There’s no denying that immersive surround sound or “3D Surround” formats like Dolby Atmos and DTS:X can take your movie watching, TV viewing and even music listening at home to a new level of immersion and enjoyment. But detractors of immersive surround like to point out its current limitations: “It’s too expensive!” “It’s too complicated!” “It takes too many speakers!” “It takes too many wires!” And while the “it takes a lot of speakers” point is hard to solve completely, advancements in wireless multi-channel surround are making those other pain points less painful, particularly the need for lots of unsightly wires.
Both WiSA and DTS have made recent advancements that allow customers to deploy a real immersive multi-channel surround sound speaker system – complete with height speakers – without the need for speaker wires. At CEDIA Expo in Denver last week, we had a chance to sit down with executives from both companies to discuss their current solutions for wireless multi-channel surround sound as well as their road map for future developments.
The Word on WiSA
WiSA (Wireless Speaker and Audio) Technologies has been doing wireless multi-channel surround for over a decade, but more recently the company introduced WiSA HT, a high resolution surround sound format that can handle up to eight independent speaker channels. WiSA HT supports high resolution audio with up to 96KHz sampling rate and 24-bit precision. This eight channel capability and high bandwidth make the format ideal for a wireless Dolby Atmos or DTS:X 5.1.2 speaker implementation: five surround sound speakers, a subwoofer and a pair of height channels.
For packaged immersive speaker systems that support WiSA HT, Platin’s Monaco 5.1.2 system ($999) is available now. The system features five small satellite speakers and a subwoofer. Two of the satellite speakers feature up-firing drivers so you get real height sounds bouncing off your ceiling when you play immersive content such as Dolby Atmos or DTS:X. Although there are not currently any TVs which include the necessary WiSA HT multi-channel wireless transmitter built in, the company sells a universal dongle, the SoundSend, which works with any TV that has an ARC or eARC port. The Platin Monaco 5.1.2 system comes with a SoundSend transmitter in the box. eARC is required for a 5.1.2 implementation, while either ARC or eARC can be used for stereo or 5.1-channel implementations. Connection from the TV to the SoundSend units is a single HDMI cable and connection from the SoundSend to the speakers is fully wireless for all channels.
More recently, WiSA unveiled two additional platforms for multi-channel TV sound and home theater. One is called “WiSA DS” (for “Discrete System”). This is a hybrid wired/wireless solution to bring immersive sound with discrete surround channels to soundbars. With WiSA DS, the front channels in a soundbar-based system can be driven via a hard-wired connection from an eARC HDMI port on a TV. The WiSA DS transmitter in the soundbar then sends sound the rear surround and rear height channels to a pair of wireless speakers in the rear of the room which include upward-facing drivers. If the soundbar also has up-firing drivers, then this can create a true 5.1.4-channel immersive surround sound system. WiSA DS supports four full bandwidth wireless channels as well as a subwoofer channel. This is sufficient to drive the rear surround and rear height channels in a 5.1.4 channel system as well as the powered sub.
At CEDIA Expo, WiSA showed off Platin’s new Milan 5.1.4-channel soundbar $799), the first to include WiSA’s DS technology. It’s a 10-channel speaker system where the soundbar reproduces the front left, center, front right and front height channels, and the rear channels and rear height channels are connected wirelessly. The rear channels can go anywhere in the back of the room and include up-firing drivers for the height channels. The wireless sub can be placed anywhere in the room. The Milan 5.1.4-channel soundbar is expected to begin shipping next month (October, 2023).
WiSA also recently unveiled their new WiSA E platform which, like WiSA HT, currently supports eight channels. WiSA CEO Tony Ostrom told us at CEDIA Expo that the WiSA E platform is extensible and could be enhanced to support additional channels over time. What makes WiSA E different from WiSA HT is that, while WiSA E and WiSA HT currently require WiSA’s own wireless transmitter chip, the WiSA E format is designed so it can piggyback on virtually any WiFi chip inside current and future TVs. In fact, the WiSA E software can support 24-bit/96KHz High Res Audio when used with other WiFi transmitters. The company is currently shipping a WiSA E Dev Kit to interested manufacturers in order to test the technology with their own products.
Both WiSA HT and WiSA E support high resolution audio (up to 24-bit/96KHz on WiSA HT and 24-bit/48KHz on WiSA E) and offer extremely low latency which is important for synchronizing picture and sound and also synching multi-room audio so that there are no echoes or interference in the sound. While WiSA has partnered with TV makers like LG and Hisense in the past for two-channel wireless streaming, the company has yet to announce any TV makers incorporating WiSA HT or Wisa E directly into their TV sets for multi-channel/immersive surround support.
Meanwhile, Over at DTS…
DTS offers their own multi-channel wireless solution called DTS Play-Fi. Also, nearly a decade old, DTS Play-Fi added support for 5.1-channel surround sound implementations in 2021. Last week, DTS announced that DTS Play-Fi has been expanded to support up to 12 channels. This new version of Play-Fi is called “DTS Play-Fi Immersive Home Theater.” With this development, you’ll be able to do a 5.1.2, 7.1.2, 5.1.4 or even 7.2.4-channel immersive surround sound implementation wirelessly from a TV or other DTS Play-Fi enabled source component to a compatible set of speakers or soundbar. In their press release, DTS announced that TPV in Europe will be the first partner to launch the latest DTS Play-Fi Home Theater enhancements on select 2023 Philips TVs. Play-Fi-enabled TVs are expected to be formally released in the coming year. Compatible Play-Fi-enabled speakers are already available in production.
At CEDIA Expo in Denver last week, Robert Silva and I saw and heard a demo of the new DTS Play-Fi system on a Philips OLED TV that will soon be in production. Immersive playback was handled via Play-Fi-enabled Philips Fidelio speakers, a Philips FB1 soundbar ($799), 4 FS1 speakers ($299) with front facing and upward-facing drivers, and 1 FW1 subwoofer ($499). This system was configured for 7.1.4 channels. We watched a few clips in Dolby Atmos and found that the system was accurately recreating an immersive sound field from streaming content on the TV. Discrete sound came from left, right, center, rear and above us so apparently all of the various speakers were firing in the system.
The Philips TV’s user interface, which is used to set up the specific Play-Fi speaker configuration, seemed pretty intuitive and simple. In the menu, you specify how many speakers you have and where they are placed and the TV does the rest. DTS Play-Fi also supports the use of a TV speaker as a center channel, something that Sony has been doing for a few years in their TVs as well. The benefit there is that dialog is better placed on screen when the TV’s own speaker is used as the center channel. The drawback is that this speaker may not match the tonal balance of the rest of the system. But it’s a nice option to have.
Other than some network streaming issues with the content (unrelated to Play-Fi), the DTS Play-Fi demo was solid and reliable. We selected several different clips from Netflix, and then from YouTube to test both immersive and regular stereo content on the system and everything sounded as expected on the system with sound emanating from all around the room. It did indeed create a more immersive experience with movies, music and TV shows played back on the system. So much better than the TV’s built-in speakers.
DTS Play-Fi Immersive Home Theater does not support hi-res audio but it does offer better-than-CD quality with a sampling rate of 48KHz and 16-bit precision. In the DTS Play-Fi ecosystem, the TV or source component does all the decoding, from Dolby Atmos, DTS:X, Dolby Digital or IMAX Enhanced to multi-channel PCM audio. And these PCM signals are sent to each speaker in a wireless stream. DTS Play-Fi General Manager Dannie Lau told us several other partnerships are in the works. Lau expects that they’ll be able to announce more partners at next year’s CES in January, 2024.
What About Sonos and Other Proprietary Systems?
Sonos supports wireless immersive surround in a fashion. Similar to WiSA DS, Sonos can do the front channels of an immersive surround sound system using a Sonos ARC soundbar ($899) connected to any TV’s eARC HDMI port. Two ERA 300 speakers ($449) can be placed in the back of the room, connected wirelessly to the front Sonos system and a Sonos sub ($599) can also be connected wirelessly. This creates a 7.1.4-channel immersive surround system. But the Sonos system is proprietary and cannot be used with third party speakers. Wireless systems from TV makers such as LG, Sony and Samsung can also do immersive surround wirelessly, but these are also proprietary and incompatible with other TV manufacturers. Also, TV maker’s wireless speaker solutions are not always as robust and reliable as the purpose-built systems such as Sonos, WiSA and DTS Play-Fi.
Wireless Immersive Surround Solutions:
- Pros: Supports up to 8 channels of wireless audio (5.1.2), Works with any TV with eARC HDMI port (requires outboard transmitter), Supports 24/96 High Res Audio, extremely low latency
- Cons: Not directly built into any TVs, limited selection of compatible speakers for immersive audio
- Pros: Can eliminate the need for wires from front of back of the room, can support up to 5.1.4 immersive sound
- Cons: Requires a hard-wired (HDMI) cable for front speakers, limited selection of compatible speakers, limited to 16-bit/48Khz
- Pros: Supports up to 8 channels of wireless audio (5.1.2), extremely low latency, supports High Res Audio (24-bit/48 KHz), may be expandable to more than eight channels (future), software will be compatible with third party WiFi transmitters already built into most TVs (future)
- Cons: Not yet embedded in any TVs or available in any speakers.
DTS Play-Fi Immersive Home Theater
- Pros: Supports up to 12 channels (7.2.4 channel immersive sound), designed to be compatible with any WiFi transmitter available in current TVs, already has one confirmed TV partner and several speaker options
- Cons: Not available in the US televisions yet (only TV model announced so far is available in Europe), limited selection of compatible products, no High Res Audio support
The Future Looks Bright for Wireless Multichannel Audio
One take-away that Robert and I had after speaking to both manufacturers is that great strides are being made in wireless multi-channel surround. The formats are now in place that can handle true discrete immersive surround sound with no speaker wires, simple set-up and huge sound quality improvements over TVs’ built-in speaker systems. The next step will be to see which manufacturers can get their tech embedded into the top TV, soundbar and speaker brands. We’ll keep our eyes (and ears) peeled for any future developments.
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