The best bit of attending Berlin’s IFA trade show is when companies use it to offer an early look at tech that’ll get a “proper” launch later. That’s what I experienced with a demonstration of Dolby Atmos FlexConnect, a new technology to let you wirelessly connect compatible external speakers to your TV and create an Atmos-enabled spatial audio setup.
The most interesting part of Dolby’s pitch for the technology is that it’s supposedly far more forgiving about where you can place these specialized external speakers. They don’t need to be perfectly symmetrical, like the press shots show DTS’s similar wireless Play-Fi Home Theater standard. With Atmos FlexConnect, the idea is you can place your external speakers anywhere in the room with your TV, making them fit into your existing living space rather than asking you to move your furniture or mount speakers onto walls. Maybe one speaker goes on a bookshelf to the left of your TV, while a second sits on a side table to the right of your couch — the system is designed to be able to handle the asymmetry.
My demonstration of the technology took place at TCL’s booth at IFA. TCL is serving as Dolby’s launch partner for Atmos FlexConnect, and will be first to offer the technology on its 2024 TV lineup (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’ll just be TCL.
The demo started with a calibration process, during which the two Atmos FlexConnect speakers being paired played a series of test tones that the TV’s microphones picked up and used to determine the speakers’ locations, as well as the acoustics of the demo room itself. From a technical perspective, the Atmos FlexConnect standard can simultaneously connect to dozens of speakers, but manufacturers will be more limited by the specific hardware inside their TVs. TCL is currently planning for two to be the maximum number of speakers that you’ll be able to pair with its 2024 TV lineup, though more affordable midrange models may be limited to just a single external Atmos FlexConnect speaker.
For our first demonstration, TCL and Dolby showed off the system working with a more-or-less stereo arrangement of speakers. One was placed front-left and one was front-right, although they weren’t placed with the exact symmetry you’d normally want for a stereo setup. The calibration process took a little over 12 seconds, and afterwards the TV showed off the locations of the two speakers in the room. These two “Tutti Choral Speakers” were equipped with five drivers apiece, including two that are upfiring to create the impression of sounds coming from overhead. But everything about these prototype speakers, from their branding to their design and driver configuration, is still in flux ahead of their release next year.
To show off what the system is capable of, we were played one of Dolby’s standard Atmos demo reels featuring plenty of height noise, including forest sounds, rain, and of course some rumbling thunder. As you’d expect, the addition of a pair of dedicated speakers resulted in a big step up over what you’d get out of a TV alone, particularly when it comes to bass. The audio sounded a lot more spacious than what you’d expect from a standard stereo arrangement.
Unlike a traditional soundbar setup, where a TV turns off its inbuilt drivers and relies entirely on the external speakers for sound, Dolby’s Atmos FlexConnect is designed for internal and external speakers to work together. That could explain why the setup didn’t sound off-center despite the slightly asymmetrical speaker arrangement, because the TV’s speakers were still handling the audio that’s supposed to sound like it’s coming from in front of you. Meanwhile the two external speakers added the most impact in the lower frequencies, which are both less directional (ie, it’s harder to tell where sound is coming from), and also exactly the kind of sound that’s most challenging for a TV’s diminutive in-built speakers to create.
Next, one of the external speakers was moved from the front-left of the room to the back-left, to show off how the system would handle a totally asymmetrical setup. Once again the calibration process was run, 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, despite us now using a speaker arrangement that would cause a traditional 5.1 speaker installer to break out in hives. Listening for the midrange and treble frequencies specifically and it becomes more obvious where the speakers in the room are located, but the virtualization technology smoothed over the roughest edges.
My time with Dolby Atmos FlexConnect was far too limited to give any conclusive thoughts on how it performs versus more traditional alternatives like a home cinema amplifier wired into five or more separate speakers placed symmetrically around the listener, an Atmos soundbar equipped with upward firing drivers, or even an Atmos soundbar that relies entirely on virtualization to create height. But the sense I get is that Atmos FlexConnect isn’t really in direct competition with these other options. It’s a solution for people who have to (or want to) make compromises about how much they let their TV setup take over their living room. TCL and Dolby’s pitch is that you can just place your extra speakers where you have space for them, and let their virtualization technology work out the rest.
TCL wasn’t ready to talk pricing for its Atmos FlexConnect-enabled TVs or speakers at IFA, but expect more information to be announced when it details its 2024 TV lineup.
Photography by Jon Porter / The Verge