DTS Theater Packs an 11.1-Channel Surround Sound

New system blows the standard 5.1 channel setup out of the dust.


It’s fitting that DTS authored the high-res lossless soundtrack for This Is Spinal Tap when the cult classic arrived on Blu-ray, because the audio company has cranked its latest format up to 11.

There were plenty of rockin’ home theater demos at this year’s Consumer Electronics Show (CES), but none quite as unique as the one in DTS’ booth.

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Forget 7.1- or even 9.1-channel surround sound – the DTS theater packed an 11.1-channel punch. Following in the footsteps of rival Dolby Laboratories’ ProLogic IIz technology that debuted in 2009, which adds “height” speakers above the front channels, DTS unveiled its “Neo:X” format in Las Vegas.

Really, More Speakers?
Surround sound in the standard 5.1-channel setup – front left, right and center channels, two side or rear channels, plus a subwoofer – really took off with the advent of DVD and later with receiver/speaker “home theater in a box” packages. As CE pros who have installed thousands of such systems over the years, home theater goers find traditional surround sound mighty enveloping – after all, some say audio is half of the home theater experience.

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So why add more speakers, and therefore a more complicated installation, especially for homeowners who want to wire their own systems?

Part of it stems from the fact that thanks to Blu-ray, people have already started adding speakers to create 7.1-channel surround systems that take advantage of DTS-HD Master Audio and Dolby TrueHD lossless formats that have been mixed with additional audio information. And part of it is the emergence of 3D technology into home theaters and the desire to produce even more immersion.

“We see it as a complement to 3D technology, and people can configure it in a couple of different ways to really have an engaging experience,” says Geir Skaaden, VP, North American licensing operations for DTS. “Neo:X was designed with the goal of generating an additional dimension ‘height’ to traditional 7.1 surround sound playback, while maintaining a natural three-dimensional sound field consistent with the artist intent of the original mix.”

Of course, it’s difficult enough finding Blu-ray discs that include native 7.1-channel soundtracks, so don’t expect 9.1- or 11.1-channel audio tracks on those high-def discs anytime soon. That’s where the processing comes in, as Neo:X takes 2.0/5.1/6.1/7.1 formats and converts them within a single algorithm to 9.1/11.1 to deliver discrete effects to those additional channels.

For an 11.1 configuration, height speakers would help convey effects of planes, thunder, rain, background music, etc., while width speakers would expand the front sound stage and enhance front-to-side actions, like cars moving across the screen or bullets zinging by, says DTS.

“Neo:X has been designed with great flexibility so people that have an existing 7.1 system can either add four new speakers or reconfigure their existing speakers to generate height playback,” says Skaaden. “For those planning their home theater, this is another option if they’re looking for the ultimate home audio experience.”

How Does It Sound?
Reviews of the Dolby Pro Logic IIz, which first arrived on A/V receivers from Onkyo, were mixed. Some said that even putting their ears right next to the height speakers it was difficult to discern the separate effects, using a Blu-ray demo of the opening rainstorm scene in Ratatouille, for example. Others found the additional speakers to be a nice way to smooth the overall audio, especially in larger theater rooms.

The DTS booth at CES was not relatively big, so it produced more of a sledgehammer-like response with the immersive sound – not necessarily a bad thing. It was certainly enveloping, even with the first piece of content not a rockin’ Pearl Jam or Rush concert. The first demo was acoustic playing by Patrick Leonard/Diego Stucco, created specifically for Neo:X. Still, the music soared into our ears from seemingly everywhere.

A 3D clip from Ice Age showed the room’s capability with a movie’s action sequence, and again, the sounds definitely added excitement and tension to the scene. Could the same be said if it were shown in a modest theater that employs 7.1 surround sound? Probably. But for large home theaters and clients who simply want the best audio and visual feast possible, we’ve already seen our share of installations that use more than seven speakers (and more than one subwoofer) for extra oomph, so why not use technology that brings better defined effects to those additional speakers?

“DTS did not rush Neo:X to the market, but rather took time to work with the artist community to create a predictable up-mixing algorithm that allows for audio engineers to produce content with height elements that can be distributed as DTS Master Audio 7.1,” notes Skaaden. “Furthermore, we listened to consumer feedback and added flexibility to the speaker setup, with 32 different input and output combinations.”

Along with movies and music, Skaaden suggests that gamers can benefit from the new configurations as well, with soundtracks that highlight shooting effects and the like across the entire screen.

DTS plans on producing content mixed especially for the 11.1 arrangement as the first Neo:X A/V receivers ship in the second quarter of this year. Chances are you’ll see Onkyo again leading the way, as the brand provided the receiver for the DTS booth demo, which also featured a Samsung 3D TV and Panasonic 3D Blu-ray player for the visuals and Definitive speakers for the Spinal Tap-like audio.


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