The X Factor: DTS:X provides a scalable solution for immersive cinema audio


It’s difficult to find many industries that have not been materially impacted by the fast pace of technological advancement. The theatrical exhibition and film production ecospheres have certainly been part of the rapid technological revolution and evolution that has been taking place, especially in recent years.

As industry observers well know, digital conversions of movie theatre projection systems, which were once a capital-improvement headwind and funding challenge for many, are now primarily in the rearview mirror for most cinema owners due to several financial initiatives.

Virtual Print Fee (VPF) agreements, involving participation by the studio and distributor community, assisted in making digital upgrades affordable for many, although some of the smaller exhibitors have gone into personal debt to pay for their equipment. Today it is somewhat rare to encounter 35mm projectors or celluloid film reels at your local multiplex.

One part of cinema going that is clearly undergoing rapid technological change—resulting in an incrementally superior in-theatre experience for patrons—is the advent of increasingly sophisticated sound systems.

We have all heard the arguments and frequent ongoing concerns that movie theatres are already, or at least soon to be, obsolete dinosaurs with a tough road ahead, constantly competing for consumer entertainment dollars. Bigger and better home theatres, large-screen TVs, streaming services from multiple providers, high-res mobile devices and other factors are all challenging cinemas for mindshare.

Don’t bother relaying those concerns to the hard-working folks in the cinema audio space. For them, it seems to be full speed ahead with R&D spending that has led to the deployment of new and improved next-gen formats designed to make Hollywood’s finest onscreen content sound increasingly better to discerning audiences. DTS:X (from DTS, Inc.) is one of the newer formats on the block, but from a familiar and proven name synonymous with high-end audio.

Sound System Improvements

The original DTS was 5.1 channels delivered in a dual format where the digital audio was on a carrier separate from the film that played in synchronization. According to John Kellogg, DTS’ VP of advanced cinema and pro audio solutions, DTS:X is vastly different from any of the company’s prior formats. “It is unique amongst all the immersive formats in that it is not prescriptive. It scales to any number of speakers in any configuration. DTS:X is a full uncompressed PCM object-based audio system.”

DTS:X utilizes speakers to truly envelop the audience in the richest soundscape possible, allowing for the most accurate placement of sounds in the room. As a result, exhibitors (as well as mix stages and creatives) are able to enjoy complete flexibility and scalability no matter what size screen they are presenting visual entertainment. This maintains artistic intent and offers cinema patrons a consistently great experience.

This flexibility further benefits exhibitors, who can now boast immersive audio in even the smallest theatres—something the competition cannot provide. “Exhibitors can now move the movie up and down the hall, from PLF [Premium Large Format] to smaller rooms, and still give their ticket buyers a compelling, artistically accurate experience.”

Global Growth, Anchored by China and U.S.

In terms of geographic focus, DTS is heavily targeting China because of the country’s dramatic box-office growth, which has been outpacing all other exhibition markets around the world. By some estimates, Chinese box office may soon catch up with and eventually overtake the U.S. during the next few years. 

China is also very attractive for equipment and infrastructure manufacturers. The country also has the fastest new theatre construction and build-out rate. “It’s an open market and enthusiasm for immersive cinema and DTS:X is very exciting. The U.S. market is also very attractive, but growth of immersive cinemas is slower—typically they are upgrades and retrofits,” says Kellogg.

DTS projects steady growth domestically as ticket buyers come to expect immersive audio as part of their overall cinema experience. As far as Europe and the rest of the world goes, the first DTS:X-certified screens are currently under construction in France.

What’s Next?

DTS has a number of initiatives under development they believe will raise the bar even higher for quality cinema audio experiences. If one enters a movie theatre down the road, approximately five years into the future, what should we expect to see, or in DTS’ case, hear?

Opines Kellogg, “We believe immersive object-based audio will be the norm—not the exception—and the resolution and playback systems will be very high-fidelity. DTS:X is the most affordable, scalable, flexible and adaptable system in the market and is the best representation of the audio vision of a film.”

So far, so good. Fifteen months ago, there were zero DTS:X titles and not a single DTS:X-certified screen in existence. Today, 50 DTS:X titles have been produced and they have a growing, global installed base of 164 DTS:X-certified screens. Kellogg assures us that both the films in development and their screen-count figure should continue to expand at a solid pace moving forward.

Note: On Sept. 20, Tessera Technologies, a leader in developing innovative imaging and semiconductor packaging and bonding technologies, agreed to acquire DTS, Inc.