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When people go to the movies, two of the top experiences offered are IMAX and Dolby Cinema. While they might seem similar on the surface, there are key differences that you should know so you can pick your best choice.
I am an audio engineer with more than ten years of experience in live sound reinforcement and studio recording. Thanks to my experience in cinematic music and video, I’ll analyze both systems, weighing the pros and cons of each one.
Let’s dive into the article and learn more about the two. Don’t worry if you’re not technically savvy. I’ll keep technical concepts as simple as possible, and before long, you’ll be able to grasp the comparison between both systems fully.
Table of Contents
- Dolby Cinema to IMAX [A Quick Comparison]
- What is Dolby Cinema?
- What is IMAX?
- IMAX vs Dolby Cinema: Detailed Comparison
- What is AMC Prime?
Dolby Cinema to IMAX [A Quick Comparison]
Both Dolby Cinema and IMAX are cinema systems, offering a wide range of tools and equipment for movie theaters. The main thing that sets them apart is that Dolby Cinema has better audio and audio tech while IMAX is better for both audio and visuals.
What is Dolby Cinema?
Dolby Cinema is a system created by Dolby Laboratories. It includes technology such as Dolby Atmos and Dolby Vision to provide a superior cinema experience. The key to providing a good movie experience is immersiveness and Dolby Cinema has mastered it.
Dolby Atmos and Dolby Vision: Explained
Cinema consists of two main components: audio and video. Dolby Atmos deals with the sound aspects and Dolby Vision covers the visuals.
Dolby Atmos is an immersive surround-sound system. It is object-oriented, meaning that the listener can sense the incoming sounds from fixed positions with increased accuracy over other systems.
You may have noticed when you’re in a movie theater that you can usually sense objects’ depth and panorama position in a film. Dolby Atmos further improves on this concept, allowing height channels to sense the vertical aspect of sound sources. It can deliver sound with up to 64 audio channels and allows listeners to hear up to 128 different tracks.
Another essential aspect of Dolby Atmos is that it renders the objects in real time based on the loudspeaker location. This is excellent because it makes mixing audio for cinema flexible, with on-the-fly audio channels for each specific theater. Theatres also place AMC transducers on the seats, making the ground rumble and giving the viewer a realistic experience of the cinema.
Dolby Vision is a projection system that consists of dual 4K modular laser projectors. These were developed with Christie Digital, a well-known film-products manufacturer from California. The advantage of this laser system is that it can offer up to 14 foot-lamberts each, while the industry standard is to use just four foot-lamberts.
It also has a contrast ratio that is 500 times higher than the standard theatre projector, making the color reproduction highly accurate. This gives the viewer a hyper-realistic viewing experience.
Dolby Vision also boasts a 2.40:1 aspect ratio. Combine all of these together and you can see how Dolby Cinema gives the ultimate immersive experience.
What Are Dolby Laboratories?
Dolby Laboratories has a long tradition in audio research and technology. It was founded by Ray Dolby in 1965. The first accolade of this company was inventing the Dolby Noise Reduction System, which was used to reduce background noise on tape recorders.
A particularly useful scenario for noise-reduction technology is cinema. Previously, high-frequency sounds from cinema audio were regularly reduced to limit noise, impacting the overall sound quality. Dolby’s noise reduction system was used first in the film “A Clockwork Orange.”
Later, Dolby developed Dolby Stereo with more audio channels for surround sound, a compression system called Dolby Digital, and more solutions for professional cinema. In 2014, Dolby expanded its offerings and started Dolby Vision.
Dolby Cinema Pros and Cons
There are good and bad things in every system, and Dolby Cinema is no exception. Luckily, the good stuff outweighs the bad here.
Dolby Cinema offers an incredibly detailed sound system with Dolby Atmos, which is the most notable aspect of the company. It makes a tremendous impact on making movies more immersive and giving a hyper-realistic experience.
Dolby Vision also offers superior image quality in most aspects when comparing it to competitors. Their projectors display images with stunning colors and brightness.
Another pro of Dolby Cinemas is that their theatres usually have extremely comfortable chairs, similar to recliners.
Unfortunately, the screen size is smaller than the IMAX screen. Technically, this is better, since the resolution makes for better image sharpness. However, a smaller screen also means a less immersive experience.
Dolby Cinema is also not as widespread as IMAX is around the world, making it less accessible to people who want to experience it.
What is IMAX?
IMAX is a company that specializes in film equipment such as cameras, projectors, and other technologies for theater. However, what people commonly refer to as “IMAX” are IMAX Theaters, which offer a set of technological equipment and systems by the company.
IMAX Components: Explained
Many parts are needed to get the whole IMAX experience in an IMAX Theater. They include specific cameras, screens, projectors, and speakers. Throughout its existence, IMAX has offered different formats with distinctive technical specifications. Here, I’ll offer an overview of those competing directly with Dolby Cinema.
The original IMAX Camera works with 70 mm film instead of the typical 35 mm film, allowing for increased screen size. It’s a 24 frame-per-second camera, the frame rate commonly used for cinema. There’s also an IMAX Dome camera that has fisheye lenses, ideally used to project films elliptically on dome screens.
A wide range of IMAX digital cameras are also used in the film industry. Among them are the ARRI Alexa cameras, which were used in Marvel films like “Captain America: Civil War” and “Avengers: Endgame.”
There’s a series of IMAX-certified cameras also used in films. For instance, the Arri Alexa LF, a 4.5K camera, was used in “Top Gun: Maverick,” and the Red Ranger Monstro (8K) was used in “The Suicide Squad.”
This is the “public” aspect of IMAX, but remember that the screen is not the only thing that defines an IMAX theater. These theaters are specifically built for IMAX. Thus, seating, hall size, and other variables all play a role.
IMAX theatres have an aspect ratio of 1.90:1, which is 26% more than most other, including Dolby Cinema, allowing for the viewer to watch on a larger screen, giving them a much more immersive experience.
There are also dome theaters, which are mainly used in museums and theme parks. These typically focus on documentaries or other kinds of informative media. Their name comes from the dome-shaped installations that usually have a diameter of 24 meters.
The typical IMAX Projectors are very complex, but their key aspect is that they use a vacuum to make the film contact the lens. This makes the image field flat. Shutters are also open longer than regular projectors, with a brighter light source. The xenon lamp it uses as a light source is so delicate that it runs for 1,000 hours and requires water cooling and a pump.
In 2008, IMAX developed digital projection systems. These can be used for 2D or 3D films and can be on smaller screens. As with the Dolby Vision system, one projector displays images for each eye. In 2D, these both produce 22 foot-lamberts, noticeably brighter than regular projectors.
IMAX developed laser projection in 2012. It improves over the digital system since it allows regular IMAX screen sizes with 4K resolution. The xenon lamp is gone, replaced by a 60 fps laser. Like the digital projector, two are used for 3D images, and both superimposed achieve greater brightness for 2D scenes.
IMAX sound is tied to the projector, so there are many variables. In general, there’s never the same system delivered for all theaters. IMAX develops the complete sound system for each theater, giving all kinds of different setups.
An example is the IMAX Dome Luxury in Copenhagen. It uses the newer IMAX Digital Sound designed by the company Sonics. The system employs CDs, with one CD for every two channels. Its subwoofers usually deliver more than 3,000 watts. These are the devices that make the floor rumble.
In typical IMAX theaters, there can be over 64 speakers, and the company takes into account the space’s acoustics to create the perfect tailor-made system. The sound system is composed of a 12-channel surround. That means there are 12 pathways for sound to reach those 64 speakers.
There are also subwoofers on the seats to enhance the experience in IMAX theatres. Their sound systems can emit 12,000 watts in most theaters, which is a whopping amount of power. It’s used to deliver the tiniest of sonic details to the audience.
IMAX Pros and Cons
IMAX is all about screen size. You won’t find bigger screens anywhere else, and that’s a big plus when looking for that “getting lost in the movie” feeling.
This is particularly useful for 3D, since the wide aspect ratio allows you to experience images at your sides, too, which is very exciting.
IMAX also beats most of its competitors in image luminance. Luminance is meaningful overall, but it’s even more critical in 3D films since the 3D lens tends to obscure the images somewhat.
Although IMAX theatres are more accessible worldwide, their theatre-experience isn’t without its faults. Compared to the seats available in Dolby Cinema theatres, the chairs are not very comfortable and offer much less padding than its competitor.
The wide screens are their most significant appeal, but it can also be a con. The wider the screen with the same resolution, the less detailed the images are. Of course, IMAX pictures are excellent and rich with detail, but a side-by-side comparison would yield a bit more blur in IMAX movies compared to other systems at the same resolution.
IMAX vs Dolby Cinema: Detailed Comparison
Now that you have an overview of each system, let’s get into the specifics. In this section, I’ll be analyzing both features and hard numbers to make a side-by-side comparison. This is particularly difficult in some areas, such as audio, since there’s not much information available and IMAX develops individualized audio systems for each theater. With that being said, this is what I found.
Dolby Cinema’s projection system, Dolby Vision, consists of dual, 4K laser projectors. A fair comparison would be IMAX’s 4K laser projectors.
Between these two systems, Dolby Cinema is the clear winner. Here are the reasons:
- Dolby Cinema usually offers 31-foot-lambert luminance for 2D, whereas IMAX laser has 22. This creates a more vivid image with brighter colors.
- IMAX Theaters typically offer 2K resolution, whereas Dolby Cinemas typically offer 4K.
- Dolby Cinema has many different possible combinations of frame-per-second rates and resolutions. IMAX does, too, but the information isn’t readily available.
- Dolby projectors can display a 7,500:1 contrast ratio. IMAX says only that its laser projection system offers a “higher” contrast ratio than the 2,500:1 lamp systems.
Here, IMAX has the advantage. While most other systems like AMC Prime, digital, ETX and Dolby Cinema use a 2.40:1 aspect ratio, IMAX uses 1.90:1. This makes IMAX movies taller than other other movie formats.
As mentioned before, you get 26% more screen space with IMAX because of this. IMAX films are the complete package when you club their big screens and the aspect ratio. Not to mention, IMAX also has IMAX Dome and IMAX Laser, which give a superb film experience.
Dolby wins here, and as a leading audio company, I wouldn’t expect less. IMAX utilizes an excellent sound system throughout its different combinations, but Dolby Atmos is simply better, with its Dolby Vision and Atmos.
Their real-time rendering is a convenient way for Dolby Atmos to be deployed with excellent results in any installation, and any changes in loudspeaker configurations are automatically resolved.
Dolby Atmos offers 64 audio channels, whereas IMAX only has 12 on most installations.
Dolby Atmos typically uses 128 speakers, which is an impressive level of sonic detail. IMAX, on the other hand, uses only 12 channels. This means there can be 12 concurrent sounds divided over the speakers.
Check our article on Multi-Channel Home Theater
Availability of Dolby Cinema and IMAX
IMAX is the clear winner, having more than 1,500 theaters worldwide. It’s also present in many nontraditional institutions, such as museums and theme parks.
Dolby Cinema has only 197 theaters, the vast majority being located in the United States. Their biggest partner is AMC, so you can likely experience AMC Dolby Cinema if you have any AMC theaters nearby.
Dolby wins when it comes to comfort while watching a movie due to their recliner-like seats. The seats are simply better, more cushioned, and can even recline.
IMAX seats are similar to typical theater seats and thus offer less comfort.
2D vs. 3D
In this case, both systems have a lot to offer. While Dolby Cinemas only offers 2D, IMAX offers both 2D and 3D. It really comes down to what each viewer prefers, and not a hard statistic as to which is better in this aspect.
IMAX takes the lead here, as IMAX tickets are, on average, $20 in the US. Dolby Cinema is generally more expensive, going up to $25. The difference is not so big, but it’s still a more expensive experience, considering you’d probably invest that extra money in snacks or beverages.
What is AMC Prime?
AMC Prime is the premium feature of AMC, where the most noteworthy part is the unique recliners. These seats are very comfortable and have subwoofers on them. But besides that, they offer the best projectors among AMC theaters and also include a Dolby Atmos sound system.
If you want a great movie experience without having to pay a lot, AMC Prime is a fantastic option.
There are both technical and non-technical factors involving which system is better. Unfortunately, tech specs for both are hard to come by, and we can only grasp the surface of how their systems genuinely work and if there’s a hidden edge somewhere.
But with what we do know, Dolby Cinema is the better choice. It offers a better image, better contrast ratios, better luminance, and arguably better resolution. Remember that if you use the same resolution for a bigger screen, the results won’t be as crisp as on a smaller screen.
Sonically, Dolby is the clear winner, too, with its outstanding audio-channel capabilities and on-the-fly audio rendering.
The large IMAX screens are the best choice if you’re looking for an immersive experience. This is especially true if you like 3D movies. The large screen sizes are simply unparalleled, which is even more important for 3D titles.
So, if you like 3D cinemas, IMAX would be the one for you and if you prefer 2D, then Dolby is the winner.
I hope you enjoyed this article. If you have any queries related to this topic, feel free to contact us!
Hello, my name is James Longman.
I’m a writer and editor at AudioReputation. I disassembled my first portable AM/FM radio when I was only 8. At the age of 11, I burned the circuit board on my old boombox cassette player. I’m not going to explain how but it was reckless and stupid.
Since then, I have become much more careful around radios, boomboxes, and other audio devices (at least, I like to think so) but I have never lost the passion for audio equipment. Throughout 20 years of my professional career, I’ve been working for various audio equipment manufacturers and even started building speakers on my own in my little workshop.
I love the work we do here at AudioReputation. Testing, comparing, and evaluating all kinds of audio devices (speakers, soundbars, headphones, home theater systems, etc.) is something I truly enjoy. I try to be unbiased and give you my honest opinion on every piece of equipment I test. Still, you should take my reviews with a pinch of salt and always be just a little bit skeptical. The fact that I liked some speaker or soundbar doesn’t mean that you are going to love it. If you have the opportunity, you should test it/hear it before buying it.