Regardless what A/V gear you buy today it is already obsolete for some functionality or feature, primarily due to HDMI and 4K with HDR, but audio is not as innocent as it seems compared to the former. Consumers know that manufacturers want them to buy again and replace components that are still perfectly functional for the legacy content they already have, but there is not a single component on a home theater that maybe fully compatible with the rapidly changing features and standards that are continuously emerging and most components are not upgradeable.
Most consumers may resist the urge of upgrading, and continue with stereo, Dolby Digital, DTS, HDTV, cable/satellite set-top-box, 5.1 channels (if you have that, many only have a bar or two speakers), but the fact is that the components they use for those purposes are not compatible with new technology and content that are already here, not to mention with what is coming down the line.
On this first article of this series I start with just audio, the following articles will cover video, connectivity, not-too-distant-future, Internet and Broadcasting, and the Final thoughts.
"Immersive Sound", entails more speakers, wires, new A/V Receivers-Preamp to decode the signals, amps for the additional speakers, etc.
Dolby Atmos, object based immersive sound format that places sounds as objects within a 3D sound-field space with information about the speed and the direction if the object is moving, it adds 2-4 extra ceiling speakers to an existing (minimum of) 5.1 speaker setup, making it a 5.1.2 (or 5.1.4 system), the last digit indicates the number of ceiling speakers or of "Atmos enabled" speakers that can be installed on the walls (or as modules on top of the existing speakers) firing-up to the ceiling so the sound would bounce down to the listener, which requires the ceiling to have a reflective surface. The metadata of the Atmos format is carried over the Dolby-True HD lossless soundtrack, a legacy soundtrack that is sonically enhanced if played on a non-Atmos setup.
DTS:X immersive sound that claims to adapt to any speaker setup, and is said to be backward compatible to improve DTS Master Audio soundtracks to provide a multi-dimensional sound without a custom configuration of speakers, with interactive capability to adjust dialog over the soundtrack independently.
Auro 3D audio, channel based immersive sound format that places the sounds on the 3D sound-field space without referring to them as objects. It adds two extra layers of speakers, height and overhead top, to an existing (lower) 5.1 speaker surround layer. The 5 extra height speakers are placed high on the walls above the existing 5 legacy surround speakers (L,C,R,LS,RS). The ceiling speaker is the overhead top layer and is placed on the center of the listening area (named "voice of God"). A total of 11.1 speakers. However, Auro says that a 9.1 speaker setup should be enough for typical home theaters, as 4 speakers on the height layer above the legacy 5.1, no center height, and no ceiling speaker, which is only used for overhead sounds (such a flyby helicopter).
The format is played by Blu-ray players outputting the mix packaged as a 5.1 PCM uncompressed file with high resolution audio in all channels, which is decoded by an Auro enabled A/V Receiver to reveal out the 5.1 layers of the original mix.
Various movies are being released with their choice of audio format, some in Auro 3D some in Dolby Atmos, however, since Auro 3D uses a different speaker layout than Dolby Atmos, a home theater owner would need to make audio compromising decisions, or, if he/she wants to reproduce both soundtracks to their best, all the speakers have to be positioned as both formats require, reusing only the basic 5.1 speakers layer both systems use, and adding the Auro 3D height layer of 5 up-wall speakers angled down to the listener (which Atmos does not use), and, for the ceiling, position 2-4 Atmos speakers/Atmos "enabled" speakers, and since Auro 3D is reportedly not designed for the multiple ceiling speakers/reflective add-on modules Atmos uses, a single extra ceiling speaker needs to also be installed for the Auro 3D overhead top for a home theater setup (note that Auro shows a design with many ceiling speakers on a very large auditorium to reproduce the monaural top channel but that is so all the audience can experience the same overhead effect).
The double configuration would then require 5.1.2 (or 5.1.4) speakers for Atmos, and 11.1 for Auro 3D, whereby the only overlap is of the commonly used speakers, the legacy 5.1 surround layer, making a total of 14-16 speakers for the system to correctly reproduce both formats (5 legacy speakers used for Atmos/Auro (L,C,R,SL,SR), plus another 5 speakers for only Auro's height layer, plus 1 subwoofer shared by both, plus 1 ceiling speaker for Auro, plus 2-4 ceiling speakers for Atmos).
Quite a speaker investment to be able to correctly reproduce either format soundtrack and comply with the audio industry innovation of incompatible formats, add to that the upgrade of the A/V Receiver/Pre-pro to decode both soundtracks, plus the additional amplification for the 14-16 speakers (a typical A/V Receiver may lack such capability).
I must disclose here that I am not afraid of complex or expensive setups, in fact my theater has 15 speakers, quite an "immersive sound" already, and over $150,000 of hi-end audio/video equipment, but I do not support inconsistent innovations that fight against each other for the same objective, this would be like buying a 3840x2160 4K UHD projector and also a 4096x2160 true 4K projector (which I have) because both claim a better immersive "viewing" experience.
The demos I attended for Dolby Atmos were too loud and were more like an amusement park theater ride with on-your-face reproduction and artificial placement of sounds just to make the point that is possible. A more balanced demo was the one offered by Theta Digital at the Venetian at CES 2015 and 2016. Theta also demo the Auro 3D with a multiple setup of speakers to support both formats, much like I described above.
The demo I attended from Auro itself at the Venetian in 2015 and 2016 CES made unrealistic the reproduction of music performances because the recording was intentionally made by the recording engineer, I was told, to situate the listener "into" the orchestra, as if he/she would be one more musician, rather than as a typical listener sitting in the orchestra section viewing a front stage which is typically the source of the main sound field and with additional sound reflections from the walls and the environment of the performance.
If I would be a musician and need to listen all my music with the instrument players around me because that is the way I enjoy it most, then such recordings of Auro 3D would be ideal for that purpose, but as a listener I pursue audio reproductions of exactly how in real life performances are listened, not with a violin playing behind my back while I am viewing the orchestra director at front.
This is not about normalizing the distribution of volume levels on the surrounds but is rather about the intentional localization of signal sources in the recording that is inconsistent with real life audition of performances, Auro disagreed with my comment at CES, fortunately movie soundtracks are not real life concerts and Auro 3D may provide a better sonic experience as they release more movies.
MQA Master Quality Authenticated, a higher fidelity audio format from Meridian that improves fidelity and lowers the bit rate by implementing groundbreaking new sampling and quantizing techniques, used for streaming or for downloading in standard FLAC or Apple Lossless file formats at 44kHz or 48kHz at 24 bits that are backward compatible with existing delivery systems and playback devices. Meridian's own device Explorer 2 DAC for $299 is available for MQA decoding of MQA music libraries, and it is to be expected that in the near future A/V Receiver/preamp manufacturers may include the MQA capability, however, Marantz, for example, declared no plans to upgrade their high end line of A/V Receivers for MQA.
Stay tuned for the next article of this series about video.
Posted by Rodolfo La Maestra, February 12, 2016 7:00 AM
About Rodolfo La Maestra
Rodolfo La Maestra is the Senior Technical Director of UHDTV Magazine and HDTV Magazine and participated in the HDTV vision since the late 1980's. In the late 1990's, he began tracking and reviewing HDTV consumer equipment, and authored the annual HDTV Technology Review report, tutorials, and educative articles for HDTV Magazine, DVDetc and HDTVetc magazines, Veritas et Visus Newsletter, Display Search, and served as technical consultant/editor for the "Reference Guide" and the "HDTV Glossary of Terms" for HDTVetc and HDTV Magazines. In 2004, he began recording a weekly HDTV technology program for MD Cable television, which by 2006 reached the rating of second most viewed.
Rodolfo's background encompasses Electronic Engineering, Computer Science, and Audio and Video Electronics, with over 4,700 hours of professional training, a BS in Computer and Information Systems, and thirty+ professional and post-graduate certifications, some from MIT, American, and George Washington Universities. Rodolfo was also Computer Science professor in five institutions between 1966-1973 in Argentina, regarding IBM, Burroughs, and Honeywell mainframe computers. After 38 years of computer systems career, Rodolfo retired in 2003 as Chief of Systems Development from the Inter-American Development Bank directing sixty+ software-development computer professionals, supporting member countries in north/central/south America.