of caffeination to light up the entire sound-field dome. That’s all well and good. [caption id="attachment_8748" align="alignleft" width="316"]Heiss_Frnhf Wimb Exp Fraunhofer has been developing new ways to give end-users audio flexibility for some years. MPEG-H can deliver the benefits shown in this test from a past Wimbledon.[/caption] However, as they say in the late-night infomercials, “But WAIT, there’s MORE!” That “more” will bring you yet another reason to justify new system sales with object-based audio capability. As we move into next month’s NAB show in Las Vegas, the action is heating up in the selection process for what will be the audio standard for ATSC 3.0, which will replace the current video and audio standards for over-the-air broadcasting in North America and some other countries. While the experience of NTSC vs. PAL (ok, and SECAM) and ATSC vs. DVB have shown that what one continent or group of countries chooses as their standard doesn’t take root elsewhere, times have changed. The based standards of 720p/1080p and Dolby Digital are more or less global, as is 3840x2160 for 4K/UHD. The audio standard chosen for ATSC 3.0 will undoubtedly carry strong weight with standards and governmental bodies around the world. So here’s where audio fits into the picture: There are three standards, one each from Dolby (“AC-4”, a version of Atmos), DTS (a version of DTS:X) and a consortium led by Fraunhofer (with DBV-H). Is your customer base unmoved by what all of this will do to movies? Having heard presentations on all three of these proposed systems we are confident that what they have to offer will push people to adopt, if not insist on them. In varying ways with the three variants, all support object-based audio with what for now appear to be similar speaker placement locations. More importantly, all allow “objects” to be used in different ways with the consumer having considerable choice. Don’t like the grunting from some tennis players as they hit the ball? You can dial that back! Watching a football match and you want to hear just the “natural sound” of the field announcer with no presenter or commentator? Or, do you want to listen to your team’s analyst or that of the other team? Easily done with a quick press of a button. Watching an F1 race and looking to switch between the car-to-pit team radio streams of different cars? That’s like falling off a log. Those, and other creative uses of the ability to select the “objects” in an audio stream will be a key benefit of the versions of the audio systems available today that will bring new dimensions of sound to listeners. To many, the complaint on the new audio systems has been is that they may be perceived as fluff; something the industry is pushing on consumers that don’t really want or need it. To counteract that notion you have to present a reasoned argument for what they can do today, seasoned with hints at what might be available sooner than anyone thinks, perhaps in the next 24 to 36 months. Combine that with great demos and the task may be easier than one might think. We’ll keep on top of it for you as we attend both the DTS event and NAB in the weeks ahead. As the news unfolds, always take the forward step on this as if you don’t, the competition surely will! Michael Heiss is a technology consultant and journalist, CEDIA Fellow, CEDIA ESC 2 Certified, and US correspondent for HiddenWires magazine. You can contact Michael via the HiddenWires LinkedIn Group, follow him on Twitter @captnvid, or comment on his article, below.