That’s a more interesting question than you might think.
Many people equate “3D” with just one aspect of a theater experience: seeing objects flying off the screen directly at them (to simplify it greatly, of course). Those old enough to remember the first 3D movies to be shown in movie theaters also remember the somewhat-lame cinematography and flimsy, uncomfortable cardboard glasses which made 3D a curiosity rather than a mainstream technology.
Today’s 3D viewing experience is more satisfying in the theater, and particularly at home when paired with the use of modern 3D HDTVs or projectors along with electronic (and expensive) active-shutter 3D glasses, which sync up with the TV or home theater signal. Even so, many still consider 3D viewing to be an awkward experience, and it hasn’t really caught on. It’s still available and some home theater devotees swear by it, but several major TV manufacturers have already given up on the technology, at least for now.
That’s not to say you shouldn’t install a 3D video system in your home theater; it’s a matter of personal preference. Whatever you think about 3D video, though, 3D audio for your home theater is a very different matter.
Surround Sound vs. 3D Audio
Surround sound audio has been considered “state of the art” in home theaters for quite a few years. From the initial 5.1 systems (the numbers refer to five speakers located around the room and one subwoofer) to more recent 7.1, 11.1 and 10.2 setups, surround sound has been an integral ingredient when designing a complete home viewing setup.
However, all of those systems have one thing in common: they all rely on audio that’s two-dimensional. In other words, the speakers may be in front, on the side or behind, but they’re placed in a single plane. Even if you mount speakers high on the walls or in the ceiling, the sound they transmit was produced to only be heard in two dimensions.
The first breakthrough in this area came in 2012, when the movie Brave was released in theaters with Dolby Atmos 3D sound (and special speaker installations to accommodate it). Audiences were wowed by the audio experience, which has been duplicated in a number of films since then. Dolby Atmos was released two years later for home theater systems, and competitor DTS has recently launched its own DTS:X technology. They’re officially called “object-based surround sound,” but in effect, they deliver the closest thing to 3D audio currently possible.
These systems differ in several ways, but what’s more important are their similarities. They each allow producers the detailed control needed to create immersive sound, and gives Atmos software the power to direct the audio so all of a movie’s sound occur exactly where it “should” – above, below, to the side, all around you or moving around, synchronized with the video action. The 3D effect isn’t obviously simulated, as with surround sound; it appears to be very, very real.
What Do You Need For 3D Home Theater Audio?
The most expensive component of a 3D home audio system is the receiver. The good news, though, is that if you’re building a home theater anyway, it won’t cost a whole lot more to install one that’s enabled for both Atmos and DTS:X. More good news: most current Blu-ray players support both DTS-HD Master Audio and Dolby TrueHD, and that’s all you need from a player.
We’re not done yet; we’re just full of good news today. You’ll need speakers, of course, but for Dolby Atmos all you need to add to a 5.1 or 7.1 surround system is two (or even better, four) height speakers. They can either be “regular” in-ceiling speakers or special Atmos-enabled speakers which are placed on the floor and send sound “up” to be reflected off of the ceiling. For DTS:X things are even easier, because the receiver uses your existing speakers and automatically figures out where to send the sound.
Do I Need 3D Home Theater?
On the video side, that’s totally your call; it depends on whether you love watching 3D movies (those which are available, of course) or find them a pain. On the audio side, you might not need 3D sound today, since there’s not a ton of Atmos or DTS:X content available yet. However, producers are rushing to release new titles enabled for this new technology and streaming services like Netflix and Vudu are jumping on board. Once it’s widely available, you’ll either be delighted you thought ahead and included 3D audio in your home theater – or you’ll wish that you had.