Letter from America: With New Audio Formats, What's the Object?


As you may have heard, here in America we’re already in the midst of presidential campaigns even though the election is still a year away.

Amid the numerous debates for the two major parties you may find the candidates asking “What is the object here?” As a political junky I’ve certainly asked myself that question, as do the news presenters and pundits.

You can, to some extent, read “What’s the object here?” with “What’s the point?”, particularly with a view of what new products were shown last month at CEDIA Expo. This month’s Letter conflates the two questions with a bit of artistic license: “What’s the point about object-based audio?” It’s available, it works, it is priced from very affordable to very expensive and the list of available software is slowly, but surely growing.

What isn’t certain at this point is whether or not it is gaining traction with the public. Yes, to some extent in the world of under USD$1,000 AVRs Dolby Atmos is widely available, but in that segment of the market there is a presumption that the purchase is not motivated solely by the Object Based Audio (hereafter OBA). We say that because it is likely that other reasons, such as the availability of both more HDMI inputs to accommodate a wider variety of external streaming sources and the advanced version of HDMI and HDCP required for 4H/UHD, may be more important.

In addition, the price sensitive nature of the AVR market means that there may be little tolerance for the cost of additional speakers (and their installation when required). Think about it: how many friends (not necessarily clients) do you have with 7.1 systems that actually have the full complement of speakers today? If the industry at large hasn’t been able to push that envelope with current Dolby and DTS 7.1 formats, what chance do we all have when explaining, let alone selling 5.2.2, 7.2.4 and up to, and above 13-channel systems? Consider that, but hold the thought for now.

In the world of high(er)-end and custom products we face a different challenge. Cost may not be as much, if any, object. If we can prove the value, the sale is doable. On the other hand, the very nature of the expensive, high-end kit already installed may work against you if, as your accountant clients might say, “The current system isn’t fully depreciated yet.” (Also perhaps code for “We have’t paid it off yet!”) However, more than a year into Dolby Atmos and Auro3D, and with DTS:X soon to arrive, OBA is actually quite saleable if the job is done correctly.

First, gauge the knowledge level of the client base. Do they follow the trends, or do they rely on you to recommend upgrades or the ecosystem for a new build? In either case you may well have to both explain and demonstrate what OBA is about, what it brings to the home theatre experience and show how it is a major advancement from what has previously been available for flat-surface multi-channel system.

The first task is something that you can do in a weekend “lunch and learn” or an evening “wine and cheese” event. Both your manufacturer suppliers and the format promoters all have material that explain what OBA is. Use that as a base and then create your own sales presentation so that it doesn’t seem canned. The concept of sound as multiple “objects” that can be sent and around and above a listening space, rather than simply fixed to a channel’s speaker positon is not as hard to explain as it might seem.

The second, and perhaps most critical part of the sale harkens back to a mantra from 20 years ago when we first had to explain surround sound to customers who didn’t understand they needed anything more than two-channel stereo – if that. You can’t say it too many times, and suffice to say it was part of customer presentations then: “DEMO OR DIE!” Were your fathers or grandfathers (some of us are getting old, as mentioned in a recent Letter) wowed by the ping-pong demos for stereo? Did you ever use Top Gun to seal a deal for a system with Dolby ProLogic, Dolby Digital and DTS capability?

The formats and what they do may have changed, but nothing replaces a carefully selected range of demo tracks accompanied by superb video in a comfortable environment. Other rules really haven’t changed: first play a current track without altering it. Then, play a track with OBA. Ask if anyone hears the difference? Did they? If so you’re more than half way there. If not, go to the A/B presentation with what our friends in the consumer research world call “guided” or “assisted” recall. Explain what they should listen to and you’ll make more points. Ask the listeners to close their eyes and see if they can hear the difference. You should be writing up the order in no time.

Of course, no format has any value without content and it is critical to drive that point home. Dolby Atmos released more than 50 titles for cinema exhibition and over 25 for home playback. Auro3D has more than 100 cinema titles, although many are regional and probably not available where you trade. Even DTS:X, despite the currently small array of electronics available at this time, has already begun to release software in readiness for a broader market introduction. And, it is not just movies, as Auro3D has CDs available for music playback for their system and Dolby Atmos as released re-mastered versions of the likes of Game of Thrones with Atmos soundtracks. Titles with Atmos encoding have even joined the streaming content revolution as both Amazon Instant Video and Vudu (here in the US, expect more streaming providers where you are before too long).

As with any new format, expect questions. Be ready to answer them! We’ve already addressed the issue of software: There is a fair amount of it here now, and more is coming every month. Some may ask about a potential “format war”, at least between Dolby and DTS. The answer there is that anything is possible. However, given that the DSPs used in most AVRs and Surround Processors can handle both, we’re already seeing DTS:X-ready products to complement the existing Atmos capabilities. Much sooner than later the choice will be made automatically in the audio kit just as is done today.

Perhaps the biggest possible objection to an upgrade may be the requirement for additional speakers in places where they are not now located. That is the perfect place to explain exactly what you do that mass-market and warehouse stores cannot do. Explain the variety of speakers (ceiling, on- and in-wall, book shelf combo and “elevation modules”) that can deliver the new audio information. Based on the room and the client’s interior requirements show them how you have carefully picked the solution that is right for them. That is what you are there for.

A final objection may come from clients that are on the fence about an upgrade to OBA when they are wrestling with installing a new UHD display or projector. At the end of the day, that is actually an easy one. Remind all that without good sound a great picture goes to waste. Give them tickets to the best local cinema with Atmos, Auro3D or DTS:X and let them soak in the fact that it is not just the high resolution image on the screen but the sound that spreads throughout the room from the top as well as the sides. Once the experience it in the best possible setting the argument for OBA is one.

A final note with regard to the future. It is already set that today’s Blu-ray discs as well as the forthcoming UltraHD Blu-ray players will accommodate all of the audio formats discussed here. Further, in North America as well as in the UK and EMEA, standards committees such as our ATSC here in the US and the ITU elsewhere are working to finalize standards for the “next generation sound” that will accompany UHD video.

As mentioned a few months ago, these systems will go beyond OBA to allow users to select the team announcers for sports broadcasts, add multiple commentaries over the air, just as movie buffs have grown accustomed to for DVD and Blu-ray “director’s commentaries” and, in the words of the ITU, “…lift the television experience to an entirely new level, further blurring the line between physical reality and virtual or digital simulation.” The publicity for the standard to shortly be selected by the ATSC, and for the just announced ITU-R BS.2088-0 recommendation are jumping off points that will help provide proof positive that OBA is the wave of the future.

A caveat: the ability of existing sets to decode the eventual standard is to be determined, but if set-top boxes output it via HDMI to the audio rack there is a fair chance that, given software upgrades, the new sound will be handled. However, until that is settled, don’t promise today’s sets will handle it; rather, show how the trend to OBA is picking up steam.

The “object” of object-based audio is to greatly enhance the listening environment. Point the doubters to the facts, demo carefully, and you’ll avoid having it seen, or more correctly heard, as just another ploy for you and manufacturers to make a sale. The object of all of this: It really makes a profound difference!

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.