The living room is being transformed, and forward-looking broadcasters and content producers are seizing the opportunity to deliver their stories in ever-more engaging ways. Home and personal entertainment have been undergoing changes for years, of course. The last few years, however, have seen remarkable growth, especially in audio. The superior images that came with 4K HDR TVs are now getting great immersive audio to match.
Home entertainment has always sought to provide the best, most lifelike experiences to consumers, whether it be radio, TV, or recorded music. The introduction of affordable smart TVs with UHD pictures, HDR, and immersive audio has shown consumers what is possible.
Over the last couple of years, we have seen the living room grow in importance. As the COVID-19 pandemic emerged, consumers found themselves spending much more time at home, consuming more content, and expecting – and receiving – better experiences. Major manufacturers are shipping 4K HDR TVs that incorporate Dolby Vision, Dolby Atmos, or both. OTT operators – such as Netflix, Disney+, Sky, and Apple TV+ – are producing and providing UHD content with immersive audio. We’ve also seen that entertainment experience move out of the living room, with mobile devices enabled with Dolby Vision, Dolby Atmos, and Dolby AC-4 next-generation audio to deliver a high-quality experience on small screens too.
The future sounds good
It’s easy to see – literally – the difference that 4K HDR TV sets have made. The difference is visible right there on the screen, and more and more consumers are embracing it. In Europe, sales of new 4K televisions enabled with Dolby Vision have increased by 400 per cent since 2017. And TVs are sounding as good as they look, too. For example, sales of new 4K televisions enabled with Dolby Atmos increased tenfold during that same period. The growth of next-generation audio (NGA), with AC-4 incorporated into devices, is preparing consumers for a future of improved audio quality and increased personalisation options.
NGA is a new set of standards for audio encoding and broadcasting designed to give consumers an improved audio experience. It can carry multiple versions of high-quality audio simultaneously over one broadcast, or in one internet stream, and lets the user have more control over how they personalise their listening experience.
One area where NGA can be used is in sporting and entertainment events. Multiple commentary languages, a choice of commentators, trackside ambience, crowd noise, and even event radio chatter can be provided for the user to select.
But NGA offers benefits beyond just source choice. It can broaden service accessibility and engagement for a wide range of users. For instance, consider a viewer who finds music in a drama to be intrusive because it masks the dialogue. With NGA, the viewer can adjust the balance between dialogue and music, or they can change sound effects to a comfortable level. This lets broadcasters make their content accessible to a wider audience, and consumers can personalise the experience for their current playback device or environment.
The Dolby AC-4 NGA codec has been chosen for new UHDTV broadcast specifications in multiple European markets, including NorDig for the Nordic countries and Ireland. It has also been selected in Italy, and it is included as part of the draft UHDTV specification for France. Dolby AC-4 NGA is also part of the NEXTGEN TV platform for the US. In North America, there are over 170 stations on air. Dolby AC-4 NGA is currently shipping in over 80 per cent of the 4K TVs sold in Europe, meaning consumers will be ready as broadcasters expand their commercial NGA services.
The relationship between Dolby Atmos and Dolby AC-4 NGA
Because Dolby is a leader in audio providing solutions across the production chain, from recording and post-production to broadcast and consumption, the lines between how and what sometimes get fuzzy. An example of this is the confusion that can arise when talking about AC-4 NGA and Dolby Atmos. The easiest way to think of it is as follows:
- Dolby Atmos is the what – it is the format that allows for the creation of an immersive 3D audio experience that puts consumers in the action. Once a Dolby Atmos soundtrack is created, next the broadcaster must get it to the viewer.
- Dolby AC-4 NGA is the how – it is a codec used for packaging audio information into data packages that can then be delivered, by streaming or broadcast, to enabled devices. This delivers the Dolby Atmos experience – among other audio options – to be decoded and played back. Other codecs can be used to carry Dolby Atmos. Previous generation codecs Dolby Digital Plus and Dolby TrueHD have both been extended to carry Dolby Atmos.
Dolby AC-4 NGA can be thought of as a box into which you can package all of the audio information of a production, be it an album, a movie, TV episodes, or something else. The contents of the package can include foreign language dubs, secondary audio commentary, and soundtracks in whatever mixes are desired – mono, stereo, 5.1, Dolby Atmos, or all of them.
Dolby Atmos is an innovative format for immersive audio that allows producers to use object-based (OB) audio – with up to 128 discrete objects – to place sounds anywhere in the soundscape. Planes can fly overhead. Thunder can reverberate. Musical instruments can be set anywhere the artist desires. Sounds are no longer confined to specific speakers as they are in surround systems. They can move freely, all around the viewer, as well as moving up and down in height. In Europe, Dolby Atmos-enabled devices have seen sales increase by more than 500 per cent since 2016, while the sales of legacy format devices have remained flat. Dolby Atmos has been democratised for consumers to enjoy immersive sound across multiple device categories such as TVs, soundbars, mobile phones, tablets, and computers.
Consumers are embracing new entertainment experiences
These latest devices give consumers more choices and experiences, creating worlds that are immersive and realistic. Dolby Vision and Dolby Atmos have brought these enhanced experiences to the mainstream. There are now thousands of movies and TV episodes that bring Dolby Vision and Dolby Atmos to viewers. Best of all, there are devices at all price points that can receive these benefits.
Entertainment is not just confined to the living room, though. It is now all-around, on-demand, and more personalised than ever. Dolby Vision and Dolby Atmos are in every aspect of that entertainment: TV, music, gaming, cinema, and even in-vehicle entertainment.
With Dolby Atmos enabled in so many devices, including TVs, soundbars, smart speakers, and mobile devices such as smartphones, tablets, and laptops, we are seeing high-quality audio across a broad range of entertainment.
Leading streaming services such as Apple Music, Amazon Music, and Tidal offer Dolby Atmos Music tracks to users with compatible devices. Mercedes-Benz has announced it will offer in-vehicle entertainment systems enabled with Dolby Atmos Music. Podcast company Earshot is offering immersive audio in multiple languages – including Hindi, Bengali, Assamese, Bhojpuri, and English – on mobile phones enabled with Dolby Atmos. And gamers using the Microsoft Xbox are seeing some of the hottest titles launching with Dolby Atmos, including Forza Horizon 5 and Halo Infinite, both of which offer Dolby Vision and Dolby Atmos during gameplay. Immersive audio is becoming easier to find every day.
Momentum grows with trials, tests, and implementations
It’s exciting to see the consumer enthusiasm for better, more immersive experiences, and that broadcasters and content producers are working to provide them. As a member of industry groups such as HbbTV and Ultra HD Forum, Dolby works with standards bodies and broadcasters to help bring the best to the public. With every pilot programme, every test, every broadcast, the momentum and public appetite for these new next-generation audio features grow. The result has been many successful tests of NGA around the world that have highlighted the commitment of broadcasters to providing richer experiences.
In the UK, BT Sport was the world’s first broadcaster to offer regular live broadcasts with Dolby Atmos audio, beginning with a Premier League match between Liverpool and Chelsea. The company now offers regular live games in Dolby Atmos and has branched out with the world’s first live boxing broadcast using the same specifications.
Across the English Channel, France Télévisions’ French Open coverage featured an NGA broadcast using AC-4 NGA and the S-ADM open standard production format to drive the transmission encoder. And in Poland, TVP used Dolby AC-4 NGA to deliver Dolby Atmos and next-generation audio features as part of its coverage for the UEFA Euro 2020 football championship. Viewers could select their preferred commentator or watch with no commentary at all.
It’s not just sport that’s travelling the airwaves in Dolby Atmos. France-based ARTE, a pan-European cultural broadcaster, performed numerous test broadcasts of programming using AC-4, Dolby Vision, and Dolby Atmos. In Poland, public free-to-air arts channel TVP Kultura broadcast the 18th Fryderyk Chopin International Piano Competition in Dolby Atmos. For pop music fans, the Eurovision Song Contest 2021 was broadcast in Dolby Atmos by Dutch pay-TV station KPN and made available to all 4K subscribers.
Around the world, next-generation audio entertainment is evolving, with each success building on the last. Whether it’s Dolby Atmos enabling deeper immersion in a videogame, delivering a richer, more cinematic TV-watching experience, or making a long trip more enjoyable in the car, Dolby is there to make a difference. And because it makes a difference to the user experience, consumers are demanding these features, actively seeking them out in their devices, their entertainment providers, and the content they consume. Now, broadcasters and content providers have the ability to meet those demands. It’s an immersive future.