16 May 2008


DTS, purveyors of digital multi-channel surround sound for cinema and home theater, recently announced that it has "sold its Digital Cinema business to Beaufort California, Inc., a member of Beaufort International Group Plc. in England."

"We have now completed the sale of both the Digital Images and Digital Cinema businesses which allows us to focus entirely on building a high growth and highly profitable consumer business," commented Jon Kirchner, president and CEO of DTS, Inc.

I remember seeing a DTS-encoded film for the first time when I braved the opening weekend crowds for Jurassic Park back in '93. Although it wasn't the first digital sound format for cinema to the market (that dubious honor belongs to Kodak's CDS system, ill-fated due to its lack of analog backup in case of reader failure), it was one of the most personally memorable, mainly due to its flashy demo trailer that preceded each show:

DTS was unique among the three lossy-compressed digital audio cinema formats, in that it was double system, feeding the the audio bitstream out from a CD-ROM disc that slaved to timecode striped on the film print itself. Dolby Digital and SDDS both fully encoded the entirety of their tracks upon the increasingly limited real estate of the print. I remember from my days as a projectionist that the primary advantage to the other systems was the fact that they lived with the print; there were no discs to lose during shipping, which meant that if you got the film, you got the digital soundtrack. More than once we were forced to show a DTS-only encoded print in Dolby SR (optical analog), due to missing materials.

Shortly thereafter, DTS entered the home theater market on laserdisc, and quickly became flame-bait for every surround-sound snob out there with a 28.8 modem and a lot of spare time. Tediously long forum threads abounded with people extolling the "obvious" superiority of DTS over Dolby Digital, which then carried over into the DVD years as well.

What I personally found interesting about all of the hullabaloo is this quote from Gary Rydstrom, sound designer extraordinaire, when asked about his opinion on different codecs:

CT: Do you have any impressions of the types of quality you hear in the different types of the 5.1 theater compression systems, Dolby Digital, DTS, etc?

GR: They're pretty similar. You can hear subtle differences, but much more often you're hearing the differences in the theater's acoustics.

The acoustic space has much more of an effect. They do have some subtle differences between the subwoofer channels from one system to another, DTS treats it differently than the other systems. Not better, just different. If you're familiar with the source material, you can tell a little bit of difference, but they're all essentially the same (emphasis added).

Having been a projectionist and listened to the same films in both Dolby Digital and DTS in the same auditoriums, in addition to doing post sound mixing and transcoding to DD with my own material, I would have to agree. (Not that it will mean that much in the near future; with digital cinema offering uncompressed PCM tracks in the the theater and Blu-Ray having the capability of carrying lossless codecs, the viewer will be able to listen to the very same material that the filmmakers do themselves.)

DTS has more going on then just cinema sound. They are still firmly entrenched in the home video market with DVD and Blu-Ray, with professional encoding solutions for each. At the time of their introduction, the primary digital sound formats were created to overcome the bandwidth limitations of the carrier, i.e. the film print. Clever engineering was employed, and people were amazed at the resulting experience. Now that the carrier's bandwidth has been increased almost exponentially, there is less need for compression, and companies have to adapt. DTS has taken that step.

Link to press release, via Engadget HD, Audioholics, et al.

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