Dolby Digital

Dolby Digital
Dolby Digital logo

Dolby Digital is the name for audio compression technologies developed by Dolby Laboratories. It was originally called Dolby Stereo Digital until 1994. Except for Dolby TrueHD, the audio compression is lossy. The first use of Dolby Digital was to provide digital sound in cinemas from 35mm film prints. It is now also used for other applications such as TV broadcast, DVDs, Blu-ray discs and game consoles.


Dolby Digital in the cinema

Batman Returns was the first film to use Dolby Digital technology when it premiered in theaters in Summer 1992. Dolby Digital cinema soundtracks are optically recorded on a 35 mm release print using sequential data blocks placed between every perforation hole on the sound track side of the film. A constant bit rate of 320kbit/s is used. A CCD scanner in the projector picks up a scanned video image of this area, and a processor correlates the image area and extracts the digital data as an AC-3 bitstream. This data is finally decoded into a 5.1 channel audio source. All film prints with Dolby Digital data also have Dolby Stereo analogue soundtracks using Dolby SR noise reduction and such prints are known as Dolby SR-D prints. The analogue soundtrack provides a fall-back option in case of damage to the digital data or failure of the digital decoding, it also provides compatibility with projectors not equipped with digital soundheads. Almost all current release cinema prints are of this type and will probably also include SDDS data and a timecode track to synchronise CDROMs carrying DTS soundtracks.

A Dolby Digital 'Penthouse' Soundhead mounted on a mid-'50s vintage Kalee model 20 projector
A photo of a 35 mm film print featuring all four audio formats (or "quad track")- from left to right: SDDS (blue area to the left of the sprocket holes), Dolby Digital (grey area between the sprocket holes labelled with the Dolby "Double-D" logo in the middle), analog optical sound (the two white lines to the right of the sprocket holes), and the DTS time code (the dashed line to the far right.)

The simplest way of converting existing projectors is to add a so-called "penthouse" digital soundhead above the projector head. However for new projectors it made sense to use dual analogue/digital soundheads in the normal optical soundhead position under the projector head. To allow for the dual-soundhead arrangement the digital data is recorded 26 frames ahead of the picture. If a penthouse soundhead is used then the data must be delayed in the processor for the required amount of time, around 2 seconds. This delay can be adjusted in steps of the time between perforations, (approximately 10.4msec)


Dolby Digital[1] has similar technologies, included in Dolby Digital EX,[2] Dolby Digital Live,[3] Dolby Digital Plus,[4] Dolby Digital Surround EX,[5] Dolby Digital Recording,[6] Dolby Digital Cinema,[7] Dolby Digital Stereo Creator[8] and Dolby Digital 5.1 Creator.[9]

Dolby Digital

Dolby Digital logo that is sometimes shown at the beginning of broadcasts, feature films, and video games
The old Dolby Digital logo.

Dolby Digital is the common version containing up to six discrete channels of sound. The most elaborate mode in common usage involves five channels for normal-range speakers (20 Hz – 20,000 Hz) (right front, center, left front, rear right, rear left) and one channel (20 Hz – 120 Hz allotted audio) for the subwoofer driven low-frequency effects. Mono and stereo modes are also supported. AC-3 supports audio sample-rates up to 48 kHz. The Laserdisc version of Clear and Present Danger featured the first Home theater Dolby Digital mix in 1995.

This format has different names:

  • Dolby Digital
  • DD (an abbreviation for Dolby Digital, often combined with channel count; for instance, DD 2.0, DD 5.1)
  • AC-3 (Audio Codec 3, Advanced Codec 3, Acoustic Coder 3. These are backronyms. However, Adaptive Transform Acoustic Coding 3, or ATRAC3, is a separate format developed by Sony)[10]
  • ATSC A/52 (name of the standard)[11]

Dolby Digital EX

Dolby Digital EX is similar in practice to Dolby's earlier Pro-Logic format, which utilized matrix technology to add a center surround channel and single rear surround channel to stereo soundtracks. EX adds an extension to the standard 5.1 channel Dolby Digital codec in the form of matrixed rear channels, creating 6.1 or 7.1 channel output.

Dolby Digital Surround EX

The Cinema Version of "Dolby Digital EX" is called Dolby Digital Surround Ex and works similarly. Dolby Digital Surround EX was co-developed by Dolby and Lucasfilm THX in time for the release in May 1999 of Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace. It provides an economical and backwards-compatible means for 5.1 soundtracks to carry a sixth, center back surround channel for improved localization of effects. The extra surround channel is matrix encoded onto the discrete Left Surround and Right Surround channels of the 5.1 mix, much like the front center channel on Dolby Pro Logic encoded stereo soundtracks. The result can be played without loss of information on standard 5.1 systems, or played in 6.1 or 7.1 on systems with Surround EX decoding and additional speakers. Dolby Digital Surround EX has since been used for the Star Wars prequels on the DVD versions and also the remastered original Star Wars trilogy. A number of DVDs have Dolby Digital Surround EX audio option.

A Dolby home theatre badge on a laptop

Dolby Digital Live

Dolby Digital Live (DDL) is a real-time encoding technology for interactive media such as video games. It converts any audio signals on a PC or game console into a 5.1-channel 16-bit/48 kHz Dolby Digital format at 640 kbit/s and transports it via a single S/PDIF cable.[12] A similar technology known as DTS Connect is available from competitor DTS. An important benefit of this technology is that it enables the use of digital multichannel sound with consumer sound cards, which are otherwise limited to digital PCM stereo or analog multichannel sound because S/PDIF over RCA, BNC, and TOSLINK can only support two-channel PCM, Dolby Digital multichannel audio, and DTS multichannel audio. HDMI was later introduced, and it can carry uncompressed multichannel PCM, lossless compressed multichannel audio, and lossy compressed digital audio. However, Dolby Digital Live is still useful with HDMI to allow transport of multichannel audio over HDMI to devices that are unable to handle uncompressed multichannel PCM.

Dolby Digital Live is available in sound cards using various manufacturers' audio chipsets. The SoundStorm, used for the Xbox game console and certain nForce2 motherboards, used an early form of this technology. DDL is available on motherboards with codecs such as Realtek's ALC882D,[13] ALC888DD and ALC888H. Other examples include some C-Media PCI sound cards and Creative Labs' X-Fi sound cards whose drivers have enabled support for DDL.

Since September 2008, all Creative X-Fi based sound cards support DDL (except the 'Xtreme Audio' and its based line such as Prodigy 7.1e, which is not capable of DDL in hardware). X-Fi's case differs.

Initially no Creative X-Fi based sound cards supported DDL (2005~2007) but a collaboration of Creative and Auzentech resulted in the development of the Auzentech Prelude, the first X-Fi card to support DDL. Originally planned to extend DDL support to all X-Fi based sound cards (except the 'Xtreme Audio' line which is not capable of DDL hardware implementation), the plan was dropped because Dolby licensing would have required a royalty payment for all X-Fi cards and, problematically, those already sold.[14] In 2008 Creative released the X-Fi Titanium series of sound cards which fully supports Dolby Digital Live while leaving all PCI versions of Creative X-Fi still lacking support for DDL.

While they forgot about the plan, programmer Daniel Kawakami made a hot issue by applying Auzentech Prelude DDL module back to Creative X-Fi cards by disguising the hardware identity as Auzentech Prelude.[15]

Creative Labs alleged Kawakami violated their intellectual property and demanded he cease distributing his modified drivers. [15][16][17]

Eventually Creative struck an agreement with Dolby Laboratories regarding the Dolby license royalty by arranging that the licensing cost be folded into the purchase price of the Creative X-Fi PCI cards rather than as a royalty paid by Creative themselves.[14] Based on the agreement, in September 2008 Creative began selling the "Dolby Digital Live" packs enabling Dolby Digital Live on Creative's X-Fi PCI series of sound cards. It can be purchased and downloaded from Creative. Subsequently Creative added their "DTS Connect" pack to the DDL pack at no additional cost.[18]

Dolby Digital Plus

E-AC-3 (Dolby Digital Plus) is an enhanced coding system based on the AC-3 codec. It offers increased bitrates (up to 6.144 Mbit/s), support for more audio channels (up to 13.1), and improved coding techniques to reduce compression artifacts, enabling lower data rates than those supported by AC-3 (e.g. 5.1-channel audio at 256 kbit/s). It is not backward compatible with existing AC-3 hardware, though E-AC-3 decoders generally are capable of transcoding to AC-3 for equipment connected via S/PDIF. E-AC-3 decoders are also capable of decoding AC-3 bitstreams. Only the discontinued HD DVD system directly supported E-AC-3, though Blu-ray Disc offers E-AC-3 as an option to graft additional channels onto an otherwise 5.1 AC-3 stream, as well as for delivery of secondary audio content (e.g. director's commentary) that is intended to be mixed with the primary audio soundtrack in the Blu-ray Disc player.

Dolby TrueHD

Dolby TrueHD, developed by Dolby Laboratories, is an advanced lossless audio codec based on Meridian Lossless Packing. Support for the codec was mandatory for HD DVD and is optional for Blu-ray Disc hardware. Dolby TrueHD supports 24-bit, 96 kHz audio channels at up to 18 Mbit/s over 14 channels (HD DVD and Blu-ray Disc standards currently limit the maximum number of audio channels to eight). It supports metadata, including dialog normalization and Dynamic Range Control.

Channel configurations

Although commonly associated with the 5.1 channel configuration, Dolby Digital allows a number of different channel selections. The options are:

  • Mono (Center only)
  • 2-channel stereo (Left + Right), optionally carrying matrixed Dolby Surround
  • 3-channel stereo (Left, Center, Right)
  • 2-channel stereo with mono surround (Left, Right, Surround)
  • 3-channel stereo with mono surround (Left, Center, Right, Surround)
  • 4-channel quadraphonic (Left, Right, Left Surround, Right Surround)
  • 5-channel surround (Left, Center, Right, Left Surround, Right Surround)

These configurations optionally include the extra Low Frequency Effects (LFE) channel. The last two with stereo surrounds optionally use Dolby Digital EX matrix encoding to add an extra Rear Surround channel.

Many Dolby Digital decoders are equipped with downmixing to distribute encoded channels to speakers. This includes such functions as playing surround information through the front speakers if surround speakers are unavailable, and distributing the center channel to left and right if no center speaker is available. When outputting to separate equipment over a 2-channel connection, a Dolby Digital decoder can optionally encode the output using Dolby Surround to preserve surround information.

The '.1' in 5.1, 7.1 etc. refers to the LFE channel, which is also a discrete channel.


Dolby Digital audio is used on DVD-Video and other purely digital media, like home cinema. In this format, the AC-3 bitstream is interleaved with the video and control bitstreams.

The system is used in bandwidth-limited applications other than DVD-Video, such as digital TV. The AC-3 standard allows a maximum coded bit rate of 640 kbit/s. Thirty-five millimeter film prints use a fixed rate of 320 kbit/s, which is the same as the maximum bit rate for 2-channel MP3. DVD-Video discs are limited to 448 kbit/s, although many players can successfully play higher-rate bitstreams (which are non-compliant with the DVD specification). HD DVD limits AC-3 to 448 kbit/s. ATSC and digital cable standards limit AC-3 to 448 kbit/s. Blu-ray Disc, the PlayStation 3 and the Xbox game console can output an AC-3 signal at a full 640 kbit/s. Some Sony PlayStation 2 console games are able to output AC-3 standard audio as well, mostly during pre-rendered cutscenes though.

Dolby is part of a group of organizations involved in the development of AAC (Advanced Audio Coding), part of MPEG specifications, and considered the successor to MP3. AAC outperforms MP3 at any bitrate, but is more complex.[19]

Dolby Digital Plus (DD-Plus) and TrueHD are supported in HD DVD, as mandatory codecs, and in Blu-ray Disc, as optional codecs.

Dolby technologies in packaged media formats

HD DVD Blu-ray Disc DVD-Video DVD-Audio Laserdisc
Codec Player support Channels (max) Max Bit Rate Player support Channels (max) Max Bit Rate Player support Channels (max) Max Bit Rate Player support Channels (max) Max Bit Rate Player support Channels (max) Max Bit Rate
Dolby Digital Mandatory 5.1 448 kbit/s Mandatory 5.1 640 kbit/s Mandatory 5.1 448 kbit/s Optional in video zone for playback compatibility on DVD-Video players 5.1 448 kbit/s Optional 5.1 384 kbit/s
Dolby Digital Plus 7.1 3 Mbit/s Optional 7.1 1.7 Mbit/s
Dolby TrueHD 8 18 Mbit/s 8 18 Mbit/s

Technical details

The data layout of AC-3 is described by simplified "C-like" language in official specifications. An AC-3 stream is a series of frames; each with a fixed number of 6 audio blocks; each audio block contains 256 audio samples per channel. For example, a 5.1 AC-3 bitstream contains 1536 samples per audio block (6 channels × 256 samples/channel). Channel blocks can be either long, in which case the entire block is processed as single modified discrete cosine transform or short, in which case two half length transforms are performed on the block. Below is a simplified AC-3 header. A detailed description is in the ATSC "Digital Audio Compression (AC-3) (E-AC-3) Standard", section 5.4.

Field Name # of bits Description
syncword 16 0x0B77   Transmission of data is left bit first (big endian).
CRC 16
Sampling frequency 2 '11'=reserved '10'=32 kHz '01'=44.1 '00'=48
Frame Size Code 6
Bit Stream Identification 5
Bit Stream Mode 3 '000'=main audio service
Audio Coding Mode 3 '010'=left, right channel ordering
Center Mix level 2
Surround Mix Level 2
Dolby Surround Mode 2 '00'=not indicated '01'=Not surround encoded '10'=Yes, surround encoded.


A free ATSC A/52 stream decoder, liba52, is available under the GPL license.

See also


  1. ^ "Dolby - Dolby Digital Details". Dolby Laboratories. 
  2. ^ "Dolby - What is Dolby Digital EX?". Dolby Laboratories. 
  3. ^ "Dolby - What is Dolby Digital Live?". Dolby Laboratories. 
  4. ^ "Dolby - Dolby Digital Plus Details". Dolby Laboratories. 
  5. ^ "Dolby - What is Dolby Digital Surround EX?". Dolby Laboratories. 
  6. ^ "Dolby - What is Dolby Digital Recording?". Dolby Laboratories. 
  7. ^ "Dolby - Dolby Digital Cinema Details". Dolby Laboratories. 
  8. ^ "Dolby - Dolby Digital Stereo Creator Details". Dolby Laboratories. 
  9. ^ "Dolby - What is Dolby Digital 5.1 Creator?". Dolby Laboratories. 
  10. ^ "Sony USA". Sony. 
  11. ^ "A/52B: Digital Audio Compression (AC-3) (E-AC-3) Standard, Rev. B". Advanced Television Systems Committee. 
  12. ^ "Dolby Digital Live". Dolby Laboratories. 
  13. ^ Key, Gary (June 8, 2006). "NVIDIA nForce 500: Biostar and MSI Aim for the Gold". AnandTech. 
  14. ^ a b "A Korean reply comment (the fifth), which explains Dolby license royalty issue of X-Fi. Since the information leaked from SoundPrime, the Korean partner of Auzentech, all sources about this information are Korean.". 
  15. ^ a b "What Daniel_K wrote to the public is "This utility was written from scratch and does not contain any copyrighted code. Creative's director of developer relations, George Thorn told me, in a chat session, that is OK to provide mods as patches. It does not modify any executable or DLL, so it is NOT a crack.". Daniel_K's driver MOD itself did not include any DDL module, until it began to support Creative's official DDL pack. Daniel_K's 'DDLUnlocker.exe' merely used disguise to install Auzentech Prelude DDL module". 
  16. ^ "There is BrokenBlaster blame about CL - Creative Labs, its much later than the issue but show common case who blame Creative Labs and admire Daniel_K". Creative Technology. 
  17. ^ Beschizza, Rob (March 31, 2008). "Silence From Sound Card Maker After Customer Revolt". Wired. 
  18. ^ "Dolby Digital Live pack, its DDL pack but also say "Get DTS Connect Pack FREE! for every purchase of Dolby Digital Live Pack."". Creative Technology. 
  19. ^ "EBU Evaluations of Multichannel Audio Codecs". European Broadcasting Union. 

External links

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