Fresh discoveries that lead to a more detailed and immersive audio performance usually bring me nothing but joy – see the 7 most outrageous audio products we saw at High End Munich, your iPhone's secret setting to massively boost call quality, or even the Maserati that totes 21 speakers for instance.
Sometimes, however, sonic epiphanies can turn out to be the devil in disguise.
Take Elvis, the fantastic new Baz Luhrmann romp: I saw it at my local Odeon in West London and, aside from Tom Hanks' odd pan-European accent and Jim Bell's shockingly British attempt at Mississippi politician James Eastland, loved every second.
Then, I was invited to Ray Dolby's professional screening room in Soho Square London, a 70-seat Dolby Atmos and Dolby Vision delight. We also got to enjoy the Dolby Atmos mixing suite; a superb 9.1.7 lab featuring Genelec speakers where sonic articles in Elton John's Rocket Man both tickled the back of my skull and presented themselves as tangible green spheres in the room – but that's another story. Mostly, I went along to see this movie in the ultimate version of Dolby Atmos and Dolby Vision, aka Dolby's intimate and prestigious Dolby Cinema room – the first ever in the UK.
I wanted to note the gulf in capability between what my regular old local picture house does with movies versus Dolby's top-tier offering – and now I am condemned to view every other cinema in the known world with a suspicious mind…
OK I'll get it all out of my system. If ever there was a time for a little less conversation, it's at the movies, and as the sound of Austin Butler's incredible adaptation of Presley's vocal stylings enveloped me, I realized that it's the extra detail from the Dolby screen that I can't help falling in love with.
Women screamed just as they did before, but there were more of them – and with greater urgency in the mix. When one adoring fan is singled out, her uncontrollable yelp has a sharper, more guttural leading edge and the dynamic range of a hound dog – her burning love is palpable. (Thank you for your patience, I'm done folks… don't be cruel now! Sorry.)
My urge to return to Dolby is like a hunk of burning love
Let's have some specs shall we? After all, it's now or never (I must stop. I will stop).
Dolby Cinema was described by Dolby as "the most significant development in audio since the arrival of surround sound". This theater was designed in collaboration with specialist Munro Acoustics and, according to the professional audio news site, Fast-and-Wide, it contains 36 JBL speakers – 26 dedicated to surround-sound. Other equipment includes a Christie 4K digital projector, Kinoton film projector, 28 stereo Crown amplifiers and a Dolby Lake EQ system.
Thanks to the stunning acoustic treatment (the silence as you go into this room is actually quite unnerving) it's as perfect a neutral listening environment as I've experienced to date. One of TechRadar's long-term contributors and an esteemed member of the audio press, Steve May, has actually earmarked a special seat in this theater – sit here at your peril – and I cannot blame him for getting in early to secure what he thinks is the best seat in the best house.
Dolby's full Atmos system uses up to 64 loudspeaker tracks, and in this 70-seat venue there are speakers along the side walls and behind you, plus a pair of subwoofers for low frequency content actually suspended from the ceiling, five loudspeakers behind the screen (a central one and two either side) plus two rows of speakers running along the ceiling from the rear of the theatre to the screen for that overhead sound – (thank you to Ben Shirley for your help here).
The basis of the mix is a 9.1 system – so known turf to sound engineers and mixers – but there are also up to 128 active audio objects which can be flown anywhere around the speaker setup and are added on top. See? Madness – but incredible.
According to chartered surveyors Kingfisher Associates, the £3.2m project took 28 weeks and comprised the refurbishment and fit out of the existing Grade 2 listed building in London's Soho Square – and we're just very grateful they did it.
If you take one thing away from this piece, know that no home entertainment add-on, not even the best soundbar on the market, can come close to this.
In the UK, there are five Dolby Cinemas open to the general public: London's Odeon Leicester Square (the first, which opened in 2019), The Trafford Centre in Manchester, Leeds Thorpe Park, Birmingham's Broadway Plaza and the newest, London's West End – which opened in September 2021. I suggest you get to one of them soon, because there's so much to love.
For some, it's the visual differences: how that sheen on the oddly blueish blobs of shadowy nothingness magically melts away to an inky abyss in Dolby Vision. For me, it's the sound: the tangible nervousness in The King's tapping foot on that cheap stage; the intake of breath you hear close to your ear before he opens his mouth and changes the course of history; the inflections in Kelvin Harrison Jr.'s voice which prove he absolutely nailed his portrayal of B.B. King.
Thank you Dolby and thank you Elvis: that's the wonder… the wonder of you.