The future of audio mixing may mostly abandon the idea of “channels” in favor of a more object-oriented approach such as that used by Dolby’s Atmos. That’s because systems that take advantage of the newest platform treats sounds more as objects and then assign those objects to a placement in a room. That’s opposed to more traditional channel mixing that just assigns sounds to a right, left, or front speaker or set of speakers – although channels are still used to inform Atmos of how many individual speakers it has to work with. That allows for content creators to generate a more curated, immersive experience by pinpointing sounds to specific speakers where available. Better still, it enables additional support for overhead speakers or speakers designed to replicate the effect by firing sound to be bounced off of a ceiling.
It's important to note that Atmos, specifically, has actually been around for quite some time - since 2012. So, it may be surprising that many consumers haven't heard of it or simply aren't aware of it and aren’t taking advantage of it. Meanwhile, while there are still obstacles to overcome before the concept makes its way into every home theater or piece of media released, the concepts envisioned by Dolby could be revolutionary. In fact, if future progressions of audio technology move forward in lock-step with improvements to the visual elements of media consumption – and they reasonably should – then technologies such as Dolby's Atmos make near-perfect sense.
For starters, they are completely scalable. So, whether a consumer only has a more traditional 5.1-channel speaker setup or a more advanced 7.1-channel setup, the end experience should be similar. That's because the platform allows sound to be assigned more directly. Rather than a sound being assigned to the left, right, front, or rear channels, sounds can, for example, be assigned to the front-left or rear-right. Separating sounds from the channels allows for each speaker to be handled by the system on an individual basis, with signaling being adapted to match the number of speakers available. The addition of overhead speakers increases the resulting immersion further since it allows for even more complex sound orientation. For example, a sound can be assigned to come from the audience's left-rear speakers, in addition to the left-rear overhead speaker. Obviously, a setup with only a single overhead speaker or top-firing overhead-emulating speaker would vary in quality, on that front, from system to system. However, that it can scale at all is a testament to the robustness of the ideas behind Atmos.
The current issues that hold the technological advance represented by Atmos back primarily come down to three underlying issues. The first of those is the availability of content that’s encoded to work with the platform itself. There is a ton of content that actually supports Atmos, due to the amount of time it has been available. More generally, 4K, HDR, and BluRay content do mostly support the platform. However, most home theaters and even traditional movie theaters are not using equipment that is capable of decoding Atmos content. Instead, that media plays with a more traditional sound using channels. As with nearly every new technology, the lack of immediate widespread adoption largely comes down to cost. That, ironically enough, may be describable as being the result of low demand. Currently, Atmos-compatible receivers for home already start out at several hundred dollars, not including the cost of speakers or supported content. For a theater, the cost will certainly be much higher in include the larger number of substantially more powerful speakers required and a receiver to push those. That makes Atmos a significantly high-priced investment across the board.
Whether or not that upgrade is ultimately worth it comes down to how many speakers are used and how big of a difference it makes on an almost entirely subjective basis. However, Atmos has begun to find its way beyond standard media formats, moving into digital streaming media and even being included in a lesser, stereo-only form for some mobile devices. So it is likely that this point, despite its already long 5-year lifespan. So it may eventually become as ubiquitous as flat screen televisions among those who choose to invest in home theater systems. Given the improvements it brings with it, it's hard to imagine any audio advancements that follow Atmos will return to a more channel-focused approach. So it may be safe to say that particular era of the home theater setups may soon be at least as dead as VHS. Meanwhile, the technology will almost certainly make its way into the majority of theaters regardless of the home market. That's because the benefits are obviously much greater due to the higher quality, high-powered sound systems associated with theaters - which should be able to take advantage of Atmos to full effect.