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What is DTS Virtual:X?

Our first look at this exciting new 3D sound experience

DTS Virtual X logo

There's a lot of buzz surrounding the release of DTS Virtual:X. This new audio technology promises a full, three-dimensional surround sound experience without a roomful of speakers.

We got to find out if Virtual:X lives up to the hype. To celebrate its release, DTS gave us an in-house demo using Yamaha's YAS-207 sound bar. (The YAS-207 has been discontinued, but there are some newer Yamaha sound bars with Virtual:X.)

Yamaha YAS-207 soundbar with wall-mounted TV

The top-selling Yamaha YAS-207 sound bar is the first piece of audio gear to include DTS Virtual:X. 

What is DTS Virtual:X? 

DTS has long been a leader in movie and home theater sound — you’ve no doubt noticed their logo before some of your favorite films. Their latest movie sound codec is DTS:X, a completely immersive surround sound format that even includes a height dimension for overhead atmospheric effects. (Think leaves rustling on a tall tree or birds chirping above.)

This is usually accomplished with a home theater receiver, rear surround speakers, and either in-ceiling or upward-firing speakers for the "height" channels.  

Graphic showing 7.4.1 surround layout in a room.

A typical DTS:X system with seven surround sound speakers and four height speakers would look something like this.

"Not everybody has the space or budget to strategically place speakers around the room," DTS rep Todd Baker told us. So Virtual:X uses special digital signal processing — one of the company's strong suits — to simulate the full experience with a less elaborate setup.

Graphic showing simulated surround sound in a room.

Using only a two-channel bar and separate subwoofer, DTS Virtual:X can simulate a three-dimensional surround sound experience.

Yamaha always seems to squeeze big performance from affordable sound bars, so this was a great place to debut Virtual:X.

(Since the debut in 2017, DTS has rolled it out to certain Denon and Marantz home theater receivers — giving you simulated overhead effects without the use of height speakers.) 

One Virtual:X advantage? Versatility

Many sound bars simulate surround sound by bouncing sound off your walls and ceiling. "That's great if you have the right room layout," said Todd, before pointing out problems in our own demo space. "We'd get great sound reflection on one side, but nothing on the other side."

DTS demo in irregularly-shaped room.

DTS rep Todd demos Virtual:X in "The House", our on-campus smart home and meeting space. The living room has one open wall.

Instead of reflecting sound, DTS Virtual:X almost completely relies on digital sound processing. That means you can get immersive sound in any kind of space — including open floor plans. 

How does it work?

DTS Virtual:X uses what Todd called "spatial audio techniques" to — my word here — "trick" you into thinking you're hearing sound all around you. "Time and timbre cues tell our brains where a sound is coming from," Todd explained.

DTS uses sophisticated audio delays and adjustments to create a larger, wider, and higher soundstage.

Large, yet nuanced soundstage

During the demo, I would occasionally hear some effects off to one side or over my head, but what struck me most was the level of detail. Todd played a clip from the movie The Big Short and toggled Virtual:X on and off so we could hear the difference. The processing made the dialogue sound more clear and natural, like it was coming from the screen, rather than the bar below. 

When Todd first played it with the processing turned off, I frankly thought it was a strange choice for showing off surround sound. It was simply an office scene with two investor-types talking back and forth. I didn't even notice that it was storming outside their office.

Then he turned Virtual:X on, and the whole on-screen world opened up. I could better feel the faint rumbles of thunder and soft patter of rain hitting the windows. "You go from watching two characters talk in an office," Todd said, "to two characters talking in an office...in the middle of a rainstorm." 

Bass is stronger, too

Of course not everything I heard was quite so subtle. During a frantic chase scene, the bass hit incredibly hard. While a lot of the credit goes to the YAS-207's powerful mid-sized sub, Virtual:X added a noticeable low-end punch.

Todd said the extended bass is created by boosting certain harmonics. He explained: "It makes your brain go 'there must be a fundamental sound I'm missing,' and then it creates it."

"So you're actually 'hearing' sound that doesn't exist — the bass goes an octave lower than the speaker actually plays," said Todd. That extra bass presence gives you a sense of place, since that's one of the main sounds we use to perceive distance.    

Yamaha YAS-207 soundbar with wireless subwoofer

DTS Virtual:X delivers immersive, multi-dimensional TV and movie sound.

Running diary: Virtual:X in my living room

DTS let me take the YAS-207 sound bar home for the weekend, so I could live with Virtual:X for a bit. Here are a few highlights:

First impressions

It would be too strong to say that I felt there were speakers were above my head at all times. I don't want to promise that illusion. But the first movie I turned on really underscored the advantage of Virtual:X. I happened to catch the movie Sully on cable just as the heroic pilot landed the plane in the Hudson.

The sound bar created this massive sound field that was larger than the screen. It gave me a larger-than-life sensory overload that expanded beyond my periphery. 

Overhead effects

The most realistic — and startling — overhead effect happened when my wife and I watched the thriller Get Out (on standard DVD, not mixed for DTS:X or Dolby Atmos). One of the antagonists clanks a spoon against a tea cup to hypnotize the main character. The sound had a similar lulling effect on us. Then a deep thunder strike came out of nowhere and gave way to heavy, violent rain pouring from above — jolting us out of our trance. 

The main event: Game of Thrones

I capped my weekend off with a new episode of Game of Thrones. To avoid spoilers, I'll try to speak as generally as possible. The harp-and-violin-fueled opening theme song was appropriately epic — the familiar opening rumble felt extra potent, really setting the tone.

Clearer Westeros dialogue (although I still can't keep all the characters straight)

Quieter scenes got a boost, too. As much as I love the show, I often have problems following the dialogue. Some of that has to do with the characters' accents, and sometimes there's just too much going on in the background to hear what everyone is saying.

With Virtual:X, all the usual atmospheric noise was present — crackling fires, whistling wind, murmuring townspeople — but it was more spread out, like it would be if you were actually standing in the scene. And dialogue stayed front and center. Even when brooding characters whispered, their voices sounded clear, intelligible, and properly placed in the mix.

Huge, heightened effects

The YAS-207 really got to show off during an intense naval battle scene. The visceral thud of a cannonball smacking the side of the ship sounded all the more sickening thanks to the powerful sub and bass extension. Flaming arrows rained from above and hectic chatter and screaming added to the chaos.

As big and brash as the scene sounded, I was even more impressed when I watched it a second time. Through all the carnage I could pick out the subtle splashing of the ocean, slapping against the boat.    

Final thoughts

Obviously you shouldn't expect a sound bar to give you the same experience you'd get from a roomful of speakers. There's no substitute for the real deal. But the level of performance that Virtual:X adds to this 2.1 system has me super intrigued over what it can do for a 5.1 surround setup.

Stay tuned, because we'll certainly keep testing Virtual:X as it shows up in home theater receivers and other audio gear. But if you're looking for a sound bar now, the Yamaha YAS-207 is a formidable system that frankly punches out of its price range.

  • Nadeem from Minneapolis

    Posted on 2/3/2021

    Hi Jeff, Hoping you can clear up some confusion for me. If I'm watching a movie with audio mixed in Dolby Atmos, will a soundbar like the Yamaha YAS-209 that has DTS Virtual: X and Dolby Digital/Pro Logic 2 (but no Atmos) be able to provide the immersive/virtual height surround sound experience? Or, do I have to get a soundbar that has Dolby Atmos? I have vaulted ceilings in my space so upfiring bars/speakers likely won't work, and there's no soundbars I can find that have Dolby Atmos Height Virtualization. And if I do take a chance on a soundbar with upfiring speakers, they never list DTS Virtual:X in their specs, so does that mean a movie encoded in DTS:X wouldn't produce the 360 degree experience of Virtual: X? It's all so confusing, I wish there was just one audio standard.

  • Piticli from Sarasota

    Posted on 11/17/2020

    In other words, more clear: Does DTS Virtual:X works enhancing a DTS-HD MA track? Or only works while playing a DTS:X track.

    Commenter image

    Jeff Miller from Crutchfield

    on 11/18/2020

    Hi Piticli --

    DTS Virtual:X processing will enhance any soundtrack. Of course, the better the sound is mixed, the better the results.
  • Piticli from Sarasota

    Posted on 11/17/2020

    Right now in 2020 we have sound bars that can play DTS:X. My Vizio sound bar SB46514-F6 can only play DTS Virtual:X. So I use a PC and I was wondering if is worth paying the $10 for DTS:X on PC. I'm doing a free trial period for DTS:X and can't really tell a difference. And when doing the speaker test the sound bar still says DTS-HD Master Audio. I was wondering if paying for DTS:X would activate DTS Virtual:X. Or DTS Virtual:X is just an already existing enhancement for DTS-HD Master Audio sound.

  • Derek Winter from Watford

    Posted on 3/26/2019

    Hi Jeff,Is it of any benefit to use DTS Virtual X with speakers around the room or am I better off sticking to Dolby Surround Sound?

  • Kevin from NYC

    Posted on 12/30/2018

    Will DTS Virtual X work with apps like Netflix, Youtube, Hulu on my samsung smart tv?

  • Alex from Boston

    Posted on 5/29/2018

    Hi Jeff- Can you explain the difference between DTS:X and Dolby Atmos? Are they simply competing formats, similar to the way Blu-ray and HD DVDs were? Will the Yamaha YAS-207 handle a Dolby Atmos track on new 4k UHD blu rays?

  • Commenter image

    Jeff Miller from Crutchfield

    Posted on 4/10/2018

    The Yamaha YSP-5600 does not. DTS:X requires hardware that sound bar doesn't have.

  • João Ferreira from Lisbon

    Posted on 4/4/2018

    Do you know if Yamaha YSP-5600 also offers (or intend to in a near future) DTS Virtual:X via Firmware update? It seems strange that a premium sound bar does not offer such feature. DTS:X though is available through Firmware update. Thanks

  • Commenter image

    Jeff Miller from Crutchfield

    Posted on 3/20/2018

    Thanks, Art. I've contacted DTS to clear things up. Based on your feedback and experience, I'm pulling that section about compatibility until I find out more.

  • Art

    Posted on 3/17/2018

    This article has an error which upon calling Crutchfield, Denon & my first hand experience confirms. I just received Denon's AVR-X2400H receiver. This article says I can use Virtual X with any source. Not true. As told to me by Crutchfield & Denon reps, the option to choose Virtual X will only be available if the input is DTS. I've confirmed this trying a number of movies. As long as the movie is mixed for DTS the Virtual X option appears in the menu. It can be mixed for both DTS & Dolby Atmos & the Virtual X option appears. I tried a movie mixed only with Dolby Atmos & the Virtual X option isn't offered. I went round & round with these reps saying everything I've read says Virtual X works with any input. Crutchfield rep quoted from Denon's manual, " It cannot be selected when the input signal is Dolby Digital, Dolby Digital Plus, Dolby TrueHD or Dolby Atmos". When arguing with the Denon rep I said I had read many articles stating you could have any input for Virtual X to work. The Denon rep sent me a link to this Crutchfield article to back himself up that you need a DTS input signal. I thought that was funny since that was one of the articles I had been refering to. Just like to say the two reps were courteous & professional. The Denon AVR X2400H is amazing.