Dolby Cinema vs. Dolby 3D: Which One Is Better?

Dolby Cinema vs. Dolby 3D

Dolby Cinema vs. Dolby 3D: Which One Is Better?

Looking at the showtimes for the latest blockbuster release in your area, you might be surprised to find a lot more options than you were expecting. Dolby Cinema, IMAX, Dolby 3D, Large Format, RealD 3D… Which one of these is actually supposed to be the best? How can you even tell? Take Dolby Cinema vs. Dolby 3D, for instance. Aren’t these two things the same? As it turns out, they’re not. Just because they share similar branding does not mean they’re identical. Let’s break down the differences between the two below, paying close attention to what sets Dolby Cinema vs. Dolby 3D apart.

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

Dolby CinemaDolby 3D
First InstallationDecember 18th, 2014September 25th, 2008
Theatrical PartnersVue Cinemas, AMC Theatres, Odeon CinemasAMC
Number of Theaters in US127100
Dolby VisionYesNo
Dolby AtmosYesNo
Price$5 more than average ticket$5 more than average ticket plus additional surcharge
CompetitionIMAX, Cinemark XD, Regal RPXIMAX 3D, RealD 3D, XpanD 3D

5 Must-Know Facts About Dolby Laboratories

  • Ray Dolby founded Dolby Laboratories in 1965 in London, England. Dolby’s intention was to invent a noise reduction system (which he aptly named the Dolby Noise Reduction system) that reprocessed audio signals to cut down on the background hissing sound so often heard on audio tape recordings.
  • Dolby Atmos is a surround sound technology that improves upon existing surround sound technology by the addition of height channels. This creates more immersive three-dimensional sound. Dolby Vision, on the other hand, is a type of HDR (or high dynamic range) that adds a layer of dynamic metadata in addition to the main HDR signal. This results more accurate, more vibrant, more lifelike colors.
  • In addition to Dolby Atmos and Dolby Vision, Dolby Labs is also behind such audiovisual technologies as Dolby Digital Plus, Dolby TrueHD, and Dolby Voice. Their target products and services are cinemas, PCs, home theaters, video games and consoles, and mobile phones.
  • Today, Dolby Labs services post-production facilities, broadcasters, film studios, video game designers, content creators, and cinema operators alike. Their business model works by selling Dolby-branded products and services straight to the end users (or via officially recognized dealers and distributors).
  • The Dolby Theatre inside the Hollywood & Highland in Los Angeles, California boasts one of the world’s most advanced sound systems — equipped with more than 200 loudspeakers, nearly 3,500 seats, and one of the largest stages in the nation.

Dolby Cinema vs. Dolby 3D: Key Differences

With these primary specifications out of the way, let’s take some time to explain what exactly sets Dolby Cinema vs. Dolby 3D apart. From their overall audiovisual quality to the typical price per ticket for each format to the number of screens in the nation equipped with each, these are the key differences between Dolby Cinema vs. Dolby 3D.

Audiovisual Quality

Firstly, there’s the difference in audiovisual quality between Dolby Cinema vs. Dolby 3D. It’s important to note that Dolby Cinemas are always equipped with Dolby Atmos and Dolby Vision, but Dolby 3D theaters are not always equipped with the same. What’s more, Dolby Cinemas can show 3D films, but these are audiovisually distinct from a 3D film shown in a Dolby 3D theater. It sounds complicated, but it’s as simple as this: Dolby 3D predates Dolby Cinemas. In this respect, Dolby Cinemas have newer and more advanced audiovisual technology than Dolby 3D theaters.

AMC Dolby Movie Theater exterior of building
Dolby Cinemas are equipped with Dolby Atmos and Dolby Vision for state-of-the-art surround sound and HDR video.


Price Per Ticket

Secondly, we should consider the price difference between Dolby Cinema vs. Dolby 3D. Based on what we discussed in the previous section, it should come as no surprise to learn that both Dolby Cinema and Dolby 3D presentations come at an additional cost compared to your typical movie ticket. Dolby 2D presentations are about $5 more on average, and the addition of 3D to a Dolby presentation will accrue additional fees on top of that. Most theaters price Dolby Cinema 3D and Dolby 3D presentations the same, but you may encounter a price difference depending on the venue.

Number of Screens

Thirdly, let’s go over the number of certified screens between Dolby Cinema vs. Dolby 3D. It’s one thing to know the difference in audiovisual quality or the price per ticket between these two formats, but what good is that if we don’t know the number of screens for each? With this in mind, there are more than 125 Dolby Cinemas in the United States compared to just 100 Dolby 3D screens. This means you’re much more likely to encounter a screen certified with Dolby Cinema standards than one with Dolby 3D standards.

The History of Dolby Cinema

Before there was Dolby Cinema certification, there was Dolby Digital. First implemented in conjunction with Batman Returns (1992), Dolby Digital was a brand-new and revolutionary digital surround sound compression scheme made specifically for the movie theater. Commonly abbreviated as Dolby AC-3, the lossy compression scheme was based on the MDCT (modified discrete cosine transform) algorithm, first proposed in 1972. (This MDCT algorithm stands as the most popular lossy compression technique in the audio data compression industry.)

Ahead of Batman Returns‘s release, Dolby released the Dolby Digital standards in 1991. This allowed theaters to get a head start on becoming compliant with the new surround sound standard. At the time, Dolby Digital was used exclusively for playing digital sound from 35mm film prints. In the decade that followed, it was expanded to home theaters, television and satellite radio broadcasts, streaming services, home video formats, and video games. Despite the later advent and subsequent implementation of Dolby Cinema standards, Dolby Digital remains the predominant standard.

Dolby Cinema standards were introduced following the invention of Dolby Atmos and Dolby Vision specifications. (The former is for state-of-the-art three-dimensional surround sound, while the latter is for superior high dynamic range presentations.) After initially debuting in the Netherlands and South America, Dolby Cinema standards were brought and implemented throughout the U.S. and abroad. Today, there are more than 125 certified Dolby Cinemas with hundreds more on the way. It competes directly with other large formats such as IMAX, Cinemark XD, and Regal RPX.

How Dolby 3D Compares

While Dolby Cinemas are capable of showing films in 3D, it’s a different kind of 3D presentation than a Dolby 3D cinema. The 3D in a Dolby Cinema utilizes spectrum separation. This differs from traditional 3D polarization. In a 3D Dolby Cinema, two projectors are stacked on top of each other with each one projecting an ever-so-slightly different RGB (red, blue, green) wavelength. One wavelength is for the left eye, and the other is for the right. The left and right lenses on the 3D glasses then filter out the wavelength intended for the opposite eye, creating the 3D effect.

What’s more, 3D Dolby Cinemas are capable of broadcasting images at frame rates and resolutions as high as 8K 3D at 120fps. You’re not likely to find a more remarkable, more technologically advanced projection technology in the movie theater today. Dolby 3D, by comparison, differs significantly. Though the concept of Dolby-branded 3D projection is much the same — two stacked projectors, two different RGB wavelengths, non-polarized glasses that filter them out — the actual resolution and frame rate are quite different.

Instead of a Dolby Vision projector, Dolby 3D cinemas use Dolby Digital projectors capable of showing either 2D or 3D films. However, without Dolby Vision certification, these projectors are not equipped to handle such high frame rates or resolutions. The same goes for its sound channels, which are not capable of supporting any height channels without Dolby Atmos certification. Because Dolby 3D was implemented as far back as 2008, years before the introduction of Dolby Vision or Dolby Atmos, very few — if any — can handle what a Dolby Cinema auditorium can.

Cinema with LED lights and Dolby Atmos
Dolby 3D theaters use Dolby Digital projectors that can show 2D or 3D films.

©Juergen Bode/Shutterstock.com

Dolby Cinema vs. Dolby 3D: Pros and Cons

Pros of Dolby CinemaCons of Dolby Cinema
Dolby Atmos soundSmaller screen than IMAX
Dolby Vision HDRMore expensive than a standard ticket
Capable of up to 8K 3D at 120fpsBranding is hard to distinguish from Dolby 3D cinemas
More than 125 locations nationwideRollout has been slow
Pros of Dolby 3DCons of Dolby 3D
Can support both 2D and 3DNot always Dolby Atmos enabled
Dolby Digital quality surround soundNot all are projecting with Dolby Vision
Non-polarized 3DTicket cost comes with additional fees
More than 100 locations throughout the U.S.Technology is no longer so state-of-the-art

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

So, which of these two Dolby formats is best? Dolby Cinema or Dolby 3D? It’s a very tricky question and an even trickier debate, to be sure. It certainly doesn’t help that the two are branded so confusingly. It’s like apples and oranges: Dolby Cinemas can show 3D movies, but Dolby Cinema 3D presentations are nevertheless distinct from Dolby 3D presentations. It would really help moviegoers if Dolby learned to distinguish these two similar-but-different presentation formats. Alas, if they haven’t made the change already, they’re unlikely to do so now after all these years.

Ultimately, Dolby Cinema is the superior format over Dolby 3D. Based on all we’ve reviewed thus far, it’s clear this is the only right answer. Dolby Cinemas must have Dolby Atmos and Dolby Vision specifications in order to qualify as a Dolby Cinema. Dolby 3D cinemas do not. Likewise, Dolby Cinemas have more advanced projectors, while Dolby 3D cinemas don’t always have to meet such rigorous quality standards. In the end, theaters equipped with a Dolby Cinema are superior to theaters presenting in Dolby 3D. Regardless, the movie’s going to look fantastic either way.

Frequently Asked Questions

Is Dolby Cinema 3D the same as Dolby 3D?

While the two sound almost identical, Dolby Cinema 3D is superior to Dolby 3D for the way it utilizes Dolby Atmos surround sound and Dolby Vision high dynamic range projection. Dolby 3D presentations don’t always have these standards, while Dolby Cinema presentations inherently do.

What is Dolby Vision?

Dolby Vision is a Dolby-branded high dynamic range (HDR) format that standardizes brighter picture quality, higher color gamuts, and overall more realistic, lifelike images than traditional SDR presentations. It can be found on televisions, smartphone screens, and movie theaters (among other display technologies).

What is Dolby Atmos?

Dolby Atmos is a Dolby-branded surround sound technology that goes beyond traditional sound projection by implementing height channels to the surround sound setup. With the addition of these height channels, the sound is effectively made three-dimensional. This results in a superior sound quality over standard surround sound presentations.

What does Dolby do?

Dolby — formally known as Dolby Laboratories — is an audio, visual, and voice technology brand that specializes in audio noise reduction, spatial audio, HDR displays, and audio encoding and compression. Dolby is known best for licensing its innovative tech to various manufacturers and industries.

Is Dolby Cinema better than IMAX?

Dolby Cinema and IMAX presentations both have their fair share of pros and cons. The audio and visual quality of a Dolby Cinema presentation is superior to that of an IMAX presentation, but an IMAX presentation has a bigger and better screen than a Dolby Cinema presentation. Additionally, Dolby Cinemas tend to have more comfortable seating than IMAX theaters.

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