Overview of the DTS:X Surround Sound Format

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MDA Tool Interface with DTS:X Logo. Images provided by DTS

In late 2014, DTS announced that it was countering Dolby Atmos and Auro 3D Audio with its own immersive surround sound format DTS:X. DTS demonstrated the DTS:X surround sound format at an event that I attended on April 9th, 2015. Shortly after, DTS:X was off-and-running.

MDA - Multi-Dimensional Audio

DTS:X has its roots with SRS Labs (since absorbed into DTS), which developed "Object Based" surround sound technology under the umbrella name of MDA (Multi-Dimensional Audio), which I have reported on previously.

The key aspect of MDA technology is that sound objects are not tied to specific channels or speakers, but assigned to a position in 3 Dimensional space.

Using the MDA infrastructure (which is royalty free to the motion picture and audio/video industry) content creators have an open-ended tool for mixing audio that can applied to a variety of different end-use formats (Audio for The Avengers: Age of Ultron was mixed using MDA for output to the IMAX audio format). With its royalty-free incentive, and user flexibility, you will see more movie studios, production, and post-production facilities using MDA technology.

However, for the purpose of this article, MDA is the foundation for DTS:X, which can also be applied  commercial cinema, home theater, music, and personal listening environments.

Using MDA for creation, and DTS:X as the output format, sound mixers/engineers have a tool in which each individual sound object (which can add up to hundreds in some films) can be individually (or grouped in small clusters) placed in a specific point in space, regardless of channel assignment or speaker layout.

On playback, the preciseness of sound object placement is more accurate and immersive as more channels and speakers are available, but having heard both MDA and DTS:X, with various speaker and channel setups, you can get some immersive benefits of DTS:X encoding in even a modest 5.1 or 7.1 channel setup.

Of course, you also have to have access to content that is mixed/mastered using MDA tools and delivered by DTS:X as well.

DTS:X + CINEMA

This application of DTS:X brings another immersive surround sound option to cinemas. Although there are some hardware and software requirements, DTS:X is adaptable to a variety of movie theater speaker setups, including theaters that may already be setup for the Dolby Atmos (also object based) or Barco Auro 11.1 (not object based) immersive surround sound formats.

The DTS:X codec can "remap" its sound object distribution according the speaker layout that is available. This means that although theater owners need to add a content server and make some tweaks to gain DTS:X certification, the overall financial cost of adding DTS:X to commercial cinemas need not be a significant financial burden.

DTS is being implemented by several movie theater chains in the U.S., Europe, and China, including Carmike Cinemas, Regal Entertainment Group, Epic Theaters, Classic Cinemas, Muvico Theaters, iPic Theaters, and UEC Theaters.

For current information on DTS:X implementation in Cinemas, refer to the DTS In Theaters Page and also check your local movie theater listings for specific theaters and movie releases in your area.

DTS:X + AVRs:

DTS:X is not just for commercial cinema use, it is also available for home theater. Here are some basics that you need to know.

DTS:X Encoding and Backwards Compatibility

DTS:X is backwards compatible with any home theater receiver that incorporates DTS Digital Surround or DTS-HD Master Audio decoders.

In other words, if you play back DTS:X encoded Blu-ray Disc (which can still be played on any Blu-ray Disc or UHD Blu-ray player that has the ability to output a DTS bitstream over HDMI) with a DTS:X compatible receiver, you will be able to access the fully immersive DTS:X encoded soundtrack.

However, even if your receiver does not have a built-in DTS:X decoder, no problem, the bitstream still contains DTS-HD Master Audio and DTS Digital Surround options as well, you just won't get the more immersive listening option that DTS:X provides. You can build your DTS:X Blu-ray Disc collection and pick up a DTS:X compatible receiver on your own timeline.

Check out a running list of DTS:X encoded Blu-ray and Ultra HD Blu-ray Discs.

For home theater receivers that incorporate DTS:X, a companion surround sound format is also included: DTS Neural:X. DTS Neural:X provides an option for users to listen their current non-DTS:X encoded Blu-ray and DVD content in a more immersive manner that can approximate the height and wide information that approximates DTS:X, just not as precise. DTS Neural:X can upmix 2, 5.1, and 7.1 channel sources.

Channel and Speaker Layout Flexibility

DTS:X is channel and speaker layout agnostic. In other words, even though DTS:X for home theater  is designed to be optimally used with an 11.1 (or 7.1.4 in Dolby Atmos terms) channel and speaker layout, DTS:X will remap sound object distribution according to the channel and speaker system it has to work with.

In other words, if that helicopter is supposed to originate in the top right front of the sound field, DTS:X will place that helicopter in that space as close as possible within a given the speaker layout, even if no height speakers are present (although having height speakers results in more accurate sound placement).

Some question the accuracy of DTS:X within a setup that includes vertically firing speakers instead of overhead/ceiling height speakers, that some may already have as part of a Dolby Atmos setup or the VOG (Voice of God - using a single ceiling height channel) speaker setup that is used in an Auro3D Sound speaker layout.

However, there should not be a problem if the home theater receiver is executing DTS:X remapping features properly. If DTS:X is channel and speaker agnostic, then neither setup should present an unreasonable challenge in producing the intended immersive surround sound listening experience.

Precise Dialog Control

Another feature of DTS:X is the ability to actually control the volume levels of each sound object individually. Of course, with up to hundreds of sound objects in any given movie soundtrack, this is mostly reserved for the original sound mastering and mixing process, but when I say mostly, I also mean the some of this capability can be provided to the consumer in the form of dialog control.

This is more that just being able to control the volume of your Center Channel, as can be done on most home theater receivers to boost dialog volume, as the the Center Channel may also contain other sound elements as well which get raised or lowered along with the dialog.

With DTS:X, the sound mixer has the ability to isolate the dialog as a separate object. If the sound mixer further decides to keep that object unlocked within a specific piece of content, and the Home Theater receiver manufacturer decides to include a Dialog-only level function in the receiver that is part of the receiver's DTS:X implementation, the user then has the capability of adjusting the center channel dialog object completely independent from the other channel levels, adding more flexibility for tailoring your listening preference.

Home Theater Receiver Options

DTS:X capable home theater receivers are now quite common from brands, such as Denon, Marantz, Onkyo, Pioneer, Yamaha, etc... and are available in the $499 and up price range.

For examples of DTS:X capable home theater receivers, refer to our picks for Best Home Theater Receivers, priced from $400 to $1,299 and $1,300 and Up.

NOTE: Although most 2017, and newer, mid-and-high-end home theater receivers have DTS:X capability built-in, for many 2016 model year receivers, it may be necessary to download a free firmware update to access it. If your receiver falls into that category, consult your user manual or contact the manufacturer's customer support department for details.

DTS Headphone:X

A variation of DTS:X is being implemented in the mobile environment via DTS Headphone:X. The Headphone:X application allows any listener, with any pair of headphones, listening to any content, to experience a fully immersive sound field (of course content mixed specifically for Headphone:X will be more precise). Headphone:X capability can be accessed on your PC, Mobile Device such as smartphones, or a Home Theater Receiver that includes the DTS Headphone:X option (manufacturer dependent).

Check out more details on DTS Headphone:X in our article: Headphone Surround Sound, and and on the Official DTS Headphone:X Page.

More To Come...

DTS is planning more for DTS:X and immersive audio in the TV broadcast and streaming environments, and also now available on some high-end sound bars, so definitely stay tuned as information becomes available.