The best thing about attending IFA Berlin is when companies use it to offer an early look at technology that will have a “proper” release later on. That’s what I experienced with a demo of Dolby Atmos FlexConnect, a new technology that allows you to wirelessly connect compatible external speakers to your TV and create an Atmos-enabled spatial audio setup.
The most interesting part of Dolby’s talk about the technology is that it’s supposedly much more lenient about where to place these specialized external speakers. They do not need to be perfectly symmetrical, as the press photos show. Similar wireless Play-Fi home theater standard from DTS. With Atmos FlexConnect, the idea is that you can place your external speakers anywhere in the room with your TV, making them fit into your existing living space instead of requiring you to move your furniture or mount the speakers on the walls. Perhaps one speaker is on a bookshelf to the left of your TV, while a second is on a side table to the right of your sofa; the system is designed to be able to handle asymmetry.
My demonstration of the technology took place at the TCL booth at IFA. TCL is acting as Dolby’s launch partner for Atmos FlexConnect and will be the first to offer the technology in its 2024 lineup of TVs (so expect more mentions of the technology at CES next year). Dolby’s ambition is to eventually offer the technology on a wider range of TVs and speakers, but initially it will be just TCL.
The demo began with a calibration process, during which the two Atmos FlexConnect speakers being paired played a series of test tones that were picked up by the TV’s microphones and used to determine speaker placements as well as room acoustics. demo room. From a technical perspective, the Atmos FlexConnect standard can connect to dozens of speakers simultaneously, but manufacturers will be further limited by the specific hardware inside their TVs. TCL currently plans two to be the maximum number of speakers it’ll be able to pair with its 2024 line of TVs, though more affordable mid-range models may be limited to a single external Atmos FlexConnect speaker.
For our first demo, TCL and Dolby showed the system running with a more or less stereo speaker arrangement. One was located on the left front and the other on the right front, though they weren’t positioned with the exact symmetry you’d normally want for a stereo setup. The calibration process took just over 12 seconds, and then the TV displayed the location of the two speakers in the room. These two “Tutti Choral Speakers” were equipped with five speakers each, including two that sound to create the impression of sounds coming from above. But everything about these speaker prototypes, from their branding to their design and driver configuration, is still in flux ahead of their release next year.
To show what the system is capable of, they played us one of Dolby’s standard Atmos demo reels with plenty of overhead noise, including sounds of the forest, rain, and of course some rumbling thunder. Unsurprisingly, the addition of a pair of dedicated speakers resulted in a huge step up from what you’d get from a TV alone, particularly when it comes to bass. The audio sounded much more spacious than you would expect from a standard stereo system.
Unlike a traditional soundbar setup, where a TV turns off its built-in drivers and relies entirely on external speakers for sound, Dolby’s Atmos FlexConnect is designed so that internal and external speakers work together. That might explain why the setup didn’t sound off-kilter despite the slightly asymmetrical speaker arrangement, because the TV’s speakers were still handling audio that’s supposed to sound like it’s coming in front of you. The two external speakers, meanwhile, added the biggest punch in the lower frequencies, which are less directional (i.e., harder to tell where the sound is coming from) and also exactly the kind of sound that’s most challenging for the diminutive speaker. built-in TV. speakers to create
Next, one of the external speakers was moved from the front left of the room to the back left, to show how the system would handle a fully asymmetrical setup. Once again the calibration process ran and the TV’s interface updated to show that one of the speakers was behind us and to the left.
In practice, however, the spatial audio presentation was very similar, even though we now used a speaker arrangement that would cause a traditional 5.1 speaker installer break out in hives Listening specifically to the mid and high frequencies makes it more obvious where the speakers are located in the room, but virtualization technology smoothed out the rougher edges.
My time with Dolby Atmos FlexConnect was too limited to give conclusive insights into its performance against more traditional alternatives like a home theater amplifier connected to five or more separate speakers placed symmetrically around the listener, an Atmos soundbar equipped with drivers that shoot upwards, or even an Atmos soundbar that relies entirely on virtualization to create height. But my feeling is that Atmos FlexConnect doesn’t directly compete with these other options. It’s a solution for people who have to (or want to) compromise on how much they let their TV setup take over their living room. TCL and Dolby’s argument is that you can simply place your extra speakers wherever you have space for them and let their virtualization technology do the rest.
TCL wasn’t ready to talk about pricing for its Atmos FlexConnect-enabled TVs or speakers at IFA, but expects more information to be announced when it details its 2024 lineup of TVs.
Photography by Jon Porter / The Verge