FlatpanelsHD visited STMPD Studios in Amsterdam for a Sony event to gain more insight into how movie and music professionals work with Dolby Atmos and object-based audio in general, and to experience Sony's '360 Spatial Sound' ecosystem.
STMPD is Amsterdam's largest and most advanced recording studio. It also has one of only 9 certified Atmos Premier Studios (highest certification) worldwide; a 135m2 mix stage with a SRX-R510P 4K DCI projector and a total of 51 speakers used to mix surround sound and Dolby Atmos for cinema (DCPs) and home entertainment (Blu-ray, Netflix etc.). 26 surround speakers, 16 ceiling speakers and 9 subwoofers, if our memory serves us right.
So how do movie professionals work with Dolby Atmos in a mix stage such as STMPD? FlatpanelsHD shot a short video to demonstrate how Atmos' sound objects can be controlled, mixed and evaluated in software. The same video includes a demonstration of how music is mixed in object-based audio (read on for more information).
The Atmos Premier Studio mix stage inside STMPD in Amsterdam. Photo: FlatpanelsHD
FlatpanelsHD had a chance to watch and listen to a handful of mixes and movie clips in the Atmos Premier Studio at STMPD. It was a wonderful experience meant to demonstrate the potential in Dolby Atmos and object-based audio in general, which differs in nature from legacy channel-based 5.1 or 7.1 audio formats. If you have ever watched a movie with a good Atmos soundtrack in a state-of-the-art movie theatre you know what we are talking about.
It is not a setup that you can fully replicate at home since Dolby Atmos for cinema supports more speakers than Dolby Atmos for home entertainment. You can, however, approach it which is why Sony had brought us to STMPD in Amsterdam. To give us a reference and for the first time demonstrate its new '360 Spatial Sound' ecosystem after a few years of lockdowns and travel restrictions.
Dolby Atmos can use up to 128 sound objects as seen in the left pane (green dots are active objects). Photo: FlatpanelsHD
360 Spatial Sound ecosystemSony launched its first Dolby Atmos soundbar (HT-ST5000) in 2017 and while many reviewers and buyers had good things to say about ST5000, it lacked flexibility to connect first and foremost rear speakers. Listeners wanted a better Atmos experience and Sony has listened to the feedback.
In 2021, Sony launched an upgraded version (HT-A7000) with up-firing and side-firing speakers as well as the HT-A9 system (review coming soon). In 2022, it has added additional soundbars and rear speakers to this small ecosystem of '360 Spatial Sound' products to give buyers the flexibility to add additional speakers at the time of purchase or later on.
If you hadn't noticed, you are excused. Lockdowns and the many corollary effects made it difficult for Sony to secure the parts needed for its new speaker products so they have been in short supply, or not at all, in many regions. The supply situation is now starting to improve markedly, the company said.
Sony's 360 Spatial Sound products
|Soundbars||HT system||Rear speakers||Subwoofers|
SA-RS5 (up-firing + battery)
Is this Sony's answer to Sonos? The representatives in Amsterdam would not go as far and promise that all future speakers will work with the existing soundbars – we will just have to wait and see. As we often do, we pointed out that in our view the key to getting better sound into consumers' living rooms is to offer flexibility and not least wireless solutions. Of course, you still need power cables, but Sony had a partial solution to that. The wireless SA-RS5 rear speakers can run on battery for up to 10 hours.
But that's not all, said Sony. The key differentiator is '360 Spatial Sound Mapping' technology built into the new soundbars and HT-A9. It "measures the relative height and position of each speaker and, based on positioning, synthesises the sound waves" to create what Sony likes to call "phantom speakers"; an expanded soundstage created by bouncing sound waves off of walls and ceiling.
Sony's SA-RS5 rear speakers can also run on battery for up to 10 hours. Photo: FlatpanelsHD
Sony's three soundbars with 360 Spatial Sound Mapping. Photo: FlatpanelsHD
Sport, Game, Movie, MusicBesides the Dolby Atmos mix stage, FlatpanelsHD attended four sessions meant to demonstrate Sony's 360 Spatial Sound products; sport, game, movie and music.
For the sport demonstration, Sony had brought in Felix Krückels, Sound Engineer for Bundesliga, to talk about how object-based audio is utilized to improve the viewing experience at home. Besides Bundesliga, UK's Premier League also broadcasts matches in Dolby Atmos so you may have already experienced how it can widen the soundstage and make you feel more "present" at the stadium. Sony's HT-A5000 with rear speakers managed to create a more immersive atmosphere that works very well for sport with crowds. Sometimes you can even hear shouting from the sidelines because of the many more stadium microphones used to capture the experience.
Felix Krückels talks about the microphone used to capture immersive audio during Bundesliga matches. Photo: FlatpanelsHD
Felix Krückels will be on spot in Qatar for the 2022 World Cup later this year to help mix the raw feed that TV stations can broadcast as Dolby Atmos or MPEG-H. It is still an open question how many stations around the world will broadcast in immersive audio (and 4K HDR).
As you may know, because Dolby Atmos and MPEG-H are object-based the viewer can in theory turn on and off specific sound objects. Right now, some matches have optional commentary tracks in different languages but various other functions not yet utilized at the consumer end are possible too.
Felix Krückels discussed the microphone setup at select Bundesliga stadiums used to capture immersive audio. Photo: FlatpanelsHD
For the gaming demo, Sony naturally used a PlayStation 5 console that was connected to a steering wheel and pedals with the HT-A5000 soundbar plus rear speakers. We played Playing GT7 on PS5 with Sony's HT-A5000 soundbar plus rear speakers. Photo: FlatpanelsHDGran Turismo 7. The experience was fun and racing simulators work really well in surround sound as you overtake – or get overtaken – on the tarmac. However, the experience was somewhat hindered by PS5's missing capability to output 3D Audio (Tempest) to soundbars and receivers and its missing support for Dolby Atmos, so it was more like a regular surround sound experience and we did not really notice the effects of Sony's "phantom speakers" here.
Moving on to the movie demo, we watched a clip from The Batman (the elevator scene). A HT-A7000 soundbar connected to a SW5 subwoofer and SR5 rear speakers managed to produce a wide and relative powerful soundstage where we could actually hear overhead effects – in other demos the soundbars struggled. Whenever overhead effects are heard, it makes you smile as the vertical perspective is a unique trait of object-based audio formats.
Also read: Guide to Dolby Atmos at home
We also listened to Dolby's Atmos test clips and one thing we noticed is that the 360 system's ability produce sound effects from left and right tend to be a little fuzzy. One of Sony's veteran engineers explained that the '360 Sound Mapping' technology is designed to produce diffuse effects on purpose as sound effects that are too direct can pull the viewer out of the immersion. As such, the side-firing beam speakers in Sony's soundbars are not only used for side-firing effects but also to create a wider sound perspective. Still, compared to the Dolby Atmos mix stage we felt that we were missing both overhead and side effects. This is not exclusive to Sony's soundbars – there are obviously limitations to what a soundbar can do.
We later watched the scene from Dolby Atmos movie demos with Sony's HT-A7000 soundbar plus rear speakers and subwoofer. Photo: FlatpanelsHDNo Time to Die where Bond's Aston Martin DB5 gets shot up. Funny coincidence because a few weeks prior we watched the same scene at Bang & Olufsen's launch event for Beosound Theatre, which left us more impressed in terms of Atmos effect (and the overall sound experience). Not surprising considering that Beosound Theatre is a much more expensive product but it underlines an important point, we think. There is still so much untapped potential in object-based audio that we expect step-wise, significant improvements to the home cinema experience to continue for many years.
Lastly, Sony wanted to demonstrate music in its 360 Reality Audio format, based on MPEG-H, on the HT-A7000 soundbar with rear speakers but no subwoofer. Sony had brought in Maria Triana, Mastering Engineer, who in the past worked mainly with stereo music but now works more and more with immersive music mixes. "Stereo is compressed into left and right, and bass gets so compressed", she said referring to the channel-based paradigm, adding that "immersive gives us much more headroom" which she argued can actually serve as a counterbalance to the loudness war. Instruments can now be separate objects so they don't drown like they tend to do in a stereo mix.
We listened to a few tracks that Maria Triana had recently mastered for 360 Reality Audio and the difference, when done right, is striking even with a soundbar and rear speakers (we generally prefer headphones for immersive music). While listening to an italian song she emphasized how she had aimed to add "intimacy" to the mix, which was an apt description. There was a kind of ambiance and atmosphere that you just don't get with stereo. Object-based audio allows music creators to "work with the whole room", she said, a sentiment that was echoed by Sander van der Heide, Mastering Engineer, during a separate session in the Atmos mix stage; "You need those reflections to get the ambiance", he said referring to ceiling and side effects for both movies and music. It is important for authentic acoustics, he emphasized.
If you scoff at the notion of "immersive" music, we can understand why. Multichannel music on DVD-Audio failed and was often too gimmicky. Maria Triana was hesitant to answer our question about multichannel music being repurposed as Dolby Atmos and 360 Reality Audio releases but conceded that some tracks out there are regular multichannel or "quad" (4.0) recordings released in an object-based container, which is something she warned about as not to dilute the concept of object-based music. However, when done right object-based music can sound wonderful. We can testify to that and we encourage you to give it a chance with good headphones.
So why did Sony invite us to STMPD in Amsterdam? As you may know, Sony is more than a consumer electronics company with deep roots in Hollywood and the music industry through Sony Pictures Entertainment and Sony Music Entertainment. It is still early days for 360 Reality Audio, Dolby Atmos, MPEG-H and other object-based audio formats so by giving creators a voice Sony hopes to shine light on the creative effort going into producing better sound experiences that Sony would obviously like you to experience on its products. Naturally, Sony is far from alone here – it is an industry trend – but we like the flexibility that Sony is bringing to the table. The next step? Well, if you ask us Sony and others should continue down this path, cut the HDMI cord between TV and soundbar by going wireless lossless, and strive to make even better wireless speakers in the future.
The potential is vast. Listening test with Maria Triana synchronized to the mixing software showing the audio objects. Photo: FlatpanelsHD