Dolby has a developed a new set of technologies to enhance the mediocre audio experience we’ve all come to expect from our smart phones and tablets. Under the brand name of “Dolby Digital Plus”, Dolby is acknowledging that more and more media is consumed on mobile devices. Tonight, I had an in-person demo of Dolby’s mobile audio enhancement technology at the Boston Hack and Hackers Meetup. And for those of you who are wondering, despite the similarity in naming, this set of technologies is different from the Dolby Digital Plus or E-AC-3 used to provide bandwidth-efficient surround sound for streaming video, TV and cable broadcasts.
Building on the technology used in Dolby’s Home Theater product for PCs, Dolby’s new offering focuses on addressing two weak areas in the mobile viewing experience. The first is poorly authored content. How many times have you watched a video shot with an iPhone where you can only hear the filmer’s voice blaring over his or her subjects. (“Son! Look HERE at the camera!”). The technology applies post-processing to the content and helps restore those low muffled voices.
The other area the technology addresses is the undersized and underpowered speakers on tablets and smart phones. During the demo, I saw a clip of Avatar played on a first generation Samsung tablet without Dolby’s technology. The demo allowed us to enable or disable the three areas of Dolby Digital Plus’ processing: dialog enhancement, volume leveling and a surround virtualizer (in its release version, you may not be able to individually turn these on and off). With Dolby Digital Plus enabled it noticeably improved the overall audio quality. Volume was higher. One could hear more of the forest’s background sounds during the Avatar clip. Finally, the sound actually gained some depth and spatial feeling to it. It’s nowhere near as immersive as your home theater system but I was still impressed given the small speakers they’re working with. You can see an on-line version of one of Dolby’s demos, Fireflys, by following this link and advancing to the last chapter of the video. Of course, it’s not as impressive as hearing the demo in person.
This is the type of technology that tablet and smart phone OEMs have to license and include in their products. Dolby works with the OEMs to make tweaks to suit the particulars of their hardware. While Dolby did not have any firm device announcements, we should expect to see some devices on the market by Christmas. The technology is ready to go for devices that run Windows 8 and Android.
Back to the branding of the product. Yes, it’s confusing that Dolby chose the name “Dolby Digital Plus” for this offering since they are already using it for another set of technologies. Yes, it would have been nice if they called it something like “Dolby Digital Mobile”. It would make sense given that Dolby has differentiated their individual surround sound formats. I think most consumers can handle it. For branding, OEMs have the option to place the Dolby Digital Plus logo on their packaging as well as on the device itself.
In my opinion, don’t hold your breath on seeing this new technology on iOS anytime soon. When it comes to surround sound technologies, Apple is a generation behind. Both iTunes and Apple TV are limited to 5.1 channel Dolby Digital surround sound not the better sounding 7.1 channel Dolby Digital Plus.
Keep your ears open and let us know if you hear about any tablets or smart phones with Dolby Digital Plus.
Update: Amazon’s new Kindle Fire HD Tablets will support Dolby Digital Plus for tablets.