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 hours—and drinks—as 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.
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.
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 had—and 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 screen—twice the brightness of the SMPTE recommended standard—producing 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 black—kind of a deep grey—before 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.
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.