Technically, Dolby Surround 7.1 isn't a new format—it's just leveraging the uncompressed digital audio channels already available through digital cinema systems. Current digital cinema systems offer capacity for as many as 16 channels. A 5.1 system uses only six of these channels for regular program material (and may add one more channel for hearing-impaired listeners plus another with narrative for the visually impaired). Dolby Surround 7.1 uses eight channels for regular program material. When you get right down to it, Dolby Surround 7.1 is a minor mod to Dolby's CP650 and CP750 cinema sound processors that allows them to access the two extra channels. (If you want to read a full white paper on the technology, knock yourself out [NOTE: PDF link].)
Plans for more 7.1 movies are sketchy. Bowling said we can expect to see Disney's Step Up 3D in both 2D and 3D in Dolby Surround 7.1 next month, but had no other announcements he could share.
The audience is listening (or at least I was)
Eager to experience 7.1 sound in the theater, I checked Dolby's website to find the location of my nearest Dolby Surround 7.1-equipped movie house. Fortunately, there were three within range of my suburban Los Angeles home. Unfortunately, I waited a week for the opening-day crowds to disperse—and found that two of the three theaters had already moved Toy Story 3 out of their 7.1-equipped showcase theater and into dismal, low-rent boxes with mere 5.1-channel systems. Much as I wanted to see TS3, I wasn't going to settle for early-2010 audio technology.
I was in luck, though - there was still one theater playing TS3 in 7.1, and it turned out to be the grooviest one in town: Gold Class Cinemas in Pasadena. This high-end cinema chain offers home theater-style motorized recliners and waiter service right at your seat. Just hit a button and they'll bring you food, wine, beer, or even a blanket. (They have real beer, too, not just those vaguely malt-flavored beverages.)
To my surprise, I saw not a single sign or trailer for Dolby Surround 7.1, even though the manager assured me the theater was so equipped. I doubt any of the fashionably dressed 20/30-somethings surrounding me had any idea they were hearing something special. My date sure didn't—she knew I was there to check out some kind of audio technology, but outside of what appeared to be vibrating tactile transducers inside the recliners, she didn't notice anything special about the sound.
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