Atmos Fear. Blind people like me are an ideal audience for stunning Dolby Atmos sound, but most studios are locking us out
This post was last updated on 21 June with the good news that if you’re playing Apple TV Plus content on an APple TV 4K with audio description on, you will in fact get Atmos. Thank you Apple for doing the right thing, and thanks to Justin Thornton for the tip. It turns out the Apple app on the Samsung TV we have isn’t Atmos capable.
Bullets whizz past me in all directions. I hear people shooting, angry voices yelling behind me, helicopters flying overhead. I am confused, unclear exactly who is doing what, whether it’s the good guys or the bad guys shooting, I suspect they both are.
It is all happening from the comfort of my couch thanks to an upgrade to our home theatre system. My wife and I are blind and my children are now at the age where they just come to visit, so the reason for the big investment is all about the sound. We, well in the interests of full disclosure I in particular, wanted to be immersed in the world of Dolby Atmos. I can’t even tell light from dark, so the massive screens with their pristine pictures are wasted on me. But Atmos? Putting me in the sonic centre of the action? Yes! Totally bring that on.
Getting to this point has been a frustrating experience with missteps on the way. Now that I have reached my destination, I have found it may not have been worth the difficult journey. My enjoyment is being impeded by a serious accessibility failure.
What is Dolby Atmos and why are blind people an ideal audience for it?
I recommend reading the comprehensive explanation offered by What Hi-Fi. But essentially, Dolby Atmos is a surround sound technology which in extreme cases can use hundreds of speakers in some cinema installations. With it, sound designers can place every sound at a very specific place in the mix. Since a good Dolby Atmos system will have speakers placed in the ceiling, this allows sound designers to create realistic mixes that include sounds overhead.
It is most common to enjoy Dolby Atmos soundtracks when watching movies. A few TV shows now offer it, and we’re increasingly seeing Dolby Atmos making its way into music. Indeed as a lifelong Beatles fan, the catalyst for me to look seriously into Atmos was when The Beatles released an Atmos mix of their Abbey Road album. By the way Giles Martin, I would love for you to go back and do a Sgt Pepper Atmos mix. “Being for the Benefit of Mr Kite” is just asking for Atmos!
Most of us don’t have the money to create a system with hundreds of speakers, but some home theatre buffs now enjoy Dolby Atmos using custom installations. Others are dabbling in Atmos by choosing one of an increasing range of soundbars compatible with Dolby Atmos.
Let’s be realistic, no matter how good the soundbar, it’s not going to give you the benefit of precisely placed speakers. Nevertheless, some soundbars can be surprisingly effective. We’re a Sonos household and purchased its new flagship soundbar, the Arc. Speakers on top of the Arc are designed to project sound upwards. Particularly if you’re willing to throw some more money at the audio in your living room and add a Sonos SUB and two rear surrounds, it can produce some stunning audio.
If you’re not steeped in the Sonos ecosystem for its seamless multiroom capability, there are cheaper and possibly even more effective ways to get Atmos in your home. A soundbar with multiple HDMI ports, the Arc only has one, can simplify the setup process considerably.
This sort of immersive sound experience is ideal for blind people. When done well, an Atmos soundtrack can make you feel like you’ve been transported. It can be very realistic and give you a sense of the physical environment where the action is taking place.
Blind people are being shut out of Atmos
I’ve had several technical challenges even getting to the point where I as a blind person can enjoy Atmos at all. I’ll come to those so others don’t have to repeat my mistakes. But given what I’m about to tell you, you may decide that if you’re blind, upgrading to Atmos is a waste of time right now. I hope you will also conclude that we must apply pressure to fix this.
Most people are familiar with captioning for Deaf people. There is an equivalent for blind people called audio description. It uses gaps in the dialogue of movies and TV shows to insert descriptions of things happening on-screen that are not apparent from the dialogue. It can make the difference between my wife and me being able to enjoy a movie and finding it completely incomprehensible.
If you are a sighted person reading this article and you want to give audio description a try, it’s usually found when available by selecting it from the menu of audio languages when watching a movie or TV show. If you’re going to try it, do it properly. Select the audio description track, then turn off your screen.
Thankfully, Sonos S2 has a clear and accessible indicator that shows when it is playing Atmos content. With the vast majority of content, enabling audio description disables Atmos. In other words, most production studios have decided that if you need audio description, you can’t have Atmos.
As it stands, blind people are usually confronted with two suboptimal choices. Either choose to be immersed in the sound of the movie and risk not having a clue what’s going on, or be clear about what’s going on while not being able to take full advantage of the Dolby Atmos equipment in which we’ve made an investment.
Surely it must have occurred to someone at these production companies that blind people are a particularly receptive audience for Dolby Atmos content. The good news is that yes, it has. Once again, Apple is leading the way. Apple TV Plus content produced in Atmos has its audio description language track in Atmos as well. It is quite the sensory experience.
In the long term, Atmos has the potential to take audio description to the next level. What might you be able to do with audio description with such precision about where the sound is coming from? Right now though, all I’m asking for is for more studios to follow Apple’s lead and make it standard practice for audio description to be available on top of the existing Atmos mix.
I have not yet checked to see if watching movies from Blu-Ray has this limitation. Selecting content from Blu-Ray is often difficult for blind people because menus are usually inaccessible.
Let me stress that the difference in the audio between what we get with audio description and what you can hear in the Atmos mix is usually not subtle. When I switch between the audio description and Atmos language choices, it’s usually immediately apparent and I am confident I would know the difference in a…blind listening test if I may use that expression.
Technical challenges and how to avoid them
Not put off Atmos yet? There is more to contend with.
To give you some context around the limitations of the first TV we tried as we embarked on our Atmos upgrade journey, I first need to explain that broadly speaking, Atmos comes in two forms, lossy and lossless. Those with knowledge of audio formats will be familiar with this concept. The difference in the two forms of Dolby Atmos is rather like a wav or FLAC file versus an MP3 or M4A file.
Lossy audio is designed to facilitate the storage or transfer of digital audio without it comprising too many bytes. There is a sound quality difference, but it is quite subtle and many people don’t notice it depending on the equipment they’re listening with or how critical a listener they are. People’s Internet connections vary in capacity, so all the streaming services such as Netflix, Disney, Amazon Prime Video etc use lossy Dolby Atmos.
Blu-Ray titles are usually encoded in lossless audio because there are no byte constraints.
If you want your TV to send lossless Atmos audio to a soundbar or other system, it needs to be able to send a lot of data at once. That is achieved through a new extension to the HDMI standard called EARC, which stands for Enhanced Audio Return Channel.
As I’ve pointed out earlier in this article, it can be difficult for blind people to enjoy Blu-Ray titles on our own, because the menus can be difficult to navigate. That being the case, is it really the end of the world if you don’t have a TV that supports EARC? If you use an Apple TV 4K, which is Atmos-capable and popular in the blind community because of its mature implementation of VoiceOver, it’s an issue if you have the Sonos Arc and some other soundbars without multiple HDMI inputs. That’s because even when receiving a lossy signal from a streaming media service, Apple TV 4K currently re-encodes it to lossless and sends that, in all its bandwidth-consuming glory, to the HDMI port your Apple TV is plugged into. So typically, the HDMI port your soundbar is connected to needs to have the bandwidth to send that signal back to your soundbar.
If your TV can transcode a lossless stream to a lossy format for you, then you may not need EARC. However, most TVs do not do this. It would be helpful if Apple could add an option to send lossy audio back to a TV in the forthcoming tvOS release.
If you purchase or already own an Atmos-compatible TV with accessible apps for the services you like to use, you can get by without EARC.
Another way around this issue is to plug an Apple TV or Blu-Ray player directly into a receiver or soundbar that has an HDMI port for the purpose. Unfortunately, the Sonos Arc has no such port. There is just a single port designed for connection with your TV.
Having understood this after a lot of brain-breaking reading, and not having had much luck of late with the built-in apps of our Sony Android smart TV, I realised that if I was committed to this upgrade journey, it would be best to upgrade the TV.
When I surveyed the accessible TV landscape in 2017, Samsun smart TVs disabled their Voice Guide screen reader function whenever the country was set to English New Zealand, which is where I live. We therefore purchased a Sony Bravia back then. You can hear a comprehensive demonstration of that TV in The Blind Side Podcast episode 33. With a sweet deal available on the new TV, we upgraded to a newer Sony Bravia model, the X8500G, boasting AirPlay support, HomeKit support, and Dolby Atmos with EARC. You can hear a demo of this in Mosen At Large episode 37.
We purchased the TV a little before the Sonos Arc was released. Many of the apps it came with such as Netflix and Amazon Prime Video weren’t accessible, but they had stopped being accessible on our previous TV some time ago so that was not surprising. The AirPlay and HomeKit upgrades were welcome, and I appreciated being able to install Eloquence, a popular but now elderly text-to-speech engine in the blind community, on the TV from the Play Store.
When the Sonos Arc finally arrived and we connected it to the TV, you can imagine the sinking feeling I got when trying to enable EARC only to be told that you can’t have the screen reader running and EARC enabled at the same time. What? EARC was the only reason we upgraded, and it isn’t useable on that Sony TV by a blind person.
I’ve contacted Sony about this and to their credit they quickly escalated the matter to their engineers, but again, this failure illustrates how essential it is that disabled people be involved in a spirit of co-design when products are being developed. We shouldn’t have to hope that such a fundamental barrier to enjoying the high-end audio features of the TV, something a blind person is likely to be disproportionately more interested in compared to the user base as a whole, might be fixed one day in a firmware update.
I want to give a shoutout and a huge thanks to the team at Noel Leeming Tory Street here in Wellington for being so understanding of our situation. Even though the 14-day return period had expired, they were willing to let us return the Sony Bravia if we could find something that didn’t have this bizarre limitation.
It was then that I checked in on Samsung again and found that Voice Guide now works in New Zealand. I visited the Noel Leeming store and the very helpful salesperson spent some considerable time setting up a Samsung TV, enabling Voice Guide and connecting a soundbar to it so we could establish definitively that it did not have the same EARC limitations as the Sony Bravia. I’m pleased to say EARC and Samsung’s screen reader can be on simultaneously.
“Every cloud has a silver lining” they say, and in retrospect the bizarre limitation of the Sony Bravia led us to a much more accessible TV, the Samsung TU8500. The built-in apps work perfectly as do several third-party apps I have tested. Voice Guide has some great features including being able to learn the remote and browse the documentation. You can hear a comprehensive demonstration and review of this smart TV, which will apply to Samsung smart TVs in the 2020 range, in Mosen At Large episode 43.
We have come such a long way in terms of technology being more accessible for blind people, yet a saga like this reminds me how much further we still have to go. A sighted person can go to the store, choose from a range of features and price points, take their chosen equipment home and enjoy it. It’s not that simple for a blind person.
Now that I have the right combination of gear that meets our requirements, it’s usually not even possible for us to do what I set out to do, enjoy highly visual Dolby Atmos movies. The audio description track is usually not encoded in Atmos. Two features that blind people would value tremendously usually don’t co-exist.
If you have Atmos-capable equipment and have found anything containing audio description that lets you hear Atmos and description at the same time, I’m very keen to hear about it. I am already making inquiries about this situation and will keep people posted via the Mosen At Large podcast.
Have you had any experience with Dolby Atmos? Share your findings in the comments.\