This Startup Wants You to Bring Your Headphones to the Movies

Silence your phones… and put on your headphones: Los Angeles and Scottsdale, Arizona-based digital audio startup SoundFi is getting ready to roll out a new technology that promises to enhance the theater experience by delivering immersive 3D audio sound with the help of personal headphones. This week, the company is putting its tech to the test with the theatrical release of the Columbia Pictures’ film “The Equalizer 2.”

Movie fans who go to watch the film in Los Angeles or Scottsdale can download a dedicated SoundFi app onto their iPhones, and then listen to a binaural version of the movie’s audio track over their headphones.

Instead of just hearing a 5.1 version, they get to hear bullets flying over their head, and audio seemingly coming from all sides — an experience similar to that of an expensive Dolby Atmos setup, which is currently only available in a small number of theaters. To achieve this, SoundFi took the original post-production audio tracks of the movie, and then mixed them down to spacial audio optimized for personal headphones.

The company also worked with Sony Pictures to add special marker signals that are inaudible to the human ear to the “Equalizer 2” soundtrack. Once a consumer fires up SoundFi’s app in the theater, her phone constantly listens for those markers to keep the action on screen synced up with the audio that’s being played over the headphones.

“We spent a lot of time on sync accuracy,” said SoundFi CEO Chris Anastas. He claimed that the app was even able to detect how far away from the screen an audience member is, which allows it to account for any delays introduced based on someone’s seat position.

In a demo given to Variety earlier this week, SoundFi’s app delivered impressive 3D audio for action scenes, and a direct comparison between stereo and binaural audio sound for sports clearly made for a much more immersive experience.

Plus, SoundFi has the potential to offer features that film fans otherwise wouldn’t get in a theater. “You can go to the concession stand and still listen to the film,” Anastas explained.

In the future, SoundFi could also offer foreign language dubs to make movies more accessible to international audiences — a feature that is already offered by some competitors, including Theater Ears. Even hardcore film fans, who may scoff at the idea, could get something out of a personalized audio experience, he said. “I want to bring the director’s commentary back.”

SoundFi’s initial roll-out is little more than a test run, with just five screens total making use of the technology for “The Equalizer 2.” However, Anastas already has big plans for the technology, and he just won over the film’s director Antoine Fuqua to join the company as an executive advisor and partner.

Future plans include an option to monetize SoundFi by upselling consumers a dollar or two for a better in-theater audio experience, as well as the ability to supply studios with data collected from consumers who have opted in to share it. This could one day even include biometric data from fitness headphones capable of measuring heart rates and more. “We want to measure your emotional response,” he said.

The big question is: Will consumers balk at the idea of wearing their headphones in a movie theater? Anastas admitted that the experience may be unusual to some, but he also argued that younger audiences already take their headphones everywhere.

Anyone who is willing to try it should go all in, and not use inconspicuous, tiny earbuds, advised Anastas: “It is more impressive with over-the-ear headphones.”

More Digital

  • Mokalik

    Nigeria’s Kunle Afolayan: African Audiences Shouldn’t Be ‘Second-Class’

    DURBAN–A young boy from a middle-class home gets an unconventional schooling in the ways of the world when he’s forced to apprentice at a mechanic’s workshop in a rough-and-tumble section of Lagos. “Mokalik” is the latest feature from Kunle Afolayan, a leading figure in the wave of filmmakers revitalizing the Nigerian film industry. The film [...]


    SAG-AFTRA Ends Long Strike Against Ad Agency Bartle Bogle Hegarty

    SAG-AFTRA has ended its 10-month strike against Bartle Bogle Hegarty after the advertising agency agreed to sign the union’s new commercials contract. The union instructed its 160,000 members in September not to accept any work for BBH, which had been signed to SAG-AFTRA’s commercials contracts since 1999. The strike came two weeks after BBH publicly [...]

  • FaceApp is displayed on an iPhone,

    SAG-AFTRA Warns Members About FaceApp Terms of Use

    SAG-AFTRA is warning its 160,000 members about the “overreaching and invasive” terms of use for the FaceApp mobile application. FaceApp, developed by Russian company Wireless Lab, uses neural network technology to automatically generate transformations of faces in photographs. The app can be used to make users appear older, younger, or change gender. The terms include [...]

  • J. Cole

    Apple Music Launches 'Rap Life' Playlist

    Apple Music announced the launch of “Rap Life,” a new global playlist focusing on contemporary rap artists and culture. It replaces the former “The A-List: Hip-Hop” playlist. Said Ebro Darden, Apple Music’s Global Editorial Head of Hip-Hop and R&B: “We flipped it to dig deeper into into the lifestyle [and to] keep pushing the culture [...]

  • Billie Eilish

    ARRI, Mobile TV Group Back New Venture Revitalizing Streamed Concerts

    A new venture looking to bring a fresh approach to live-streaming concerts has gotten the backing of hardware heavyweights ARRI and Mobile TV Group. Wide+Close is launching with the mandate of shooting music performances with film cameras and cinematographers in order to give the content a more cinematic feel. “We want to take concert filming [...]

  • Fortnite Battle Royale

    How 'Fortnite' Fans Can Earn Loot by Watching YouTube Videos

    Epic Games and YouTube have teamed up with a special offer for “Fortnite” players — giving players of the popular battle-royale game rewards when they watch “Fortnite”-premiered content on the video platform. The catch: You have to watch at least 20 minutes of “Fortnite” special content or live esports broadcasts to receive the loot. Under [...]

  • Roku headquarters

    Roku Plans to Expand to Brazil, Other Countries (EXCLUSIVE)

    Roku plans to expand to multiple new territories in the coming months, Variety has learned. One of the first new markets for the company will likely be Brazil. An international expansion could help Roku grow its customer base, which in turn should lead to growing advertising revenues. Roku executives have been hinting at plans to [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content