Auro-3D: Why height is the missing dimension in sound

posted on Saturday, 19th April 2014 by Steve May

home cinema  High-end 

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Wilfred Van Baelen is the founder and CEO of Auro Technologies, and the driving force behind Auro 3D, the three dimensional sound format that promises to inject new energy into the world of home theatre audio. Like Dolby Atmos, Auro-3D is designed to add additional immersion to the surround sound experience. Crucially though it has an early lead over its rival. The first home theatre processors with Auro 3D decoding are just starting to ship from Datasat Digital Entertainment (the RS20i processor and sibling LS10, pictured below) and there's apparently more hardware to come from Steinway Lyndorf, French AV manufacturer DMS and CAT (California Audio Technologies). Van Baelen (pictured above) says he's also signed deals with three major AVR brands that will deliver up to 100,000 AV receivers into the marketplace later this year.

Van Baelen's even been inking deals behind the scenes to get Auro 3D soundmixes out both theatrically, and in due course, onto Blu-ray.

The Auro Tech chief in a good position to drive things along. He also runs Galaxy Studios in Mol, Belgium and heads the film financing group Mollywood. As a provider of high performance workflow tools, Van Baelen is literally sitting at the mixing desk of tomorrow's movies. He's not one to shy away from hyperbole either: "George Lucas famously said sound is 50 per cent of the movie experience, after hearing Auro 3D he changed that to 70 per cent!" he beams. "Height has been the final missing dimension in sound. With Auro-3D we're bring it home."

LS10 Rear

New-look home cinema installs
But does Auro 3D really have what it takes to redefine high-end home theatre audio? The format literally builds on existing surround sound lore. While most home theatre installs are based on a 5.1 or 7.1 loudspeaker configuration, Auro-3D opts for a 10.1 three layered approach. Immediately above the familiar 5.1 speaker positions are a second layer of four speakers in each corner of the room. A third ceiling layer adds a single, central Voice of God ceiling speaker to the mix (installers can also run the system in a 9.1 layout without the central speaker, if required). Theatrically, the system has an even larger 11.1 or even 13.1 speaker footprint.

For a bespoke custom install point of view, this proliferation of channels is very good news indeed. After all most consumers would struggle to accommodate the demands of such a sound system themselves, and as yet there's no easy to install tiered speakers suitable for Auro-3D.

While cinemas with Auro-3D are largely conspicuous by their absence, movie soundtracks are gaining traction. The first to be released was George Lucas' Red Tails, in 2011. One year later, Dreamworks CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg committed to release 15 films in the format. In 2014 X-Men: Days of Future Past, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 and Expendables 3 will all debut with Auro-3D mixes. This calibre of support bodes well for possible inclusion on Blu-ray. At least seven blockbuster Blu-ray titles with native Auro-3D mixes are scheduled for release says the company. There will also be music titles and even games mixes. 

Luckily, Auro-3D is relatively easy to implement in both hardware and software. All ten audio channels are designed to play out in uncompressed PCM. 

According to research, consumers react well to such holographic sound, says Van Baelen. "Research shows that we are 2dB more sensitive to sounds coming from behind us. It's to do with survival, the Tiger Gene," he says. "We are very sensitive to even slight changes in direction in terms of where sound comes from. We can hear spatial differences up to 200kHz. People feel more immersed and relaxed with high-resolution audio. The sensitivity of our hearing is amazing. We hear sound four to five months before we are even born. Audio is more important than visuals for survival."

Van Baelen adds that consumers are much more sensitive to compressed audio than compressed video. "Auro-3D is not just about sampling frequency, it's about the spread of acoustic energy." He says. "All this is key to a truly immersive AV experience."

Wilf Action

Auro-3D Vs Dolby Atmos
On rival Dolby Atmos, Van Baelen has this to say: "Atmos is more a delivery format, where they try and offer better precision. It's a fantastic move forward but it does not make sense to have more speakers in a horizontal plane - you need the vertical plane. So we advocate high resolution PCM and Auro 3D for a natural spread around you."

Vertical resolution is not the same as horizontal resolution, he explains. "That's one of the reasons why we need three layers. The angle of the layers is also important in terms of authenticity. In other systems, when a bicycle passes by, it appears to fly; when a car passes by it also flies. 80 per cent of sounds you hear come from ear level, the source will be at ear level. We are less sensitive to sounds coming from above us though. We've done lots of tests both with and without a ceiling layer and I was surprised at just how much more immersive just having a higher side layer was.  But with three layers there are more creative possibilities. And with three layers, an 11.1 system can sound like 20-channels, like it's object based. If you go for anactual object-based system, there's a huge impact from the work flow to the sheer number of speakers you'll need in a home theatre, which is at least 15."

One market where Auro 3D has gained traction in commercial cinemas is India. "The format has proved a sizable hit there," says Van Baelen. "One local blockbuster Vishwaroopam was still selling out its Auro-3D screenings month after release, even though conventional 5.1 cinemas dropped below normal occupancy."

Indian Banner

Interestingly, Van Baelen has aspirations to take his technology beyond the home theatre market. A version is already being worked on for the automotive market, he reveals, a natural home for multiple speaker sound systems.

The immersive audio bandwagon, it seems, is literally about roll. Time to jump on board?

For more on Datasat Digital Entertainment and its Auro-3D enabled home theatre processors, visit our partner page here.

Also read:
Datasat signs UK distribution deal with Pulse Marketing

Datasat RS20i audio processor

In-depth: Datasat Digital Entertainment tour

Steve May

Steve is a veteran of the UK consumer electronics industry, having covered it for
various media outlets for more than 20 years.

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