Consumers are very familiar with the Dolby brand. Whether you often visit a Dolby Cinema or you have a TV or computer that supports Dolby Atmos and Dolby Vision you know Dolby delivers one of the best entertainment experiences that allow you to lose yourself in the content you are consuming.
At a time when delivering an experience has more and more to do with the combination of hardware, software and AI, Dolby brings to market its first consumer device: a set of wireless headphones called Dolby Dimension.
Making Hardware Does not Make You a Hardware Maker
It is always easy when a brand brings to market a product in a category they had not been present before to think of it as “entering the market.” Of course, technically this is what they are doing. But there are different reasons why a brand decides to get into a new space. Potential revenue is mostly at the core of such a move, but even then how that revenue is generated differs. Sometimes revenue comes directly from the new product. Other times, the revenue upside comes from how the product is able to boost brand perception in areas the name was already present.
When Dolby spoke to me about Dolby Dimension, I thought about how well it fits their history and DNA as well as delivering on a market need. To understand why Dolby is taking this step one should take a quick look at how home entertainment is changing.
In a recent study across 2044 consumers by the Hollywood Reporter it is clear that in the US, binge-watching is becoming the norm and not just for millennials. While 76% of TV watchers aged 18 to 29 said, they preferred bingeing, older age brackets are not far behind with 65% of viewers ages 30 to 44, and 50% of 44 to 54 who prefer binging. And it is not just about how many people binge-watch it is also how often they do so. Across the national sample of the October study, 15% say that they binge-watch on a daily basis. Another 28% say they binge several times per week.
Many will argue that the wireless headphones market is already super competitive and that Bose fully controls the high-end of the market, so Dolby should have thought about it twice before entering this space. But see, this is where the “entering this space” debate starts. From how I look at it, Dolby was looking to expand the way their technology and experience can be experienced. This took the form of a set of headphones that bring value to a specific set of consumers who appreciate high-quality sound, spend hours watching content on whatever screen is most convenient in their home and see the $599 price tag as an investment in a superior experience that allows them to binge smarter.
It is when you look at the technology packed inside Dolby Dimension and the specific use cases that Dolby has in mind that you understand why this is not a simple branding exercise. The initial limited availability to the US market and distribution focused on dolby.com confirm to me that Dolby is not interested in a broader consumer hardware play, which I am sure will leave hardware partners to exhale a sigh of relief.
Not Just Another Set of Wireless Headphones
Most wireless headphones are designed today for users on the go. They help you being immersed in your content or your work by isolating you from the world around you thanks to noise canceling.
There are some models in the market, the latest one being the Surface Headphones, that allow you to adjust your voice canceling feature to let some of the world in if you need to. This is however done manually.
Dolby Dimension is designed with home use in mind which means that a few things are different. First, the new Dolby LifeMix technology allows you to dynamically adjust how much of the outside world you can let it. Settings, activated through touch controls, will enable you to find what Dolby calls the “perfect blend” between your entertainment and your world as well as entirely shutting down the outside world through Active Noise Cancelling. If you, like me, binge-watch in bed at night you might appreciate being able to choose between being fully immersed in your content when your other half falls asleep before you and snoring gets in the way. Other times, you might want to be able to hear your daughter giggling away next door because she decided to ignore your multiple lights off requests!
Over the days I had to play with Dolby Dimension what most impressed is how it really gives you the feeling of sitting in a theatre. This is especially striking when you are watching content on a small screen like a phone or a tablet. The sound, which of course Dolby will tell you is half the experience, really brings that little screen to life letting you enjoy content at its best. I felt so immersed in what I was watching that I am pretty sure I got to experience the kind of “mom’s voice canceling” my kid has naturally built into her when she is watching any of the Avengers movies, or she is gaming!
There are a few more details that highlight what Dolby had in mind with these headphones. Dolby Dimension can be paired with up to eight devices, and you can quickly toggle between your favorite three with dedicated hardware keys on the right ear cup. When you pick your device, hitting the key associated to it will take you straight to your entertainment app of choice like Netflix or Hulu, not just your device.
Battery life reflects a best-sound approach by delivering up to 10 hours with LifeMix and Virtualization turned on and up to 15 hours with low power mode. So whether you, like 28% of the study sample, binge-watch two to three episode per session or like another 21% you watch four episodes at once you will be left with plenty of power. While we might be tempted to think about a long flight or a day at the office, this is not what Dolby Dimension was designed for and to be honest if those are your primary use cases Dolby Dimension is not really for you.
Headphones are Key to the Experience
It is fascinating how over the past year, or so, headphones have become a talking point in tech. I think the last time that was the case was when Bluetooth was introduced and we got excited about being able to have a conversation on the phone without holding the phone.
When we are discussing the lack of the audio jack from our devices or which digital assistant is supported (assistant that you can summon with Dolby Dimension) we are pointing to the fact that headphones have become an essential part of our experience. Considering how much time we spend in front of one screen or another, both at home or on the go, being able to enjoy both visual and audio content is growing in importance. As intelligence gets embedded in more and more devices and smaller and smaller devices benefit from higher processing power, headphones can become a device in their own right rather than being viewed merely as an accessory.
While I don’t believe Dolby is interested in becoming a consumer hardware company, I am convinced they will continue to innovate and look at how consumers habits are changing when it comes to consuming content. As we move from physical screens to augmented reality experiences and eventually virtual ones, Dolby might continue to take us on a sensory journey through technology and if needed hardware.