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DTS vs. Dolby Digital: Which Surround Sound Format Is Better?

Surround-sound formats come in many standards. The two most popular, supported by a broad range of high-end audio systems, are DTS and Dolby Digital. The battle of DTS vs. Dolby sound is a hotly debated issue.

Some audiophiles argue that DTS is capable of delivering better sound quality than its counterpart, Dolby Digital. Others argue that Dolby Digital is far more advanced, and so is its sound quality. But which one of these two multi-channel sound formats is superior? Read on to find out.

Tip: learn how to use Dolby Atmos on Windows.

What Is DTS?

Previously known as Digital Theater Systems, DTS specializes in audio compression technology for Hollywood films and videos. The popular home theater audio format was developed in 1993 as a competitor to Dolby Labs in developing surround sound audio technology for movie production.

Whenever a gadget indicates that it incorporates DTS Digital Surround, the audio from a DVD or Blu-ray player transmits through an optical cable and can be in either a 5.1-channel or 7.1-channel surround sound.

There are several versions of DTS with Digital Surround, outputting at a maximum of 5.1 channel sound at 1.5 Mbps. DTS HD High-Resolution uses up to 6Mbps to transmit 7.1 channel sound. Rare in consumer devices, there is also DTS HD Master Audio, which uses 7.1 surround sound at 24.5 Mbps.

Good to know: learn how to easily manage your Windows 10 sound settings.

What Is Dolby Digital?

Developed by Dolby Laboratories, the term Dolby Digital is a catch-all phrase that includes several audio compression technologies. The most widely used format is AC-3, which uses six audio channels (5.1 surround sound). These are often found encoded in DVD and Blu-ray discs.

The first use of Dolby Digital was 35-millimeter films, and it has since been incorporated into streaming services, high-definition TV broadcasts, and video game consoles.

Dolby Digital has significantly advanced audio technology, enhancing the cinematic and home entertainment experience by providing immersive and high-fidelity surround sound. As newer audio formats, such as Dolby Digital Plus and Dolby Atmos, have been introduced, Dolby Digital remains relevant and widely used, due to its widespread support and efficient compression.

Also helpful: make some adjustments to get the most out of your surround sound gaming headset.

Differences Between DTS and Dolby Digital

Even though Dolby Digital is a direct competitor of DTS, the numbers used to indicate the number of speakers are the same. Generally, the more speakers you have, the better the audio quality. For 5.1 sound, there are five speakers (usually front left and right, back left and right, and a center speaker) and one subwoofer for bass. In 7.1 systems, there are two additional speakers directly to the sides of the listener.

Labeling aside, experts often debate the sound quality between competing formats. For your average home user, the difference is practically inaudible. However, a significant difference exists in how DTS and Dolby Digital are implemented for theatrical films.

Dolby Digital’s AC-3 sits in between the sprocket holes on the film. If the film gets damaged in any way, the audio often suffers. On the other hand, DTS runs off a separate digital audio disc, meaning more storage is available for higher-quality sound.

In commercial applications, such as home theatre systems, DTS and Dolby Digital are encoded onto the discs, but at different bitrates. Dolby Digital compresses 5.1ch digital audio data to a raw bit rate of 640 kilobits per second (kbps). However, the 640kbits/s is only applicable for Blu-ray discs. The maximum bit rate Dolby Digital can support for DVD video and DVD audio is up to 448kbits/s.

To squeeze in all the relevant data, Dolby Digital employs a variable compression of around 10 to 12:1 DTS surround sound and applies a maximum raw bit rate of up to 1.5 megabits per second. However, that bit rate is limited to approximately 768 kilobits per second on DVD video. Due to the higher bit rate supported by this format, DTS requires significantly low compression of about 4:1.

In theory, the lesser the compression used in the encoding, the more realistic the sound becomes as it better represents the source. What this means is that DTS has the potential to produce better sound quality than Dolby Digital.

Tip: buying a quality 4K gaming television is just as beneficial as setting up quality surround sound.

Other Surround Sound Standards

Dolby Atmos

Where Dolby Digital is an audio format, Dolby Atmos is a surround sound technology that adds height to the audio. This creates a three-dimensional soundscape with audio from above and below the listener through additional in-ceiling and up-facing speakers.

Dolby Digital Plus

Dolby Digital Plus, also known as Enhanced AC-3, was developed as a successor to Dolby Digital (AC-3). It can easily handle variable bitrates between 32 kbit/s to 6144 kbit/s, supports more channels beyond the regular 5.1 and 7.1, and supports up to eight audio programs per bitstream.

DTS:X

Like Dolby Atmos, DTS:X is a surround sound technology to compete with Atmos, but the film industry hasn’t widely adopted it. While each has pros and cons, it can be challenging to determine which one is best. But the most significant difference is that DTS:X is compatible with any speaker setup and doesn’t necessarily require additional speakers to achieve the same effect.

THX

It is a common mistake to compare THX to DTS or Dolby Digital, even though you’d often see the THX logo and distinct sound before a film. Where DTS and Dolby Digital are audio formats, THX is high-fidelity audio reproduction assurance, meaning that studios use it to accurately reproduce a film’s soundtrack in various venues. Essentially, it works in tandem with DD or DTS in movie theaters.

Also helpful: these stylish Bluetooth speakers are great for living room sound.

Which One Is More Superior?

Comparing DTS and Dolby Digital in consumer applications reveals that both standards are closer with regard to audio performance. Looking at the specs above, DTS seems to have an edge against Dolby due to its bitrate which is three versions higher.

However, higher bitrates don’t always mean higher quality. There are other factors, such as signal-to-noise ratio and dynamic range, that some audiophiles may consider better in Dolby rather than DTS.

Most modern receivers come with support for both DTS Master Audio and Dolby TrueHD – you may not even have to choose between the two. But suppose you are an audio enthusiast and want something incredibly gorgeous. In that case, you may want to look into technologies, such as DTS:X or Dolby Atmos, and receivers and home theaters that support them. However, on the rare occasion you have to choose between DTS and Dolby Surround, go with DTS due to the higher bitrate.

Determining which format has superior sound quality is a very ambiguous matter. There are many factors to consider besides bit rates and compression levels. Where does this DTS vs. Dolby debate lead? Both audio formats can achieve similar results in delivering surround sounds – both sound amazing.

Frequently Asked Questions

Does Netflix use Dolby Digital or DTS?

You can watch compatible Netflix films on any audio system that supports 5.1 surround sound or Dolby Digital. Titles that provide high-definition audio will display either a Dolby Digital Plus icon or a 5.1 icon next to their description.

Is DTS or Dolby Digital better for gaming?

While it mostly comes down to personal preference, many experts believe that DTS headphones are better for gaming, as they provide superior spatial audio than Dolby Digital. However, if you are incorporating Dolby Atmos into your gaming, it’s better to use headphones that are compatible with Dolby Digital.

What is Windows Sonic?

Like Dolby Atmos and DTS:X, Windows Sonic is Microsoft’s attempt to include spatial audio into its Windows operating system and Xbox gaming consoles. It provides the same auditory experience by recreating the native sound of content into a 3D space.

What is DTS Play-Fi?

Play-Fi isn’t an audio format, but rather a set of high-quality audio devices for wireless listening. Compatible devices provide true lossless high-resolution playback of up to 24-bit/192kHz without transcoding or downsampling. Audio streaming platforms that support DTS Play-Fi on these devices include Amazon Music, Spotify and Tidal.

Image credit: Unsplash

Charlie Fripp
Charlie Fripp

Charlie Fripp is a technology writer with a strong focus on consumer gadgets, video games, and cyber security. He holds an undergraduate degree in professional journalism and has worked as a journalist for over 15 years. In his spare time, he enjoys playing various musical instruments and gardening.

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