UNLESS YOU'RE A HI-FI NUT, Dolby is a brand you probably barely notice as it wafts pass you on Blu-Ray intros and at the end of movie credits.
Sure, Dolby-certified surround sound is nice to have, but when was the last time you specifically brought a product just because it had a Dolby label slathered on it?
The sound and vision boffins at Dolby are trying to change all that, particularly as sound tech has been somewhat overshadowed by advancements in display and vision technology.
Take Dolby Atmos; it's effectively the audio giant's surround sound on some kind of aural steroids. The tech uses object-based audio to make it seem less like surround sound is coming from specific speakers but is actually exactly where it should be in a scene.
It sounds a lot more impressive than that description er, sounds. We visited Dolby's London HQ and got to hear Atmos in action across several devices.
From a swanky TV sound bar, the positional audio is impressive, making a scene on a TV genuinely more impactful.
TV sound is a bit too obvious though, so Dolby decided to push the tech into smartphones, notably the Samsung Galaxy S9. You might scratch your head and wonder why anyone would need Atmos in a phone, we certainly did. Then we tried it.
Watching a forest scene dripping with rain, the speaker virtualisation of Dolby Atos combined with a pair of decent headphones was pretty special. The pitter patter of rain on leaves felt genuinely real, unlike the more synthetic audio from other phones with less high-end audio capabilities.
Yes, it's arguably over the top, but when you throw down hundreds of pounds on a flagship phone, having such audio wizardry is quite a perk.
But there's are more sound enhancements that Dolby is pushing into mobiles and TV. It might sound as dull as dishwater, but Dolby AC4 is the company's next-generation audio platform - stick with us - which can separate different audio into different tracks.
This means that, in songs, instruments can be separated from vocals; nothing revolutionary there. But when two Dolby AC4 audio streams are combined that's when the magic happens.
A person can watch a TV program, for example, with a different language audio track or say alternative commentary for a sports match with the original sounds - think audio effects, music, or shouts of footballers on a field - intact in its native mix.
Currently, many translations for films and other video content requires a new audio mix which is less authentic than the original, might not track with exactly what's happening on screen, and means a lot more work for people making the translations.
As such, the tech makes life easier for content producers and gives consumers more choice with how they combine what they want to watch and hear at the same time. Dolby AC4 is currently being pushed out to some of the latest TVs and gadgets, but expect it to pop up more in the next 12 to 24 months as Dolby ups its efforts to get it out in the wild.
Dolby's sound tech might seem dull or in the realm of people who get too excited over the number of tweeters in a speaker, but it's actually making a big difference to sound. And make no mistake, good audio is something pretty special even if we don't notice it straight away.
All that being said, Dolby isn't just a sound firm; it's also shaking up the world of vision.
You may have heard us blather on about high dynamic range (HDR) displays before; Dolby Vision offers a beefed up version of the HDR10 some of us are probably used to if we've nabbed a modern 4K telly.
Rocking a higher colour, contrast and brightness range than HDR10, Dolby Vision is some properly impressive display tech.
Get a screen calibrated for it and you'll be rewarded with video that looks more colourful yet realistic with deep inky blacks and super crisp whites. As a result, 2D images almost look 3D; it's one hell of a treat for your eyeballs.
Such sumptuous visuals don't come cheap as the TVs that tend to support Dolby Vision tend to be fancy OLED panel-equipped flagship tellies from LG and Sony that will wallop your wallet.
But if you have an iPhone X you may have already seen Dolby Vision in action in its mobile form, as the OLED screen on Cupertino's flagship phone has been calibrated for Dolby Vision. It can't quite hit the top brightness levels of Dolby's HDR standard, but watch some compatible content on the iPhone X and compare it against the iPhone 8 and you'll soon spot the enhanced colours and contrast Dolby Vision enables.
Given Samsung makes the iPhone X's OLED panel, we wouldn't be surprised to see future Samsung phones support something akin to Dolby Vision - Samsung is big into HDR10 and has its own Dolby Vision rival in the form of HDR10+, so we reckon Sammy won't explicitly adopt Dolby Vision but its future display will have some impressive enhanced HDR capabilities.
Both Dolby Atmos and Dolby Vision are impressive, but they really come into their own when combined. We got to see that at Dolby's own cinema in its rather plush London HQ.
The theatre's walls are littered with speakers designed to make its object-based audio stunningly realistic. While laser illuminated projectors punt Dolby Vision to the cinema stage.
In action, the effect is simply glorious. Audio is exquisite with sound forming in the exact spot you'd expect, rather than blasted out of a speaker in the corner of the theatre; it's all very immersive.
Dolby Vision on the big screen is gorgeous. The folks at Dolby pulled a neat little trick to show the difference it makes to a film, showing onlookers a white circle on a black background without Dolby Vision, then activating the HDR tech.
At first glance, the lack of Dolby's HDR looks fine, but when it's engaged the difference is gut-punchingly obvious. A previously rather grey-looking black background akin to a black t-shirt that's been washed too many times turns into the panel of deep blackness that almost feels like it's sucking you in until the super bright white dot drags your peepers over to it.
In action, Dolby Vision simply makes all manner of movies look utterly awesome, while simultaneously ruining the idea of going back to a bog standard local shopping centre cinema.
Thanks to dual laser protection offering different frequencies of the RGB colour gamut to each eye, even 3D movies look good, with contrast cleaned up and normal 3D visual artefacts smoothed out. Again, it's bloody impressive.
There is a caveat though; making these cinemas is expensive, so much so that retrofitting existing theatres is an almost unrealistic prospect.
Thanks to property prices and a lack of urban space, London and indeed Blighty hasn't got a Dolby Cinema yet, while the likes of France and other nations already have them.
That's about to change as Dolby recently announced its joining forces with Odeon to finally bring Dolby cinemas to the UK. We don't expect them to be prolific, but at least Britain won't be left lagging behind its European siblings, at least until Brexit happens.
So while you may see Dolby as a brand you recognise but don't give much heed to, it's actually a firm worth watching as it looks poised to not only make sound matter to the Everyman but also help set a higher standard for display and cinema tech.
That, in turn, should force other companies to keep innovating to stay in the sound and vision race, all of which means we get our hands on ever-more impressive tech. µ
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