Home-Theater Audio: Sound Waves

New Formats & Standards Have Arrived: Plus Best Buys in AV Receivers, Home-Theater-in-a-Box Systems, Soundbars & Speakers

The home-theater industry has embraced a wider range of audio formats that will immerse you in sound more completely than ever before. New connectivity and copyright-protection standards emerged. However, the latter can add confusion to how your devices work.

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New audio formats promise to put you in the thick of the action during a blockbuster movie or a big sports event.

Although a new connectivity standard emerged that plays nice with the existing HDMI standard and typically is a free upgrade, a new copyright regulation means that any components that pass along the video signal must support the new standard to process 4K video. You also will find fewer choices if you have your mind set on a home-theater-in-a-box (HTiB) system.

FORMAT SHIFT. New audio formats provide what we found to be the most immersive audio experience yet for audio-video receivers (AVRs) and soundbars. Dolby Atmos and DTS:X are object-based audio formats that were announced in June 2014 (Dolby Atmos) and April 2015 (DTS:X). The two are competing formats, but Dolby Atmos is more readily available for home-theater use. Both operate in the same manner: Movie studios once assigned sound to specific channels, such as left or right. However, Dolby Atmos and DTS:X allow filmmakers to assign sound to specific objects that are on-screen. For the first time, sounds can come at you from above if you add overhead speakers. Dolby Atmos and DTS:X add in multi-dimensional audio, so those sounds can move from the left to the right as well as up and down. That way, when, for example, a plane flies across the screen, the sound moves from one overhead speaker to another, which makes for a more realistic effect. We’re impressed.

These formats work with any TV and speakers, although for best results, Dolby and DTS recommend that you have an AVR that decodes the applicable format and a minimum of seven speakers—two that are on your ceiling—and one subwoofer. If you don’t have that setup, the disc defaults to 5.1 or 7.1 surround sound. In other words, content must be encoded either with a Dolby Atmos or a DTS:X soundtrack to experience those effects.

That said, we found that full-size speakers and add-on module speakers that have vertical-projecting drivers (starting at $150 per pair) can simulate the object-based experience. We believe that these are a good alternative if you don’t have the space or the budget for a full home-theater setup.

As of press time, Dolby Atmos was included on Blu-ray Discs and through streaming services on 76 titles. We also found 13 Blu-ray titles that include DTS:X. Those numbers are on the rise, with new and remastered Blu-ray and Ultra HD Blu-ray Disc releases slated for the rest of 2016, manufacturers tell Consumers Digest.

Dolby Atmos is on AVRs that start at $479. When the technology launched, the entry price cost $1,399. DTS:X made its home debut in early 2016 on a Denon receiver that costs $3,000. DTS says software upgrades that support DTS:X will appear in AVRs by the end of 2016, and we anticipate prices to drop, although no manufacturer has specified when or by how much.

In the past 2 years, Samsung and Yamaha introduced three soundbars that have the new audio formats. In summer 2016, Samsung released two soundbars that have Dolby Atmos that start at $1,000. Yamaha is the only company that makes a soundbar that decodes both formats—for $1,600. Experts tell us that additional models that have one or both formats will arrive in 2017. However, manufacturers hadn’t released any information on pricing or timing as of press time.

CONNECT IT. The standard of connectivity for home-theater equipment now is HDMI 2.0a. HDMI 2.0a—and its predecessor, HDMI 2.0—deliver 4K content, which has four times the resolution of your 1080p high-definition TV, without any audio-video loss. Although the bump to HDMI 2.0a from HDMI 2.0 is minor, it’s worth noting, because the new specification is designed to accommodate High Dynamic Range (HDR) content. HDR, which is available through streaming services and Ultra HD Blu-ray players, delivers brighter, sharper imagery than we ever have seen before.

However, to experience HDR, you have to have a 4K ultrahigh-definition TV (UHDTV) that supports HDR. (Not all do.) Also, if you bought an AVR that has HDMI 2.0, which has been the standard since 2013, you aren’t necessarily out of luck. Many manufacturers provide software to upgrade their products to HDMI 2.0a, and typically it’s a free upgrade. To find out whether you’re eligible for an upgrade, you can check the manufacturer’s website or check your component’s settings. Some products allow you to enable these automatically, so whenever you’re connected to the internet, updates are loaded to the product without you having to push a button.

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