What’s the best cinema in London based on picture and sound quality? The short answer is…it depends on personal preference, specifically, the trade-off between immersion and quality, and the movie (more on that below).
In general, for the best picture and sound quality, go for the Dolby Cinema at Odeon Luxe West End or Odeon Luxe Leicester Square. Dolby Cinema delivers the brightest pictures (twice as bright as most regular cinemas), and the deepest blacks. This means far greater contrast, making the picture ‘pop’ more. Note that this isn’t the equivalent of just cranking up the brightness on your TV or phone. The greater dynamic range of Dolby Cinema allows the highlights to be brighter without raising the black level of the darkest areas, providing a bigger canvas for artists to tell their stories.
Of the two Dolby Cinemas in London, Odeon West End is the better option as the screen appears bigger (despite the cinema being smaller).
If you want the most immersive experience and the biggest screen possible, go for the IMAX Laser at Cineworld Leicester Square. Besides the bigger screen, the seating at IMAX cinemas is steeper, bringing everyone closer to the screen. Many IMAX movies also use a taller aspect ratio for some or all scenes.
There are two IMAX Lasers in London. At Cineworld Leicester Square and the Science Museum. However, the IMAX at the Science Museum tends not to screen movies.
Now, on to a more detailed run down.
1. Dolby Cinema vs IMAX Laser
- Has the edge over IMAX Laser for picture quality. Dolby delivers a brighter image and darker blacks than IMAX. To me, the higher contrast offered by Dolby over IMAX Laser is significant. But it admittedly depends on how sensitive your eyes are 😉
- Dolby Atmos delivers better sound than IMAX Laser. IMAX Laser offers a 12 channel system. The Dolby Cinema at Odeon West End has a 67 speaker system (some speakers are ceiling mounted).
- The perceived screen size of Dolby is smaller than IMAX Laser. However, I do not find the screen at Odeon West End to be too small, when seated in the middle rows. The screen at the Dolby at Odeon Leicester Square appears much smaller than the Dolby at West End due to the large size of the cinema.
- You miss out on expanded aspect ratios which tend to feature when the movie is shot with IMAX cameras.
Weighing this trade off depends on how much of a movie was shot on IMAX. Some movies have only have a few minutes shot in IMAX. Some movies are shot entirely in IMAX (i.e. many Marvel movies). A quick way to check is to google.
- The Dolby experience is not as immersive as IMAX. Personally, I weigh this against the movie. Some movies like Dune and Interstellar deserve the full IMAX experience. Their directors intended the movies to be seen in IMAX (a telling sign is to look for how much hype there is around IMAX presentations of that movie). On the other hand, more intimate movies like No Time to Die or dialogue heavy movies may not benefit as much from the immersive IMAX format. In which case, you are better off watching it in Dolby Cinema, with its superior picture quality.
Pros: The screen is perceived to be MUCH bigger compared to Dolby. Not just the actual screen size, but all seats are also much closer to the screen. If all you want is the biggest screen, than IMAX Laser it is.
Cons: Contrast, brightness and sound isn’t as good as Dolby. Although it is still far superior to a regular cinema.
2. What if the movie isn’t available in IMAX or Dolby Cinema?
If that’s the case, you will need to hunt around for a regular cinema which uses 4K laser projection for the best picture quality. The two types of projection systems are bulb and laser. Laser is far superior, delivering a brighter picture and darker blacks.
As laser is a newer technology, it tends to only be found in newer cinemas (opened after (tel:2018)). It’s challenging as not all cinemas indicate what projectors they use. A safe bet would be the new Picturehouse Central at Finsbury Park which opened in (tel:2021) and has really good laser projectors.
Also, a cautionary note that not all projectors are 4K. Many smaller cinemas use 2K bulb projectors. This was not as big an issue years ago, when most movies were only available in 2K. But this is not the case today!
3. What is the difference between 2K and 4K?
2K and 4K refer to horizontal resolutions (i.e. how many pixels there are in a horizontal line). So 4K delivers twice the amount of horizontal pixels and consequently 4 times the total number of pixels as 2K.
4. What about BFI IMAX?
I strongly advise against going to BFI IMAX over the IMAX Laser at Leicester Square as BFI uses an inferior IMAX bulb system which is only 2K in resolution. Not all IMAXs are created equal. The IMAX at BFI is lower resolution, dimmer and the picture appears more washed out than the IMAX Laser at Leicester Square. And both charge around the same!
The IMAX Laser screen at Leicester Square is also marginally bigger when movies are projected in the most common 1.9:1 IMAX aspect ratio.
The only exception is when BFI IMAX has celluloid screenings, which they will advertise as [15/70](tel:1570)mm IMAX. Very few movies are available in this format and they tend to be the Nolan movies. [15/70](tel:1570)mm IMAX is the highest quality video format in the world with an equivalent resolution of 16K. The movies are also projected in a squarish 1.43:1 aspect ratio. The experience is life changing. It is like virtual reality without googles.
5. What about other digital formats like Dolby Atmos, Superscreen?
Dolby Atmos only refers to the speaker system. It delivers the best sound quality available. Dolby Cinema is Dolby Vision (picture) + Dolby Atmos (sound). So if the cinema only has Dolby Atmos, you will be enjoying top quality sound, but average quality picture.
Superscreen uses regular 4K laser projector paired with Dolby Atmos. So it is better than an average bulb projection cinema (i.e. >95% of places), but it can’t compare to IMAX Laser or Dolby Cinema which delivers bespoke, specially mastered, premium formats of movies.
6. Where should I seat?
For both IMAX and Dolby, I recommend seating in the middle of the cinema. If the middle seats aren’t available, it’s better to seat further back than further up front.
7. Is Dolby Cinema or IMAX cheaper?
Prices vary depending on timing, but Dolby Cinema is usually cheaper. A strategy to get cheap Dolby tickets is to register for myODEON for free, which grants you access to ODEONsaver prices for screenings on Monday (~£7.50 for Dolby).
I would caution against joining a paid membership scheme (i.e Odeon myLimitless), because it will tie you in to one chain, which is a problem since only Cineworld has IMAX Laser while only Odeon has Dolby Cinema. The free tickets these membership schemes give you also tends to exclude premium formats, or you will may need to pay a supplement.
Hope this guide helps and feel free to drop any questions below!