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Is Dolby Atmos FlexConnect a potential soundbar killer?

In this day and age of tech, you can’t blink without missing something. So I wouldn’t at all be surprised if you missed a cameo that Dolby Atmos FlexConnect made during a recent TCL announcement. I mean, I almost missed it. Perhaps that’s why nobody is talking about it. Or … is there another reason?

I’m going to take a closer look at this new Dolby Atmos FlexConnect technology. Given the kind of power Dolby has in the industry and the fact that at least TCL seems pretty on board, I figured it’s worth a quick conversation.

What is Dolby Atmos FlexConnect?

According to Dolby, “Dolby Atmos FlexConnect unlocks the freedom to place one or more wireless speakers anywhere in a room, without having to worry about perfect placement.”

So far, I get it. The idea is that not every room is set up so that you can have perfect speaker placement. You can see that in the graphic they use. Oh, sweet mercy, they’re moving a TV into a corner! Well, there goes all your plans for good sound! I’m exaggerating, of course. But we audiophiles sure do love our symmetry. Actually, it’s the laws of acoustics that love symmetry, but I digress.

This is a relatable issue. Also, power outlets aren’t always where you need them to be. And running wires is a hassle, too. So, it looks like Dolby Atmos FlexConnect is meant to help us work around those challenges. That’s a solid idea.

A diagram showing how Dolby Atmos FlexConnect combines wireless speakers with a TV's sound system.
Dolby Labs

So far, we have a solid premise. What does Dolby say next? “By combining additional accessory devices with your TV speakers, Dolby Atmos FlexConnect unlocks the best sound performance”

Hold on. What are additional accessory devices? Why so vague? Weren’t they just wireless speakers before? Maybe subwoofers? What else?

And “unlocks the best sound performance.” Well, that’s just a bold marketing claim. It will unlock potentially better sound performance. Let’s be realistic. The best sound performance is going to cost a small mint, so let’s ease up on the hyperbole.

Then there’s: “Whether you’re adding a single speaker for some extra punch, or multiple speakers to create a fully immersive experience.”

OK. This is where I start getting concerned, but I’ll get to that.

I think we have gotten the idea so far. Dolby Atmos FlexConnect is a technology that will reside in a TV — or potentially some other source devices, but for now, we’ll just say it’s a TV — and it will be able to connect to wireless speakers, be it one or many  (we don’t know how many yet). Then it will use a microphone in the TV to determine the location of the speakers relative to the TV, and then use those wireless speakers in concert with the TV speakers to create a Dolby Atmos surround sound effect, whether it’s one speaker or multiple speakers.

Dolby Atmos FlexConnect
Dolby

Well, that’s going to sound absolutely fantastic to a lot of folks! I mean, just put the speakers where you can put them, whether you’ve got one, two, or nine of them, and then, boom! Dolby Atmos is happening?

So many people are going to want that!

So why am I so skeptical?

I’m going to tell you, but before I get into that, I want to talk a little about Dolby Atmos in general.

Is Dolby Atmos a brand or a technology?

It is my opinion that Dolby Atmos is now more brand than technology. Don’t get me wrong, there’s a lot of technology that goes along with Dolby Atmos. But, the way Dolby Atmos is treated now, it’s just a symbol that’s supposed to suggest quality audio.

See, when Dolby Atmos first came out — Brave was the first movie that had it, for a little 2012 time stamp — it was very clearly the name for a new object-based surround sound. You could hear it in the theaters. And if you had an advanced enough setup, you could hear it at home.

A diagram showing out Dolby Atmos FlexConnect would function.
Dolby

But now, a TV with two tiny, dinky speakers has “Dolby Atmos?” Come on. I understand that you can fake surround sound, even with two terrible TV speakers, but do you really want to slap the Dolby Atmos brand on that?

My point is that Dolby Atmos doesn’t stand for one certain thing anymore. It’s a brand that’s meant to signify good audio.

So, is Dolby Atmos FlexConnect meant to bring home that dome of sound experience? Or is it just supposed to be better than crappy TV speakers?

Introducing Dolby Atmos FlexConnect

Well, actually, if this little trailer for it is anything to go by, then it’s supposed to be the big dome of sound thing. But since Dolby Atmos doesn’t really signify a level of audio quality or a level of surround sound, I think we should manage our expectations a little bit. Just a little. We could end up being surprised at what it does, but let’s not expect cinema-level sound here — at least not with just one or two wireless speakers.

What worries me about Dolby Atmos FlexConnect

Here’s what worries me about Dolby Atmos FlexConnect: Details are still very vague — worryingly so for something that was announced and shown off at the world’s biggest consumer electronics show.

Who is making these wireless speakers that you can use? Is it Bluetooth? It better not be. I don’t think just any Bluetooth speaker you have kicking around the house is going to work unless Dolby is licensing out some kind of wireless adapter you could add to them. No, I’m guessing we’re going to see purpose-built speakers for this system — “FlexConnect-enabled” speakers. And what will those look like? Will they have up-firing drivers, one of the hallmarks of an actual Dolby Atmos system? Or are these meant to be more multipurpose wireless speakers? I’ve seen some footage from the IFA trade show in Berlin in which a TCL TV was driving a FlexConnect system using Tutti Choral speakers. But will TCL make some wireless speakers? Can anyone make them? I suspect so, since Dolby usually licenses out its technology to whomever will pay. I’d just like to see some details on this.

This is something a lot of folks could use. A scalable, flexible system, exactly as Dolby is describing it.

Also, this is going to take some pretty serious algorithmic processing, or it is 100% going to sound mid. Is Dolby promising that you can put the speakers anywhere, and you can use as many or as few as you like? If so, the processor inside the TV — which will be licensed by Dolby, and thus will cost money and will raise the price of the TV — is going to have to do some miraculous wizardry in order to adapt the sound it is sending out wirelessly to work within the unique set of conditions in the room and the unique capabilities of each speaker in the room. That kind of computational audio is in Apple’s wheelhouse. Even Qualcomm’s. But — Dolby? I suppose it very much could. (And what might that mean for other major players like MediaTek?) But, it’s going to have to be some advanced next-level stuff.

My other concern is that acoustic trickery involved in making balanced, enveloping sound no matter where the speakers are placed usually involves playing around with the phase of that sound. That’s where you intentionally place some sound signals out of phase so that they almost cancel each other out, but not quite. This allows you to make the sound seem as if it is coming from everywhere, or nowhere in particular, or from somewhere there isn’t actually a sound source. Sometimes this kind of virtual surround sound can be very impressive, but often it comes at the expense of overall fidelity. So I have concerns about that.

I will say, though, that I once heard a DTS demo years ago where it had speakers set up with very odd, scattershot placement, and it pulled off one incredible surround sound demo. So it can be done. But even if this technology is scalable, as Dolby implies, how many speakers will you need for it to actually be good?

A diagram showing out Dolby Atmos FlexConnect would function.
Dolby

But let’s assume the best for a moment. Let’s assume that Dolby is completely adaptable, defies the laws of physics, does the impossible, and the technology really is that advanced. If it really is that amazingly awesome, then why is it flying under the radar?

Well, maybe it’s because the right folks haven’t heard it yet. Nobody outside of those developing it or working on deploying it — or those who happened by the booth at IFA — have heard it in action. Hopefully, Dolby will start offering some demonstrations. I’m reaching out to Dolby now because I want in early on this.

Look, I’ve been working with Dolby for a long time, and I just think it is odd that it hasn’t been making a bigger deal out of this. Sure, it sent a press release, but it seems like it is being awfully meek about the technology.

Maybe letting TCL make its announcement was a fringe benefit of being the first to adopt the technology. Maybe as Dolby signs on more partners, or those partners get closer to releasing their products, we’ll start to hear more about this. I hope so because this sort of coming out with a whimper rather than a roar just doesn’t fill me with confidence. But, you know what? I’d love to be wrong about all this. I’d love for my skepticism to be completely misplaced. I hope to hear Dolby Atmos FlexConnect and be truly blown away.

Why Dolby Atmos FlexConnect could end up being awesome

This is something a lot of folks could use. A scalable, flexible system, exactly as Dolby is describing it. The WiSA thing still hasn’t taken off, despite it being pretty awesome. Sonos is a locked-up ecosystem, and it is pricey. What we need is a wireless surround sound solution that lets us start small if we want, work our way up, and get something awesome-sounding, no matter the level at which we are invested.

Let’s wait and see

So let’s keep an eye on this. And let’s hope that the right players get into the game. I want to see speakers from JBL, Yamaha, Klipsch — are you listening, Klipsch? I’d ask for Polk, except I think it is locked into a partnership with DTS, but who knows? And then let’s see some more premium names in the home audio business get involved, too. Maybe some upstarts could pop up around this? Sounds like an awesome business opportunity.

But, please, let’s not let this just die and wither away into nothingness like so many other promised technologies we’ve seen in the past. I’m not saying Dolby has a history of doing that – I just tend to be skeptical. I’ll believe it when I see it. And I’ll believe it when I hear it.

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