- IMAX theaters provide an incredibly immersive experience for any film.
- Theaters with Dolby Cinema use Dolby Vision technology, 4K laser projectors, and 3-D surround sound.
- Dolby Vision provides a higher contrast ratio which results in inky blacks and intense colors on every film using this format.
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 Dolby Cinema vs. 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 vs. 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
|Dual 4K Laser
|GT, MPX, SR, CT 3D, Digital 2K, 4K Laser
|Dolby Atmos 2012, Dolby Vision 2014
|2D or 3D
|Upgraded theater seats
|Dolby Atmos 64 channels
|Global Theater Distribution
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. That was 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. The tech 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. You can find it in theaters and on streaming services like Disney Plus, along with 4K Blu-ray releases.
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.
The aspect ratio and how you view a film in these types of theaters are the biggest differences between IMAX and Dolby Cinema. IMAX theaters typically use an aspect ratio of up to 1.90:1. This is taller than the standard widescreen format with a large vertical screen, which enhances the viewing experience.
In comparison, Dolby Cinema uses an aspect ratio of up to 2.40.1. This means it’s significantly wider than its height, offering a more panoramic view. Some films may be shot and presented in different aspect ratios, although IMAX and Dolby Cinemas can typically accommodate these variations.
IMAX films are shot in 70mm on special cameras, resulting in an immersive experience with their unique screens. IMAX screens are larger than standard screens, ranging between 75 to over 100 feet.
Movie theaters that use Dolby technology have picture quality around four times better than the average digital movie shown in theaters. The higher resolution gives it an advantage over IMAX despite having smaller screens.
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 overall image quality.
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. These theaters use a network featuring dozens of 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.
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 two 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.
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 thousands of theaters, but there are only around 290 Dolby Cinemas that can provide the full audio-visual experience.
IMAX has been around longer. While it took years for theater chains to adapt, they are easier to find no matter where you reside. There are more than 1,700 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 an IMAX or Dolby Cinema theater can be challenging, and the selection of films in both formats can also cause confusion. IMAX film formats vary depending on the film, although things have become 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. More often than not, you can find popular films on both formats, whether you enjoy action films, dramas, or horror.
With that in mind, IMAX theaters will probably be the better option if you plan to see a Sci-Fi flick. For a moody thriller, a Dolby Theatre will be a completely different experience. The types of films you enjoy can impact which type of theater tech will provide a more favorable experience.
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 they aren’t nearly as accessible. IMAX does have an edge with 3D content, however.
Dolby Cinema vs. IMAX: Which One is Better?
Dolby Cinema and IMAX theaters provide moviegoers with 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. It allows you to experience movies as the director intended. These theaters 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 for a variety of films, however.
At the end of the day, it all comes down to your movie of choice and personal preferences when looking for the ultimate moviegoing experience!