Soundbars Seen as a Way To Get Immersive Audio Into the Home

Both Dolby Atmos and MPEG-H are licensed for the consumer devices

In the early days of 5.1 surround, it seemed that the format might sink, at least with consumers, in a tangle of cables connecting five speakers and a subwoofer. Wireless solutions helped its cause ergonomically and esthetically, but it wasn’t until the advent of the 5.1 soundbar that most home viewers got to experience even a limited version of multichannel broadcast audio.

Today, the immersive-audio industry sector is hoping lightning will strike again. Both Dolby, backer of the Atmos immersive-audio format, and Fraunhofer IIS, which developed MPEG-H, have licensed the first round of consumer soundbars that can accommodate those new formats.

In the design process, the format developers have kept the exigencies of mixing an immersive live show in mind to the greatest extent possible. The outcome of an accurate immersive mix from a single-point transducer starts with the software, according to Rob France, senior product marketing manager, Dolby, which now has more than a dozen Atmos soundbar models on the market, including a sub-$600 one announced at CES 2018.

“We designed our content-creation tools to provide A1s the flexibility to create Dolby Atmos experiences that are agnostic to a consumer’s chosen playback device,” he explains. “When content is mixed and delivered, rendering is done in the device to optimize and ensure that the consumer receives the best possible Dolby Atmos experience that the A1 intended. Whether they have a discrete 5.1.2 Dolby Atmos system, Dolby Atmos soundbar, or even a Dolby Atmos-enabled TV, they will get a superior Dolby Atmos experience.”

The actual monitoring component remains critical, though. Although A1s in remote-production environments routinely listen to discrete 5.1 playback, extending that to 5.1.4 and beyond may often be physically impossible. France doesn’t expect the Atmos-enabled soundbar to be deployed in that capacity in production trucks anytime soon. However, he notes, “We’ll see them in QC rooms further down the chain. Given the growth of Dolby Atmos into new form factors like soundbars, broadcasters will want the ability to QC their mixes on a range of typical consumer devices.”

In fact, he adds, soundbars will find a position within the immersive-monitoring chain on the production and postproduction sides even as they’re finding their way into living rooms.

“We think they’ll be integrated in a similar way to 5.1-surround soundbars,” France says. “From content creation to distribution and playback, we have developed the tools to ensure consumers will receive the best possible Dolby Atmos experience that the content creator intended.”

Business Continues To Boom
Multichannel soundbars arrived on the scene just as both multichannel music and surround for home theaters were trying — and failing — to gain mindshare with consumers. The home-theater-in-a-box sensibility didn’t appeal to aficionados of high-end home theater but did help create some traction for multichannel formats in homes. For instance, in 1998, Altec Lansing introduced a multichannel soundbar that was called the Voice Of The Digital Theatre and offered stereo, Dolby Pro-Logic, and AC3 surround sound from the soundbar and a separate subwoofer. It also used Altec Lansing’s side-firing technology to provide surround sound from the sides, rear, and front.

Soundbars’ breakout year was 2013, when, according to TWICE, retail sales almost doubled, rising 95% to $1.15 billion following 2012’s 64% gain to $590 million. The sector has continued to flourish, growing to $5.25 billion last year, per Businesswire, deploying a variety of technologies, such as phased-array minispeakers, and some sonic sleight of hand to simulate discreet 5.1 surround from a single source. In addition, added features such as Bluetooth connectivity and self-calibration have enabled adaptation to each environment’s particular acoustics.

Hearing Immersive at Home and in Production
Now the immersive era is looking to the soundbar to move multichannel sound forward. At CES 2018, Nakamichi USA sponsored a “Soundbar Battle,” and more brands applied even more new technologies to soundbars: for example, Sennheiser’s prototype of a 3D soundbar using its AMBEO technology.

Fraunhofer IIS’s Jan Nordmann believes that combining immersiveness with the convenience of the soundbar will drive the audio format quickly with consumers.

According to Jan Nordmann, senior director, new media, Fraunhofer IIS, which developed the MPEG-H TV Audio System immersive and object-based audio format, combining immersiveness with the convenience of the soundbar will drive the audio format quickly with consumers. On the professional side, Fraunhofer has partnered with Linear Acoustic and others to create professional toolsets for mixing and monitoring MPEG-H in the field and in the plant.

“It’s important that the mixer be able to hear what the consumer at home will experience,” Nordmann says. The South Korean broadcast of the Winter Olympics was supposed to be the broadcast debut of the immersive version of MPEG-H, but that initiative was derailed by labor strife at the main Korean networks. However, he adds, the broadcasts there will deploy MPEG-H’s 2.1 and 5.1 capabilities, and Fraunhofer’s immersive-training facility in Seoul remains in place and is being used ahead of the World Cup games in Russia beginning in June, which will rely on the immersive capabilities of the format on Korean networks’ World Cup shows.

Much of that will likely be heard through immersive-enabled soundbars, a product category in which Korean manufacturers, including LG and Samsung, ramped up marketing efforts in the lead-up to the Olympics. Immersive audio is the product of a huge effort by professional audio, but, as with other formats that became successful, it will need an equally huge amount of consumer support.

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