Much ado about Dolby Atmos

The past couple of months have seen the AV industry come down with a serious case of Dolby Atmos fever. For a while it felt like every other press release that turned up in my inbox was from an AVR manufacturer, shouting about the fact that its latest models are ready for the advanced audio format.

And good on them, I say. As my fellow columnist Richard Stevenson has alluded to previously, AV receiver sales in the UK are fairly stagnant – so anything that can help encourage current owners to upgrade their existing kit (such as Onkyo’s recent offer of free Dolby Atmos SKH-410 speakers to anybody buying one of three new receivers) should be seen as a good thing. Especially when you’re talking about a technology that is so clearly aimed at existing home cinema fans, rather than enticing newcomers to give our hobby a try.

The upshot of this flurry of announcements is that the shelves of your local AVR stockist should now be piled high with new Dolby Atmos-compatible models from the likes of Onkyo, Denon, Marantz, Yamaha and Pioneer. But amongst all of the excitement about the incoming hardware there’s been one thing that has been conspicuous by its absence – software.

Now, being a Dolby Atmos early adopter could become a bit of a drag if there aren't many Blu-rays available that pack the relevant next-gen bitstreams. What exactly are you going to use to showcase the extra electronics you've invested in? Having put this question to several industry spokespeople, I’ve been assured that a veritable ‘deluge’ of Dolby Atmos Blu-rays is on the way. The only trouble is that nobody seems willing to say what titles will be made available or just when they’ll arrive.

Now it’s possible that some blockbuster titles will already have been announced by the time you’re reading this – but I’m not holding out too much hope. After all, we've already seen details released for two of the most obvious contenders – the US Blu-ray release of Godzilla (due September 16) and the UK Blu-ray release of X-Men: Days of Future Past (arriving November 10). And the press blurb for neither made any mention of a Dolby Atmos mix appearing on the Blu-rays.

Blu-ray audio blunders

More pertinently, regardless of how excited the AV industry may be about Dolby Atmos, I find it almost impossible to believe that UK Blu-ray distributors care even half as much.

In the past month we’ve seen the UK branch of Disney release Muppets Most Wanted on Blu-ray with a DTS-HD High Resolution track, rather than DTS-HD Master Audio. It's not a one-off either, as the studio previously pulled the same trick with both Mary Poppins and John Carter – the latter being exactly the sort of blockbuster that would be a real Dolby Atmos contender if it was released today.

Or what about Warner Bros' decision to release Pacific Rim on Blu-ray in the UK last year with a 16-bit DTS-HD MA 5.1 mix, instead of the 24-bit DTS-HD MA 7.1 incarnation that appeared on the same studio's prior US release?

Of course, that's just the tip of the iceberg, with countless other major titles (Need for Speed being one that immediately springs to mind), being downgraded from 7.1 to 5.1 in the UK. And you really expect these same UK distributors to now embrace Dolby Atmos on Blu-ray? I wouldn't bet on it…