© GRSI / Shutterstock.com

To see a movie in the theaters in the most premium way possible, you really have just one of two options: Dolby 3D vs. IMAX 3D. Based on the special branding they both receive on the movie showtime listings, you know they’re different than your average big-screen presentation. However, what are Dolby 3D and IMAX 3D, really? What makes them distinct compared to one another? Let’s pit the two against each other, comparing Dolby 3D vs. IMAX 3D to best determine which of these two premium film formats is ultimately superior.

Dolby 3D vs. IMAX 3D: Side-By-Side Comparison

Dolby 3DIMAX 3D
First Installation20081986
Theatrical PartnersAMCAMC, Marcus, Regal, Cinemark
Number of Theaters Worldwide250More than 1,700
Dolby VisionYesNo
Dolby AtmosYesNo
Price$5 more than the average ticket$6 more than the average ticket
CompetitionIMAX 3D, RealD 3D, XpanD 3DDolby 3D, Cinemark XD, Regal RPX

5 Must-Know Facts About 3D

  • The Power of Love, released in 1922, was the first film ever released in 3D. Using lenses tinted red on one side and green on the other, the 3D effect created was not unlike the iconic red-blue 3D glasses that emerged later.
  • Interestingly enough, early 3D films from Hollywood’s silent era in the early 1920s would present viewers with two different endings to choose from. One ending was projected in all red, and another was projected in all green. Close one eye, you got the happy ending. Close the other, you got the sad ending.
  • There have been numerous 3D resurgences throughout Hollywood history. In addition to the initial craze in the 1920s, there was another 3D revival from 1952 to 1954. Other revitalizations occurred both in the early 1980s, the early 1990s, and the early 2010s.
  • Remember Disney Digital 3D? A big part of Disney’s animated and live-action release strategy in the mid to late 2000s, this Disney-branded 3D projection system was actually RealD 3D in disguise. As RealD 3D became more popular, they eventually dropped the Disney branding to stand alone.
  • Lately, the newest 3D craze adds another dimension: movement. The most popular name in the 4D sphere is that of 4DX. (not to be confused with ScreenX, which is the panoramic moviegoing experience from the same developer, CJ CGV.) Seats move and shake along with the action in the 3D film, with some blasting air and spraying water on the audience, as well.

Dolby 3D vs. IMAX 3D: Key Differences

While these basic specs outlined above do a decent job highlighting some of the general distinctions between Dolby 3D vs. IMAX 3D, there’s more to these two 3D formats than just the numbers. What about the actual experience of seeing a movie in Dolby 3D vs. IMAX 3D? How do factors such as overall picture quality, total screen availability, and the actual price per ticket come into play? Let’s weigh some of these key differences below, starting with the picture quality.

Picture Quality

Firstly, it needs to be said that IMAX screens are much taller and generally much larger than Dolby Cinema screens. This size difference certainly has its own appeal, but does it actually impact picture quality? Not necessarily. Dolby Cinemas are equipped with HDR picture quality at a resolution of up to 8K and a frame rate of up to 120fps. IMAX auditoriums, on the other hand, are only equipped with either 2K or 4K projectors (depending on the kind of laser projection being used). This gives Dolby 3D a better picture quality than IMAX 3D — even though IMAX is ultimately bigger.

Screen Availability

Secondly, let’s talk availability of Dolby 3D vs. IMAX 3D. In other words, how many Dolby 3D theaters are there compared to IMAX 3D theaters? After all, it helps to actually have one of these theaters in your area if you’re hoping to see a movie in one of these formats. As of this writing, IMAX 3D theaters are far more prevalent around the globe than Dolby Cinemas with 3D capabilities. Currently, there are more than 1,700 IMAX theaters worldwide — all with both 2D and 3D capabilities. By comparison, there are only a few hundred Dolby 3D or Dolby Cinema 3D auditoriums worldwide.

Price Per Ticket

Thirdly — but nevertheless just as important — is the price of a ticket for a Dolby 3D movie vs. an IMAX 3D movie. On average, a Dolby 3D or Dolby Cinema 3D presentation will cost you an additional $5 on top of your regularly priced ticket. IMAX 3D presentations, by comparison, tend to cost $6 more on top of the regular ticket price. Throw in tax, and the ticket price rises even higher. One dollar might not sound like too much of a difference, but if you’ve got multiple people on your ticket order, the price can rise pretty quickly. A dollar less per ticket certainly can make a difference.

Movie theater seating
3D movies can cost up to $6 more than the average ticket price.


The History of Dolby 3D

Explaining the history of Dolby 3D is somewhat tricky, as Dolby 3D differs slightly from that of Dolby Cinema 3D. The former has been around since 2008, while the latter was first introduced in 2014. In the nine years since Dolby Cinema 3D was introduced, Dolby 3D auditoriums have begun to switch over to this new and improved technology.

Simply put, Dolby 3D theaters use spectrum separation 3D. Contract to the sort of polarization methods you might find in a RealD 3D or other rival 3D theater, Dolby’s spectrum separation 3D requires two separate projectors stacked one on top of the other.

During the film, two marginally different displays are projected by each of the two devices. These slightly different red-green-blue (or RGB) wavelengths are operating on two slightly different frequencies that are then interpreted by the right and left lenses of the 3D glasses. This creates the unique, non-polarized 3D effect.

Early, more archaic forms of 3D revealed a messy, red-blue image when you removed your 3D glasses. With Dolby 3D, however, the image will simply look blurry or out of focus. This is because of the spectrum separation technology, which requires the glasses to filter out the opposite wavelengths for each eye to create the illusion of 3D.

These special spectrum separation 3D glasses cost a good deal more than IMAX 3D or RealD 3D glasses (which, as an added bonus, can also be recycled). However, many in the industry agree that the Dolby 3D and Dolby Cinema 3D experiences are far superior to that of its rival formats. Plus, there’s no need for a special silver screen to project the 3D movie on, which is a nice cost-saver.

Today, there are around 300 Dolby-branded 3D theaters around the world. The vast majority of these locations in the United States can be found within AMC Theaters. That number is growing, but not nearly fast enough to catch up to IMAX’s number of locations worldwide.

How IMAX 3D Compares

While Dolby and Dolby Cinema 3D did not emerge until well into the 2000s, the IMAX brand has been around since at least the late ’60s. Founded and developed by Graeme Ferguson, William C. Shaw, Roman Kroitor, and Robert Kerr, the four discovered together that there was a huge possibility of revolutionizing how epic films were projected by simply turning the orientation of the film reel.

To be specific, Ferguson, Shaw, Kroitor, and Kerr found out that turning a 70mm film reel horizontally instead of vertically and projecting it at this new orientation drastically increased the height of the film’s projection. 70mm film was twice as big as the industry standard 35mm as it was. However, by turning it on its side, the projected image appeared even bigger (albeit marginally less wide).

When they did the math, they discovered that this revolutionary new horizontal projection method made 70mm film seem more than three times taller than a traditional vertical projection. (All in all, that’s more than eight times larger than a typical 35mm projection, too.) IMAX immediately posed a major threat to all other large-format projections, and it continues to do so decades later.

IMAX 3D first emerged back in the 1970s. Initially, it existed only in a traveling roadshow format. IMAX would install 3D auditoriums in various showcases and fairs, then tear them down when the show moved on to the next city. The enormous 3D format didn’t find a permanent home until the mid-1980s when Vancouver built an IMAX 3D theater for the highly anticipated Expo ’86.

Unfortunately for them, IMAX 3D was not nearly the popular craze that IMAX initially was. This is likely due to the sheer cost and technical prowess that 3D film projections required at the time. But, with the industry-wide shift toward digital in the 2000s, IMAX 3D was able to enjoy a second (much more successful) life. Today, all IMAX digital projectors are capable of showing films in 2D and 3D alike. The company is inching ever closer to 2,000 locations throughout the world.

ScreenX vs IMAX
All IMAX digital projectors are able to show both 2D and 3D films.


Dolby 3D vs. IMAX 3D: Pros and Cons

Pros of Dolby 3DCons of Dolby 3D
Dolby Vision HDR projectorsMuch fewer locations than IMAX 3D
Dolby Atmos surround sound auditoriumsCosts more than a RealD 3D movie
Brighter picture quality through spectrum separation 3D projections3D glasses are more expensive and less recyclable
More affordable than IMAX 3DConfusing branding between Dolby 3D and Dolby Cinema 3D
Pros of IMAX 3DCons of IMAX 3D
Huge auditoriumCosts more than a Dolby 3D film
Massive screenLess innovative 3D projection method
More affordable and recyclable glassesProjectors top out at 4K picture quality
Taller image than any other formatSeats outside the middle will suffer

Dolby 3D vs. IMAX 3D: Which Is Best?

When it comes down to it, which of these two rival 3D formats is the best of the bunch? Dolby 3D vs. IMAX 3D? As we’ve covered above, the answer isn’t as simple as looking at the two side by side and judging based on the naked eye’s perception alone. It’s about the number of screens, the price of the ticket, the size of the auditorium, the type of 3D technology itself… No easy decision, to be sure. However, in the end, only one format seems to have come out on top again and again. That format is Dolby 3D. Whether classic Dolby 3D or the newer Dolby Cinema 3D, it ultimately comes out ahead of IMAX 3D.

Dolby 3D vs. IMAX 3D: What’s The Difference? FAQs (Frequently Asked Questions) 

Are Dolby 3D and Dolby Cinema 3D the same thing?

While both come from the same parent company, Dolby Labs, there are some slight differences between Dolby 3D and Dolby Cinema 3D. Both are great 3D formats, but Dolby Cinema 3D offers Dolby Vision HDR and Dolby Atmos surround sound.

Is IMAX 3D worth the money?

Compared to something like RealD 3D or Dolby Cinema 3D, IMAX 3D is able to deliver much taller, much larger presentations than its competitors. While some prefer RealD 3D’s polarization methods or Dolby 3D’s spectrum separation technology, there’s no doubt IMAX 3D is worth the money for the size alone.

Can all IMAX theaters play 3D?

If the IMAX projector is digital, then it can support both 3D and 2D projections. This innovation came with the widespread adoption and installation of digital projectors in the late 2000s and early ’10s.

What's the most popular 3D format?

RealD 3D is by far the most popular 3D format in the world with nearly 30,000 locations internationally. Its polarized 3D format is also quite popular in its own right, even without all those locations in mind, because of the way it allows audiences to turn their heads without ruining the illusion.

What's the difference between 3D and 4D?

4D theaters such as 4DX add in moving seats, blasts or air, and even spritzes of water into the 3D presentation for an extra dimension of entertainment.

About the Author

Follow Me On:

LinkedIn Logo

More from History-Computer

  • Zippia Available here: https://www.zippia.com/dolby-laboratories-careers-3512/history/
  • Dolby Available here: https://professional.dolby.com/product/dolby-cinema-imaging-products/dolby-3d-bundles/#gref
  • Nashville Film Institute Available here: https://www.nfi.edu/what-is-imax/
  • IMAX Available here: https://www.imax.com.au/news/2013/02/the-history-of-imax/
  • Smithsonian (1970) https://airandspace.si.edu/stories/editorial/imax—not-first-close