Dolby Cinema Tag

Even Streaming is Better than Most Movie Theaters

We’ve been talking a lot here lately about how a home entertainment system—built with the right components, carefully installed, and properly calibrated—can now deliver an experience that surpasses that of most commercial movie theaters. There’s this persistent and niggling perception in the home theater enthusiast community, though, that achieving such a seemingly lofty goal means that you must eschew streaming formats like Netflix, Amazon Instant, and Vudu altogether.

Simply put, this is silly.

 

And mind you, I’m not saying that such streaming formats are perfect. Consider the fact that your typical 4K movie, which is only compressed down to roughly 250 megabits per second at your local cineplex, is squeezed into a 15- or 20-megabit-per-second pipe for Vudu streaming. It’s pretty obvious that something is lost along the information superhighway. (A UHD Blu-ray release or Kaleidescape download, by the way, runs at more along the lines of 60 to 100 mbps).

I’m merely arguing that when viewed in the right environment, on the right system, the quality of the experience you can get via streaming can far exceed the quality of most movie theaters.

 

How is that possible given the above admission about compression? It all boils down to the way our eyes prioritize certain elements of an image over others. In short, the most important aspects of an image, at least to our eyes and our brains, are black level and dynamic range. The closer the darkest parts of an image are to true black, and the more steps there are between the darkest and lightest areas of an image (to a point), the more pop and impact an image has.

Streaming Better Than Movie Theaters

Need an example? Here’s a screen grab from the 2017 Pixar film Coco. The top image is a direct screen grab in all its high-contrast glory, with inky blacks and sparkling highlights. And this doesn’t even capture the high dynamic range you’d get from the Vudu stream of the film, with its enhanced sparkle and superior shadow detail.

 

The bottom image? I simply tweaked the contrast to make the blacks a little less black and the whites a little less white, in line with the limited brightness and dynamic range capabilities of most commercial cinema projectors and screens.

 

And you may be thinking to yourself, “What about the vibrancy of the colors? The glow of those magically lit leaves? The pop of Miguel’s jacket? Surely you toned down the colors of the bottom image a bit, too!”  Nope.

The perceived loss of saturation in the bottom image is simply a byproduct of tweaking the relationship between black and white, to illustrate the differences between a good home display and Screen 3 at Jim Bob’s Continental Cinema 16 down the street. That’s literally the only thing I manipulated here.

 

Actually, I lied. The top image was also subjected to roughly four times as much lossy compression as the bottom before I combined them and compressed them again.

And hey, maybe you don’t like the DayGlo color palette of Coco as it was originally intended to be seen. That’s valid. But what’s true of this example is true for any other film. Even via a streaming source like Vudu or Netflix at home, you’re getting an image that’s more vibrant, with truer-to-life contrasts and oodles more brightness. And at the end of the day, that’s far more important to our visual cortices.

 

And that’s not even taking into account the films these days that were color graded and mastered with the superior brightness and dynamic range of home displays in mind, with no thought given to the compromised theatrical experience. I’ve never seen a theatrical presentation that came close to capturing the contrast, shadow detail, and highlights of Netflix’ The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, just to name one example.

 

Maybe if more commercials theaters converted to Dolby Cinema, with its vivid laser projection and higher dynamic range, this argument would carry less weight. But of the 250 Dolby Cinema theaters in the US of A, the closest one to me is a two-and-a-half-hour drive away. So, for me, the very best commercial cinema experience is defined by the

limitations of IMAX Digital. And if you bother to venture out to your local cineplex with any frequency, the same is likely true for you, as well.

 

In his most recent post, our own John Sciacca made the point that Kaleidescape is the only sure-fire way of ensuring that you enjoy the absolute best picture and sound that you can at home, short of buying UHD Blu-ray discs. That’s absolutely true. No arguments from me on that point. If nothing less than audiovisual perfection will suffice, streaming hasn’t reached that level
. . . yet.

 

But if we’re simply talking about enjoying a better experience than you’re likely to get at your average local megaplex? I would argue that streaming, in the era of 4K and HDR, and when viewed on a properly installed and calibrated home display, has already crossed that Rubicon.

Dennis Burger

Dennis Burger is an avid Star Wars scholar, Tolkien fanatic, and Corvette enthusiast
who somehow also manages to find time for technological passions including high-
end audio, home automation, and video gaming. He lives in the armpit of 
Alabama with
his wife Bethany and their four-legged child Bruno, a 75-pound 
American Staffordshire
Terrier who thinks he’s a Pomeranian.

Are Home Theaters Making Movie Theaters Better?

Are Home Theaters Pushing Movie Theaters to Improve?

For years, home theater technology has been chasing after the commercial cinema, trying to keep up with this supposed Holy Grail of the cinematic experience. And over the years, every development that has come to the home —large screen, surround sound, 3D, and Dolby Atmos to name a few—began its life in a commercial cinema.

 

But lately the tides seem to be turning. Due to a variety of factors including the drastic improvement of home technologies, systems becoming far more affordable, and the wealth of original content provided by streaming services like Netflix and Amazon, more and more people are opting out of the commercial cinema experience and deciding to stay home.

 

One way in which commercial cinemas are trying to lure people back is through an experience called Premium Large Format (PLF). With massive screens, improved projection systems, and superior audio design, these PLF auditoriums offer a cinematic experience akin to what you could experience should you get an invitation to the screening room at Dolby Laboratories or The Stag at Lucasfilm. In short, the ultimate manner in which to experience a film in the way that matches the artists’ intent.

 

The PLF with the greatest name recognition by far is IMAX, which has been around for years and has over 1,300 systems installed around the world. Cinemagoers equate IMAX with a massive screen and impressive 11-channel digital surround system (but there are many online complaints that the brand has been diluted since the introduction of Digital IMAX—often derogatorily called LIE-MAX—in 2008, which uses significantly smaller screens and far lower resolution prints).

Are Home Theaters Making Movie Theaters Better?

Two other names in the PLF space include Dolby Cinema and ScreenX. (Barco had a short-lived venture in this category with its innovative Barco Escape technology, but it was shuttered in February of 2018.)

 

This past week, Sony announced it will be throwing its hat into the PLF space with Sony Digital Cinema, with the first screen set to open in Las Vegas this spring. Like Dolby Cinemas, the Sony Digital Cinemas will feature dual-laser 4K projection systems for an incredibly bright and contrasty image, as well as an immersive audio system, and luxury reclining seats.

 

One unique aspect of the Sony endeavor is that the company controls the cinematic process from end to end, from manufacturing the digital cameras used in filming, through the audio and video post-production at Sony Pictures Studios, to creating the cinematic 4K projectors. (While Sony did have its own version of theatrical surround sound—Sony Dynamic Digital Sound [SDDS]—this has long been discontinued, and the Sony cinemas will reportedly use Dolby Atmos immersive audio.)

 

One area where commercial cinemas have struggled to keep up with the home experience is through delivering high dynamic range (HDR) video. Whereas even relatively inexpensive direct-view 4K displays can produce a pretty dynamic HDR image, most commercial projectors fail to produce the deep blacks and bright whites needed to rival a direct-view home display. Couple that with the fact that many commercial cinemas run their projector lamps until they are on their last hours, making for a far dimmer experience that likely wouldn’t come anywhere near the minimum SMPTE (Society Motion Picture and Television Engineers) standard of 16 foot-lamberts.

Are Home Theaters Making Movie Theaters Better?

By using customized, dual-laser projectors (like those shown at left) à la Dolby Cinema, the Sony Digital Cinema should be able to deliver fantastic image quality on a massive screen, with HDR rivaling virtually any display. The Dolby Cinema system can deliver a staggering 31 foot-lamberts on screenalmost twice the brightness of the SMPTE recommended standard—while producing 500 times the dynamic range of a typical cinema projector,

delivering the deepest black levels of any commercial projector, and producing an unbelievable 1,000,000:1 contrast ratio. All that on a screen 68 feet wide!

 

Possibly of greater interest is the announcement from Bob Raposo, head of Sony’s theater business, that while these cinemas will launch with Sony’s laser projection system, the company has been developing a massive LED screen that could replace projection.

 

“Sony is going to once again revolutionize how people see movies, with our 4K laser projector and with our new technologies led by Crystal LED,” Raposo said. “Our goal is to deliver the ultimate brightness with mind-blowing contrast, allowing movies to be shown the way the movie-maker intended, without compromise and in the highest quality possible. Sony Crystal LED will create that new type of immersive experience for the marketplace, as Sony 4K did in digital cinema’s first phase. This is no doubt the future of cinema and our big opportunity to help exhibitors significantly differentiate themselves from the competition.”

 

Other benefits of these luxury PLF cinemas will include premium food and beverage offerings, stadium seating, and oversized reclining seating that can be reserved ahead of time.

 

The question remains, is it all enough? Will a premium experience be enough to lure you back to the cineplex, or are you content enjoying a luxury experience in the privacy of your own home?

—John Sciacca

Probably the most experienced writer on custom installation in the industry, John Sciacca is
co-owner of Custom Theater & Audio in Murrells Inlet, South Carolina, & is known for his writing
for such publications as
 Residential Systems and Sound & Vision. Follow him on Twitter at

@SciaccaTweets and at johnsciacca.com.

Dolby Cinema–The Ultimate Movie Experience

Dolby Cinema

As home theater enthusiasts, we focus so much of our attention on the home experience that sometimes it’s easy to forget what home theater is really all about: Replicating the commercial cinema experience.

 

Granted, there is much about watching movies at home that can be far superior to jumping in the car and heading down to the local megaplex. The food and drink at home is better (and cheaper), the movie starts/pauses/stops on your schedule, you have total control over who you’re watching with, and the picture and sound quality are of known quality.

 

But, when done right, the commercial cinema experience can be fantastic, and I recently saw a film at a Dolby Cinema theater that reminded me of just how truly great a movie theater can be.

 

After CES ended, I had quite a bit of time to kill between the show ending at 4 pm Friday and my flight departing at 1 am Saturday. And while my usual practice is to while away as many hoursand drinksas possible at the Las Vegas McCarran American Express Centurion Lounge, this year I decided to take a Lyft across town and visit the AMC Theater in Town Square 18.

Dolby Cinema

My sole previous experience with a Dolby Cinema was at the company’s headquarters in downtown San Francisco. That building occupies 68,000 square feet and features mixing rooms for working with both Dolby Atmos and Dolby Vision. It also contains a reference-standard lab (aka “theater”) where Dolby technicians can develop next-generation imaging and sound technologies.

 

The stars aligned as I just happened to be out visiting my parents in the Bay Area when Dolby launched the facility with the first screening in the new theater. That experience was so over-the-top impressive that I couldn’t wait to actually experience a Dolby Cinema in the wild.

 

Unfortunately, there aren’t any Dolby Cinema locations near me in South Carolina, making it a tough proposition. (Here’s the full list of locations.) Which is why once I discovered that this AMC cinema was outfitted with a Dolby Cinema screen, I knew it was a destination I had to add to my Vegas agenda.

 

A lot of components go into making the Dolby Cinema experience so impressive, and it starts before you even enter the seating area. This is a concept Dolby calls “inspired design,” which is meant to transport viewers into another space to be fully absorbed in the cinematic experience.

 

An audio/visual pathway with a full-motion HD video wall and immersive sound sets the mood as you walk into the auditorium. Once inside, your first impression is of the massive 68-foot-wide screen. This screen is so large, in fact, that I wasn’t even able to zoom my phone’s camera out enough to capture the whole thing in one frame. Compare that to what would be an insanely large home theater screen at around 14.5-feet wide (200-inch diagonal) and you can appreciate just how impressive this is.

 

The next thing you notice is the blackness. Everything is black. The walls, the ceiling, the area surrounding the screen, the seats, the carpeting. Sure, there are some colored accent lights, but this overwhelming black just sucks up all the light in the room and focuses all attention forward on that massive screen.

Dolby Cinema

There are 214 seats (plus seven ADA spots) in the Town Square’s Dolby Cinema, and you reserve your seat when buying your ticket. All the seats are oversized faux-leather powered recliners positioned in pairs where you can raise the middle arm rest to create a loveseat for couples. Even more amazing, the seats are positioned so you can’t see anyone behind or below you, making you feel like you’re in for a truly personal presentation.

 

But the really big deal, of course, is the theater’s picture and sound presentation, which is absolutely top notch and exceeds any movie-watching experience I’ve hadand that includes viewing movies at the Stag Theatre at Skywalker Ranch. (To be fair, it’s been several years since I’ve seen a film at the Stag, and it was actually still using film at the time, which is at a real disadvantage to a modern digital projector.)

 

The power behind the Dolby Cinema image quality is two Dolby co-designed and custom-built Christie Laser projectors, which Dolby describes as “quantifiably higher performance than any other technology out there.” These projectors deliver a staggering 31 foot-lamberts on screentwice the brightness of the SMPTE recommended standardproducing a picture that is more like watching a giant flat panel than a projector.

 

The Christies also have 500 times the dynamic range of a typical cinema projector, delivering the lowest black levels of any commercial projector, and producing an unbelievable 1,000,000:1 contrast ratio. They can also reproduce true HDR images that have been graded in Dolby Vision specifically for these projectors. To drive the point home, a small clip runs prior to the movie that shows what you thought was blackkind of a deep greybefore showing what Dolby Cinema black is all about. It’s a new level of black, like watching an OLED next to an old DLP.

The second aspect that makes the presentation so spectacular is a full array of Dolby Atmos speakers, which completely immerses you in the audio presentation. (I reached out to Dolby for specifications on the Town Square theater as regard speaker numbers and wattage. They didn’t have specifics on that installation but said that, “The number of speakers varies from [theater] to [theater], based on the room size . . . [but] enough speakers [are installed] to ensure a smooth pan through of audio around the room.”) The sound is clear and detailed, with objects that swirl all around and overhead, and with bass that is massive, deep, and incredibly tight. Transducers in the seats also physically convey the impact as well.

 

The movie I saw was the latest Liam Neeson thriller, The Commuter, which was basically Taken-on-a-train, but offered some big explosions and action scenes that looked and sounded terrific.

 

If I had one minor quibble over the experience, it was that the movie started practically an hour after the scheduled showtime due to a string of now-coming trailers that seemed to never end. Honestly, I enjoy trailers, and the picture and sound were so good I didn’t have a big problem with it, but if I were on a time crunch, it would be nice to know when the actual showtime was compared to when the trailers begin.

 

Without question, Dolby Cinema is the best movie experience most of us will ever have. And if you’ve been turned off on going out to the movies, you owe it to yourself to visit one. If I lived near a Dolby Cinema, I would never see a movie anywhere else.

—John Sciacca

Probably the most experienced writer on custom installation in the industry, John Sciacca is
co-owner of Custom Theater & Audio in Murrells Inlet, South Carolina, & is known for his writing
for such publications as
 Residential Systems and Sound & Vision. Follow him on Twitter at

@SciaccaTweets and at johnsciacca.com.