Since we first discussed our impressions of Dolby Atmos a few months ago, we’ve taken several more Atmos systems for a test drive. We also had the opportunity to experience Belgium’s Auro-3D during our visit to CES.
We found that both systems have strengths and weaknesses. So we thought we’d put together our list of pros and cons for each system to help you decide which is right for you, if any.
Dolby Atmos is a new home theater speaker configuration that “transports you from an ordinary moment into an extraordinary experience with breathtaking, moving audio that flows all around you” according to Dolby. Basically you’re taking an existing surround system and either adding speakers in the ceiling, or on top of the front and rear channels. The ceiling setup has two options: 2 speakers in the center, or one speaker in every corner totaling 4. If in-ceilings aren’t an option, you can use reflecting speakers. You can place one reflecting speaker on top of your front left and right channels, totaling 2. Or you can place one on top of each of your front and rear channels, totaling 4.
1. We found that with 2, or better yet, 4 in-ceiling speakers you will indeed increase your audio dimensionality and create a more immersive experience. Airplanes, bullets, rain, etc really will come from above you. You’ll also notice more accurate sound placement than a standard surround system. Adding Atmos via in-ceilings is definitely a step towards the ultimate goal of realism.
2. Cost. Receivers aren’t cheap, especially when you get to 9 channels and above. Fortunately, you can get a 5.1.2 Atmos system (2 in-ceiling speakers) with some reasonably priced 7.2 receivers. For those of you that already own one, all you may need to do is download a free update. If you want to have 4 in-ceiling speakers, then you’ll need a 9 channel receiver or an additional stereo amplifier.
3. Space. Atmos is spatially efficient. Considering the fact that you’re installing speakers into the ceiling, an Atmos system is not very intrusive in your room. For some people, putting 5 speakers in a family room is a tough enough sell. Now if you want to add more, at least they’re out of sight.
1. Compatibility. Atmos is not compatible with every room. Actually, to achieve the desired results, you really need a fairly specific room with a flat ceiling no lower than 9 to 10 feet. Unfortunately, if you have vaulted ceilings, you may be entirely out of luck. For those of you who can’t install into your ceilings, you’re faced with a less desirable alternative, which brings us to point #2.
2. Reflecting speakers. We’re not big fans of this approach. That’s not to say it can’t work. We just feel the results are inconsistent and less fulfilling than the in-ceiling systems. We found that the reflecting speakers don’t achieve the desired dispersion commonly leaving you with a narrow sweet spot. So one seat may sound great; its just too bad for anyone not sitting in it. Also, we didn’t experience the same level of definition as we did with the in-ceilings. If you ask us, we’ll say that firing sound directly at you is definitely more optimal than bouncing it off of another surface.
3. Lack of source material. Right now there’s only a few movies actually recorded in Atmos. Obviously this will increase over time, but how do we know something better won’t come along in the meantime?
Auro-3D is on its way to the U.S. and is taking a different approach to achieve a similar goal. Auro looks at sound in layers and adds a second layer of sound on top of your standard 5 or 7 channel system. Its kind of like stacking one surround system on top of another. They achieve this with four bookshelf speakers, front and rear left and rights, mounted on the wall above your current surround system and angled down at approx 30 degrees.
1. Sound. Our sole experience came from Auro’s room at the Venetian in Las Vegas. The demo took place over a 9.1 system (5.1 surround + 4 height speakers) with a high-quality demo disc. The experience was exhilarating. The demo disc actually included a/b comparisons with Auro on and off. Wow, what a difference! It was the closest simulation of reality that we’ve ever experienced. A pipe organ in a cathedral was 100% convincing, as was a symphony orchestra. A recording of a London street corner left you struggling to believe you weren’t there. A jetliner passing overhead made you want to hit the deck. It was so convincing it was almost scary. We felt this was a substantial leap towards ultimate realism.
2. Compatibility. Auro is compatible with a larger variety of rooms. Since you’re basically just adding bookshelf speakers to the wall directly above your left and right channels, you don’t need to worry about vaulted ceilings or cutting holes. The only potential for a problem is a room with a really low ceiling. You may not get enough separation between high and low speakers. We don’t yet know what the spatial requirements are.
3. Sweet spot. Auro, from what we could tell, has a much wider sweet spot. We don’t feel that a narrow sweet spot is a huge problem with Atmos (with in-ceilings) but we have heard the issue mentioned on several occasions.
1. Cost. To enjoy Auro, you’ll need a minimum of 9 channels. Your choices are to either buy a 9.2 receiver, or add a stereo amp to an Auro capable 7.2 receiver. That’s going to up the price right off the bat. Then come the 4 speakers. With Atmos you can run a 7.2 receiver and you have the 2 speaker option to minimize costs while still improving your sound.
2. Space. Adding 4 bookshelf speakers to your walls could be a really tough sell if your theater is also your family room. Most people face enough of a challenge just trying to add a 5.1 system to the family space; let alone a 9.1 system. The sound is definitely worth it, but the footprint is much bigger.
3. Lack of source material. Material is out there, but the selection is very limited. We have, however, heard that several movie studios have already signed on with Auro which means more is sure to come.
At this point, if sound were the only desire, we would recommend Auro-3D. But keep in mind that that’s only based on one demo with a carefully perfected demo disk. We’ll continue to provide updates when we have more real-world testing under our belts.