Atmos vs. Auro: How High Can You Get?

This year’s CEDIA Expo in Denver could have been dubbed “Dolby Atmos Expo,” with no fewer than a dozen active demos at the show including Dolby’s own. It makes sense that CEDIA would be the Atmos coming-out party. As compelling as Atmos can be (check out Dan Kumin’s impressions of our first Atmos system), I’m of the mind that the customer shopping for a soundbar isn’t about to toss that idea in favor of a discrete component system just because he’s heard Atmos. On the other hand, custom integrators building media and theater rooms are in good position to bump what would have been a conventional 5.1-channel or 7.1-channel system to a 5.1.4- or 7.1.4-channel Atmos system. They, along with enthusiasts like you and me who map our own upgrade paths, will drive this market.

To my ear, the best Atmos demo at CEDIA by far was in Steinway Lyngdorf’s high-performance audio room. The company’s 9.2.4-channel system was built around the company’s new 16-channel P200 processor, an $18,000 unit that features exotic room correction and time-alignment technology to lift a layer of muddled grunge that you didn’t know you were hearing in all the other demos until you suddenly heard the same content played back clean; all this, I’ll add, in a cavernous ballroom space with a slap-echo that ran from Denver to Detroit and back again. Absolutely remarkable detail, clarity, and open, three dimensional imaging that really showed off what Atmos can do. If you’ve got about $130,000 to spare for the processor, digitally connected amps, and all the speakers, you’ll be everyone’s best friend.

A few doors down from Steinway was another interesting demo, this one from Auro Technologies, the Belgian firrm that’s created an immersive surround system for theatrical use called Auro-3D and is now attempting to move it into the home theater realm just as Dolby is migrating Atmos. Unlike Atmos, which uses object-based mixing, Auro-3D is a discrete but scalable 13.1-channel system, with most installations optimized at 11.1 channels; both systems ideally require content that has been specifically mixed for them. Auro-3D divides the speakers into three vertical layers instead of Atmos’ two. There are the lower-layer, ear-level speakers at the front, sides, and back, corresponding height speakers that situate right above ear level, and a final “top” ceiling speaker that is referred to as the “voice of god” channel. Auro’s room used a 16-channel Datasat RS20i processor and included 20 speakers, six subwoofers, and ten 1,000-watt amplifiers. It was an impressive demo that, like Atmos, did a superb job of creating a bubble of overhead ambience that far surpasses the realism of any traditional home surround system.

Auro-3D has been gaining theater installations since its 2011 debut—there are now about 500 worldwide, though just a handful in the U.S. About 40 films have been mixed with Auro 11.1 sound, much of it Bollywood fare, but a bunch of Hollywood blockbusters as well. Does this mean there’s a format war brewing for the future of immersive home theater sound? If so, Dolby’s got the edge out of the box, with many more films already mixed in Atmos, and a bunch of receiver and speaker manufacturers signed on to provide Atmos home solutions. At present, the only Auro 3D receiver is Auro’s own $16,700 Auriga, and there are two similarly expensive processors available from Datasat and Trinnov. Nor is there any “Auro-enabled” reflective speaker technology being touted as an option for upgrades. Only time will tell if our future AVRs will offer Auro or Atmos playback with the flick of a switch, just as today’s let us bounce between Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD Master Audio. At this point, nothing would surprise me.

jca332001's picture

Even thoug I don´t plan to ugrade my current set up at the moment, I think that Atmos is a good option when the technology and the hardware to play it are more widely available. I would love to watch a movie mastered in the format in the theater though.
Is DTS currently developing any competing technology to enter in this market'

Rob Sabin's picture
In 2011, I wrote about an object-based surround technology being worked on by the virtual-audio experts at SRS dubbed MDA, for Multi-Dimensional Audio (see link below). As was done for Dolby Atmos, it was intended to roll out first into the Hollywood creative community and the exhibition industry so films would be mixed and in it natively and shown in cinemas, then at some point presumably moved into the home arena. It had little success penetrating the creatives, however, and in the interim, DTS bought SRS -- right around the time Dolby introduced Atmos (perhaps not coincidentally). There's some buzz that MDA may be poised to make its own re-introduction soon under the DTS banner, though it's not clear at this point if it'll be moved right into the home theater space and how that might work. DTS-HD Master Audio is by far the dominant soundtrack for Blu-ray releases, and if there's one thing that's clear, it's that DTS needs an Atmos competitor. I suspect we'll be hearing more about this soon, perhaps as early as CES 2015 in January, where it would not surprise me if some demos were afoot. I have nothing now on which to base that other than instinct, but we shall see.
Tech Spotlight: SRS & The Future of Surround
jca332001's picture

Thanks for the reply Rob.

I found the information on the article insightful. I hope that DTS come up with an implementation of the MDA technology that can be used both in cinemas and home theatre applications.
I definitively prefer the DTS-HD MA processing over the Dolby TrueHD in my blurays, so I have high hopes that DTS will come up with a competing standard that lives up to the quality levels that they currently offer.

dnoonie's picture

$18,000 unit that features exotic room correction. Wow, I'll just spend $1500 to $2500 on room treatment instead, done deal actually, did wonders at a fraction of the cost.

I'd really like to try front height speakers, then rear height if I can fit it in the room. Like jca332001 I'm waiting for hardware and software to become more prolific.

ronald1977's picture

I really do dts come out with a new format as well. Auro 3d seems too expensive. A processor would cost more than my whole system or house. I you would almost have to choose between auro and atmos because speaker placement is different. I dts utilize the same speaker placement as atmos but maybe make the sound tracks more dynamic like master is to dolby true.

dnoonie's picture

I thought that too until I realized that the angle between the listening position and Auro 3D front height/mid layer and Atmos "ceiling" speakers is nearly the same. The only real difference is the direction they face, down verses forward. Since I can't mount ceiling speakers I'll be implementing Atmos ceiling (which is really front height and not overhead or VOG)in the Auro middle layer position. I seriously doubt it will make a difference. I'll be looking forward to some reviews were this theory is tested. I'd test it myself but as I said, I can't mount a ceiling speaker, I have a cloud absorber in that location and just don't have the rigging readily available to do such testing...although it would be a fun project. If no one else does a test like this in the next 18 months I might just give it a try myself.

twitdaily's picture