There are more options than ever before at the movie theater. Audio-visual aficionados may be fully aware of technologies like 4DX or ScreenX, but for many moviegoers these days, the real choice is between Dolby Cinema and IMAX.
These are two of the most popular formats found in major theater chains, and each brings something unique to the table.
If you’re wondering which provides the best overall experience, our team of tech experts has put together a guide to walk you through the differences between Dolby Cinema and IMAX.
When you know the pros, cons, and features of each technology, you can quickly decide your personal winner.
Dolby Cinema vs. IMAX: A Side-by-Side Comparison
|Projector||Dual 4K Laser||GT, MPX, SR, CT 3D, Digital 2K, 4K Laser|
|Year Introduced||Dolby Atmos 2012, Dolby Vision 2014||1970|
|Formats||2D||2D or 3D|
|Seating||Reclining Chairs||Upgraded theater seats|
|Audio||Dolby Atmos 64 channels||12 channels|
|Global Theater Distribution||190+||1500+|
What is IMAX?
If you’ve gone to the movie theater in the past decade, you have probably come across IMAX. This technology can be found in over 1,500 theaters and 80 countries worldwide. It provides a different experience from a traditional movie theater, which all starts with the film stock.
Wide format films have been around since the 1930s, but the technology didn’t take off until 1967 with the Multiscreen Corporation. A few years later, IMAX was born, and the first IMAX theater was introduced in 1971. These early theaters showed nature films and documentaries, although it wasn’t long before that changed.
Digital IMAX theaters started to appear in 2008 and quickly expanded as theater chains rushed to renovate for the new technology. It was a significant upgrade over traditional theaters at the time, due in part to the film stock used, along with the overall experience these new, modernized theaters offered.
These theaters have upgraded seating for additional comfort. The sound systems are also upgraded with audio designed for clarity and each theater’s acoustic properties. Seating is arranged for the perfect viewing angle on movies that are shot in 2D or 3D.
What is Dolby Cinema?
Dolby Cinema hasn’t been around as long as IMAX, even though the company behind the technology, Dolby Labs, is far older.
Theaters have adopted Dolby Cinema for blockbuster movies and indie films and, while they don’t have the same reach as IMAX, they have advantages in several other areas.
The Dolby Cinema format was created by Dolby Laboratories. The first generation of Dolby Cinema made its debut in the Netherlands in 2014 before moving into other regions and partnering with theater chains like AMC, Vue, and Cineplexx. Like IMAX, theaters equipped with Dolby Cinema technology provide a more immersive experience than a trip to a regular movie theater.
Theaters with Dolby Cinema accomplish this with a combination of Dolby Vision technology, 4K laser projectors, and 3-D surround sound. The signature entrances in many of these theaters add a unique touch through stylish video walls as you enter the theater. The real standouts, however, are the incredible picture quality and their exceptional sound system.
Dolby Atmos, a sound technology that’s part of Dolby Vision, was first used in the 2012 film, Brave, before Dobly Vision was introduced.
It has found its way to other platforms outside the theater since that time, including home theater components and smartphones. Their video technology, Dolby Vision, has also gained a strong following through streaming services like Disney Plus and HBO Max, along with 4K Blu-ray releases.
Dolby Cinema vs. IMAX: 5 Must-Know Facts
- The largest IMAX theater in the world seats 574 people and is wider than a Boeing 737.
- Dolby Cinema is brighter than IMAX and twice as bright as a regular digital projection system.
- Avengers: Infinity War is the first film shot entirely in IMAX on IMAX-certified digital cameras.
- Dolby Cinema’s dual-laser system can produce images with a contrast ratio higher than 1,000,000:1.
- Most AMC locations have both IMAX and Dolby Cinema theaters.
Dolby Cinema vs. IMAX: What’s the Difference?
Both IMAX and Dolby Cinema offer a different experience from traditional theaters in a variety of ways. There are some similarities, but you might be surprised by what you find from this close comparison.
IMAX films are shot in 70mm on special cameras, which results in an immersive experience when coupled with their unique screens. IMAX screens are larger than standard screens with a range between 75 to over 100 feet.
Their dual-laser projectors and film produce an image three times the resolution of normal digital film. That’s impressive, although not all theaters have this technology. You’ll need to check ahead if you want the experience that is an IMAX movie.
Movie theaters that use Dolby technology have picture quality around four times better than the average digital movie shown in theaters. That gives it an advantage over IMAX, despite having smaller screens and a different aspect ratio.
Dolby Vision provides a higher contrast ratio which results in inky blacks and intense colors on every film using this format. They use premium 4K digital projectors which puts them over the top when it comes to the overall image quality.
While films shown in IMAX theaters do provide a more immersive experience with a variety of digital projectors, Dolby Cinema has a sharper image, better colors, and deeper blacks. It’s clearly the best overall in this category.
IMAX specializes in wide-format films that draw you into the movie the way nothing else can. A high-end audio system is a large part of the experience.
IMAX theaters can shake the room with their large speakers. You’ll also find more of them than you will in other theaters, because of the large size of the theater itself. Their theaters use a network of 44 JBL speakers for crystal clear sound effects and booming bass.
Dolby has received worldwide acclaim for their sound systems, and it’s one of the highlights of Dolby Cinema. They have slightly more speakers in a smaller theater along with ceiling-mounted subwoofers. The wonders of Dolby Atmos are in every new Dolby Cinema-equipped theater as well, which is worth the price of admission alone.
IMAX theaters have excellent sound systems but pale in comparison to theaters with Dolby Atmos.
Dolby surely wins this part of our Dolby Cinema vs. IMAX review.
As the technology behind movies and theaters has progressed, so has the runtime of films. It’s not uncommon for movies to run more than 2 hours, which becomes uncomfortable quickly in some theaters.
Dolby Cinema seating is top of the line. Their seats are in the premium class, and will not leave your legs numb during longer films. Their seats are plush, comfortable, and allow you to recline. This allows you to find the perfect viewing angle and enjoy the movie instead of constantly wiggling around in your seat. The only downside to their comfy chairs is the fact you might fall asleep.
By comparison, IMAX seating isn’t quite as comfortable or adjustable. Their seats are an upgrade over traditional theater seating but only recline around an inch or so because of the large screens and seating arrangements. They aren’t quite as large as the seats found in Dolby Cinema theaters, which is something to keep in mind if you prefer larger theater seats.
When it comes to comfort, the advantage goes to theaters with Dolby Cinema seating.
Do you live in a sprawling city full of movie theaters or an area that requires a half-hour drive to get to the movies?
Theater access doesn’t necessarily affect your viewing experience, but it’s where things begin to get tricky between these two technologies.
As cutting-edge as Dolby Cinema technology is, you’ll only find it in a handful of countries around the world. Atmos sound is in more than 6,000 theaters, but only 250 Dolby Cinemas can provide the full audio-visual experience.
IMAX has been around longer, and while it took years for theater chains to adapt, they are easier to find no matter where you reside. There are more than 1,500 IMAX theaters in 80 countries, which is a staggering number compared to Dolby Cinema.
You can probably find an IMAX theater within reasonable driving distance in the United States and many other countries. If you want to catch a movie in a Dolby Cinema theater, you may need to travel farther if you’re not near an AMC theater offering it.
Finding the right movie theater can be challenging depending on your location if you want to watch a film in IMAX or Dolby Vision. The selection of films in both formats can also be a cause for some confusion but will make the choice simple in some cases.
IMAX film formats vary depending on the film, although things have gotten a bit more streamlined in recent years. While Kung Fu Panda had an aspect ratio cropped to 1:43.1 for 70mm prints, No Time to Die was released in all IMAX formats. It was only released in 3D in specific territories, and parts of the film were shot with different aspect ratios.
Every theater that utilizes Dolby Cinema technology has a Dolby Atmos sound system for their new films. Not all films are graded for Dolby Vision, so while the picture is sharp, the color depth could be subpar. As with IMAX, you’ll need to check ahead to see if a new movie you’re interested in is offered with both technologies.
Recent releases that were available in both IMAX and Dolby Cinema include Jurassic World Dominion, Top Gun Maverick, Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, Elvis, The Batman, and Lightyear. If you want to watch the Black Phone or Scream at the highest definition, you would have to do that at a Dolby Cinema.
Film selection is a toss-up considering most movies shown in IMAX theaters are also available in the Dolby Cinema format. Dolby Cinema theaters have a bit more variety, although the theaters aren’t as nearly accessible.
3D content is also only available through IMAX theaters, giving them an advantage in its wider viewing selection.
Dolby Cinema vs. IMAX: Which One is Better?
Both Dolby Cinema and IMAX theaters give moviegoers a fantastic experience when they sit down to enjoy a film. There’s also a strong chance you’ll be able to find any major release in either format, even if you’ll have more luck finding an IMAX theater.
When it comes to visuals and audio, Dolby Cinema is the winner and the best overall for a true cinephile that wants to experience movies as the director intended. They have more comfortable seating and are often the best choice for drama, horror, or indie films. IMAX theaters are more accessible and provide a more immersive experience, however, so it might be the best choice for an action-packed movie.
Just remember, IMAX screens are massive and sharp whereas Dolby Cinema has a smaller screen with a clearer picture and better audio. It’s also a good idea to keep the film selection in mind along with theater access when choosing between the cinema technologies.
Ultimately, it comes down to your movie of choice and personal preferences for the moviegoing experience!