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Auro-3D Listening Evaluation on a Denon AVR-X7200WA

by November 01, 2017
Auro-3D immersive audio

Auro-3D immersive audio

Immersive audio isn’t a gimmick. I installed an immersive audio setup almost two years ago. Now that I’ve lived with it, written about some of my immersive audio listening impressions, and tested immersive audio-based gear (like Denon's X7200WA and Anthem's AVM 60), I can attest that immersive audio truly is the next evolution in home theater—and it’s here today.

While Dolby Atmos and DTS:X have had the lion’s share of press in the United States, Auro-3D has often been forgotten in the discussion. But thanks to a few AVR manufacturers, Auro-3D has been making some quiet inroads. In this article, we’ll talk a bit more about Auro-3D, the company's technology, how you can take advantage of it at home, and how it performs in a real-world setup.

Auro-3D's History

Auro-3D’s introduction harkens back to the 2006 AES convention in Paris and San Francisco where inventor Wilfred Van Baelen demonstrated Auro 9.1 and Auro 10.1 layouts. By 2011, Skywalker Sound had installed the first Auro-3D studio system in their Mix A Studios. With the help of Barco, best known for their cinema projectors, Auro-3D became a reality in commercial theaters. And, on November 1, 2011, George Lucas’ Red Tails became the first film in history released with immersive sound as an Auro-3D 11.1 mix.  In case you're keeping score, Dolby wouldn’t come to theaters with Atmos until the following year when Disney-Pixar’s Brave became the first film released in Dolby Atmos. 

Fast forward to today, and there are lots of Auro-3D enabled theaters around the world. To find an Auro-3D enabled theater near you, see: Barco’s Auro-3D theater finder here.

Also, check out our Auro-3D Interview with Wilfred Van Baelen for more information.

Auro-3D is a Hybrid Technology with Channel and Object-Based Options

Most people don't know that Auro-3D is a hybrid format that consists of both a channel-based and object-based technology. With channel-based audio, engineers mix sounds into specific channels. DVDs and Blu-ray movies played back on traditional home theaters sporting stereo, 5.1, or 7.1 configurations have all been channel-based. Auro-3D’s consumer solution remains a channel-based approach.

Object-based audio takes a different approach. Object-based audio works by mixing sounds as individual objects in a particular space and time as opposed to a specific channel. With object-based audio technologies, you set up your speakers according to one of several speaker layout options that your AVR offers. The AVR's processor then maps and mixes the sound into the appropriate speakers (based on which speaker layout you have) to make it sound as though the sound is coming from the appropriate coordinates. Dolby Atmos and DTS:X are object-based audio technologies.

Regarding speaker layouts, Dolby Atmos and Auro-3D require specific speaker layouts. DTS:X can adopt either layout.

Because Auro-3D is a hybrid format, the company brands its object-based technology as AuroMax to avoid any confusion. Most AuroMax installations require more than 20 speakers. Thus, they are confined to theater installations. There aren’t any consumer-grade AVRs on the market today that support AuroMax.  We’ll therefore be confining our discussions to Auro-3D’s channel-based, consumer-focused technology in our overview.

Auro-3D Speaker Angles

Auro-3D's ideal speaker layout places the height layer speakers at a 30-degree angle and a 90-degree, face-on position to the listeners for discrete height effects

Upmixing Traditional Mixes to Immersive Audio

In addition to native immersive audio content, Auro-3D also includes an up-mixer, which it calls Auro-Matic 3D.  Auro-Matic 3D will take standard 5.1 or 7.1 mixes and render them as immersive audio mixes by extracting height and ambient sound information. You can also apply Auro-Matic 3D on stereo sources though I'm not a fan of that personally. To my ears, it just doesn't sound right. Sometimes you can have too much of a good thing but I do encourage you to try it out. It's always good to have more tools in your bag of tricks.

On my Denon X7200WA I have the ability to fine-tune the performance of the Auro-Matic 3D upmixer.  The small setting is ideal for pop, chamber music or movies with lots of dialog; medium, the default, is best for jazz, typical movies and TV; large is ideal for orchestral works and action movies; and speech is designed for dialog broadcasts, like news programs. In addition to these presets, you can also fine-tune the level of the up-mixed channels used. You can set a value from 1 to 16, where 1 is no upmixing and 16 is the maximum effect.  The default on the Denon X7200WA is 10.

Auro-3D’s Channel Naming Convention

Auro-3D setups follow the typical naming convention for home theater where the first number refers to the total number of channels (including height) and the number after the period corresponds to the number of subwoofers. Dolby Atmos and DTS:X, in contrast, put the number of floor standing speakers first, the number of subwoofers second, and the number of height channels third, with each series of numbers separated by periods. Therefore a 9.1 Auro-3D setup corresponds to the same number of channels as a 5.1.4 Dolby Atmos or DTS:X setup. Got it?

Because consumer-based AVRs don’t support more than five floor-level channels when using Auro-3D, think of Auro-3D as an extension of the 5.1 surround format. Any number above five corresponds to height channels. Height channels sit above the left and right front speakers and above the left and right surround speakers. Therefore, a 9.1 Auro-3D setup means five floor-standing speakers and four height speakers.  A 10.1 Auro-3D setup adds the voice of God in-ceiling speaker above the listening position.  While there are native Auro-3D mixes above 10.1, today’s consumer-level AVRs with Auro-3D don’t support the additional channels natively so they will be down-mixed.

Auro-3D speaker layout options

In this graphic, you'll find the different Auro-3D configurations and the speakers that correspond with each

What Makes Auro-3D Different?

Auro-3D’s speaker layouts consist of three distinct audio layers. You have a traditional floor-level speaker arrangement, a height layer, and finally an overhead or top layer. As I mentioned, the height layer speakers are located above their respective floor-standing speakers.

Auro-3D calls for an overhead speaker for a third, top layer, which is unique to the Auro-3D format. The third speaker is commonly called the "Voice of God" channel because it reproduces sounds from above.  While DTS:X can theoretically support the top speaker among its speaker layout agnostic architecture I'm not aware of any consumer-based AVR that allows you to use it with DTS:X. I can't use the top speaker on the Denon AVR-X7200WA with DTS:X content. Therefore, for purposes of our discussion, we'll consider the third layer—the overhead layer—unique to Auro-3D in today’s consumer AVR electronics.

Auro-3D 10.1 speaker arrangement

Auro-3D has three layers, which makes it different from other immersive audio formats, which only have two layers

Auro-3D Native Content

While it’s easy and natural to focus on the technical merits of a particular technology, at the end of the day it’s all about the content, isn’t it? And available content makes Auro-3D unique. Unlike DTS:X and Dolby Atmos, there are a number of multichannel music Blu-rays that take advantage of Auro-3D. Auro-3D keeps a current listing of movies and music here.

If you’re the type of person who dismisses multi-channel music, let me simply say that if you had bad experiences with some of the old multi-channel DVD-audio discs, you're going to be pleasantly surprised with Auro-3D material. The material I listened to was nothing short of breathtaking. Auro-3D mixes were typically used to convey the immense space of a venue, expand the soundstage, and create a more “you are there” feeling.

Auro-3D top audio layer for discrete overhead effects

Auro-3D's top layer is like adding a center channel for overhead effects as opposed to creating a phantom center channel from left and right height channels

The European and Asian markets seem to have a number of movie and music Blu-rays mixed in Auro-3D. However, trying to get any of those titles in the United States is a bit more challenging. I could find some titles on Amazon Germany but not on Amazon in the US.  For US-based customers, if you encounter a dearth of content, you’ll look to take advantage of Auro-3D’s Auro-Matic 3D upmixer, which is excellent.

Auro-3D has superb multichannel audio blu-rays

This music album on Blu-ray features an Auro 9.1 hi-res audio mi

How can I get Auro-3D?

In addition to a compatible speaker layout, you need an AVR or pre-pro capable of decoding Auro-3D. Marantz and Denon (both subsidiaries of D+M Holdings) were the first mainstream AVR manufacturers to support Auro-3D with an optional $199 upgrade. In September of this year, those two brands announced that going forward Auro-3D will now be an out of the box feature for several of AVR models.  That's a huge step forward!

Denon's X7200WA displays the Auro-3D audio signal and channels

Denon's X7200WA receiver confirmed an Auro-3D signal on its front display along with the active channels

Unfortunately other than Marantz and Denon, other consumer-focused AVR manufacturers haven’t jumped on board the Auro-3D bandwagon. Of course, there are Auro-3D offerings in high-end processing solutions like Storm Audio's immersive audio processors and amplifiers that will put you back $16,000 or more. When I’ve asked other companies about supporting Auro-3D, they have been a bit gun shy, telling me that they are taking a wait and see approach to the immersive audio market.

If you want to take advantage of Auro-3D in a typical home or home theater, you’ll want to look at supporting models from Denon or Marantz. And let’s call a spade a spade: if you’re left with only those two brands as choices, it doesn’t get much better than that.

Can I support Auro-3D with DTS:X and Dolby Atmos?

If you configure your AVR to use Auro-3D, you can also playback native DTS:X material. Auro-3D actually sits on top of a DTS audio layer. DTS:X will support Auro-3D’s speaker layout so that you can run both concurrently. You cannot, however, use Dolby Atmos in that case. Auro-3D and Dolby Atmos layouts are incompatible. That's a huge pain in the neck, but it doesn't mean you're stuck.

If you want to support Auro-3D, DTS:X, and Dolby Atmos content at the same time, you’ll need to arrange your home theater with the so-called “unified speaker layout” where you have two front height and two rear height channels.  To take advantage of the overhead, voice of God speaker with the unified speaker layout you must use the 11.1 amp assign speaker layout.

I have tested the “unified speaker layout” with Auro-3D material in my setup. In my room, I prefer a proper Auro-3D layout with side height surround speakers and, of course, the overhead voice of God speaker. To me, the immersive experience is better. Gene DellaSala, Audioholics president, did an extensive analysis on universal layouts for immersive audio formats that you should check out if you want to read more on this topic.

With Auro-3D mixed content, height effects are more pronounced and seamless coming from the side. Oh and in case I didn't emphasize it the first time: There’s just no substitute for the overhead speaker.

Auro-3D speaker positions and angles

The table above shows the typical Auro-3D speaker positions and angles for each speaker assuming you could take advantage of a full Auro-3D setup, which today's consumer AVR's cannot.

Installing Auro-3D in Your Home

Auro-3D offers an installation guide in PDF that you can access here.  The guide covers the history of Auro-3D, the different speaker configurations, rooms, and special cases such as low ceilings or multiple theater rows that require multiple height speakers.

For most users, you'll likely be concerned about supporting all immersive audio formats—including Dolby Atmos and DTS:X.  Therefore, what do you do? The most logical installation recommendation is to install an Auro 10.1 or 13.1 format (assuming you have the space and can install the top speaker). In the case of a 10.1 installation, install speakers at the front and rear of your room. The reasoning here is that currently, we know that the unified format accommodates front and rear height speakers. It also provides you with the most future-proof scenario.  If you install a 13.1 then you can anticipate future immersive audio advancements, but know that the side surround speakers may not be active. You can also run a canonical Auro-3D setup should you want to.

My biggest beef with my Denon AVR-X7200WA receiver is that I can't use the amp assign mode to run independent Auro-3D and Dolby Atmos and DTS:X setups.  I should be able to do that. I can load the different speaker configurations with Audyssey calibration, but it takes almost 15-20 minutes to re-upload them, which is a pain. My wish is that AVR manufacturers would allow users to run parallel and native Auro-3D and Dolby Atmos setups. DTS:X can sit on either. I don't know what's involved to do this from a programming point of view, but I can't imagine it's hard to do.

It's worth mentioning that you cannot use Dolby Atmos-enabled speakers with Auro-3D. Atmos-enabled speakers fire sounds up towards the ceiling and then bounce them back down to the listening position. These type of speakers are NOT nearly as effective as discrete mounted speakers and only recommend them as a last resort. 

For more information, see: Dolby Atmos-enabled vs Discrete In-Ceiling Speaker Listening Test Results

You need discrete on-wall or in-ceiling speakers with Auro-3D.  In case you're wondering, I did not try Atmos-enabled speakers to see how they sounded with Auro-3D.

Auro-3D 10.1 Test Setup

The speaker configuration in my home theater is designed to support a canonical 13.1 Auro-3D setup. While the Auro-3D specification prefers direct-radiating speakers, I did not follow that setup. Instead, I have all in-ceiling speakers.

Unlike Dolby Atmos, which calls for traditional, down-firing, in-ceiling speakers, Auro-3D calls for models with angled drivers for the front height and surround height speakers. The sole exception is the top voice of God speaker, which should not be angled. In my setup, I followed Auro-3D’s canonical recommendations where the Beale Street in-ceiling height speakers use angled tweeters and the voice of God overhead speaker has a down-firing tweeter.

Beale Street Audio Angled Speakers for Auro-3D setup

The Beale Street Audio speakers used for the Auro-3D height channels have angled woofers and pivoting tweeters.

 Even though my particular setup can accommodate a full 13.1 Auro-3D setup, my Denon X7200WA) doesn't support anything more than Auro 10.1. Whatever your speaker configuration may be, Auro-3D will automatically down-mix content to your installed setup.

The Denon AVR-X7200WA supports an Auro-3D 10.1 setup

I selected the Auro-3D 10.1 layout but used the Denon X7200WA's Amp Assign mode to power the SVS Ultra floorstanding speakers with the Monoprice Monolith 7 amplifier

AV Gear Used for the Auro-3D Evaluation

My Auro-3D 10.1 immersive audio test setup consisted of:

Listening Tests

Auro-3D was kind enough to send me some demo material for this real-world testing. I used the Auro-3D 2014 and 2016 demonstration discs (not commercially available) along with the 4K/UltraHD Blu-ray version of the Ghostbusters (2016) reboot and some additional Auro-3D audio material.  I’ve been using Auro-3D for well over a year and have tested it with both the unified format (front and rear height channels) and the canonical 10.1 configuration.

I felt as though moving the speakers to the rear instead of the side reduced some of the immediacy of the immersive experience. Our human hearing is more sensitive to the front and sides of our head. Positioning speakers to the rear of the room has an impact. Therefore, my comments here reflect my impressions with a canonical Auro-3D 10.1 configuration with side height channels and the overhead Voice of God channel active.

 

I started my review with Auro-3D's 2014 and 2016 demo discs. What I like best about the 2014 and 2016 Auro-3D demo discs is that they play some Auro-3D material and then take away the height and top layers so that you can hear the difference between a standard 5.1 mix and an Auro-3D mix.

One such demo puts you in the midst of Amsterdam City Center. Played in the native 9.0 Auro-3D format, you feel like you’re outside, listening to the hustle and bustle of the city all around you. When the disc cuts the height layer, the enveloping sensation collapses into a distinctly two-dimensional, horizontal plane.  The demo disc then cuts the floor standing speakers and enables the height channel only. It’s truly amazing what spacial cues are present in the height layer! Once the entire mix re-engages, I once again got the sensation that I was in a large, open space.

Another demo takes you into the countryside. You feel the sensation of being outdoors. Forest noises abound and there's a donkey in the distance. To my left, I heard a tractor coming. The effect is uncanny—it's eerily realistic. As the tractor comes up from behind and then goes off into the distance I swear it sounded like there was an open window next to me letting the tractor sounds in. I played this demo when my cousin Chris visited and he couldn't believe the effect.

Auro-3D cutting out top audio layer

Cutting out the height layer in this outdoor scene significantly flattened the audio signal and took away the realism I was experiencing with the full Auro-3D mix.

One of my favorite Auro-3D tests is Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, played in what sound like a massive stone Cathedral.  When the organ pipes kick in you'll be picking up your jaw from the floor. I was in awe at the sense of space that can be recreated through a set of home theater speakers. They speakers just aren’t there any longer.  You are in the space.

What I liked best about this track is that Auro-3D’s technology is used to enhance the musical experience. The massive organ is situated firmly along the front soundstage. I noted how realistic the echoes and reverberations were all around me. Again, this was not in a gimmicky way but true to how you’d experience that performance sitting in the pews.

Auro-3D Demo Discs on 4K UltraHD Blu-ray and Blu-ray

Auro-3D sent me different demo material on 4K UltraHD Blu-ray and Blu-ray

I’ve said it many times that for me a speaker system or technology has to perform well with music first and foremost or it isn't worth a thing.  Auro-3D delivered. I popped in the 9.1 Auro-3D mix of Magnificat performed by Nidarosdomens Jentekor & Trondheim Solistene and conducted by Anita Brevik. This work was recorded at the Nidaros Cathedral in Norway and the blissful majesty of the performance came across in spades. I closed my eyes and just got lost in the performance.

Magnificat, written and composed by Kim Andre Arnesen in Auro-3D

Magnificat was available as a 9.1 mix on the demo Blu-ray (shown above) but Auro-3D sent me the entire Blu-ray, which was an experience of pure bliss.

I turned to a number of movie clips from the two Auro-3D demo discs and finally to the Ghostbusters reboot in 4K/UltraHD Blu-ray. Once again, Auro-3D did an impressive job of creating the illusions that the walls in my listening space didn't exist. I played different scenes mixed in Auro-3D from Inferno, the Last Witch Hunter, The Croods, and Kung-Fu Panda 3 to name just a few. In all cases, the Auro-3D mix lived up to the hype, creating a beautifully immersive environment. In particular, the airplane scene from The Last Witch Hunter is eerily realistic as rumbling thunder seems like it's coming from an open sky above.

What was particularly impressive was those scenes where you had overhead/top-level sounds from an Auro 11.1 native mix. The voice of God channel is superb. There's one scene in the Auro-3D mix of Rise of the Guardians, for example where Santa's sleigh passes right overhead during the battle with Pitch Black. The effect with the voice of God speaker is just fantastic and you can track the sleigh as it passes overhead. In another scene from the movie Turbo, an airplane passes directly overhead. It's amazing—like you're sitting on the runway.

All in all, what Auro-3D does best is just get out of the way. Whether its music or movies, Auro-3D creates a realistic, three-dimensional listening space that envelops you and invites you into the content.

Auro-3D

Auro-3D's three-layer system is the real-deal.

Final Thoughts

Denon/Marantz Auro-3DWhen it comes to immersive audio codecs and standards, I hope that one day we won't think twice about it. Today we need to.

For the US market, Auro-3D, unfortunately, remains a niche player with Denon and Marantz being the only two big AVR companies jumping onto the Auro-3D bandwagon. Even though there are a number of movies and musical works recorded in Auro-3D, they are easier to come by in Europe and Asia than in the USA. I hope both of those change in the near future because support and content are critical to Auro-3D's consumer growth and adoption. I don't know exactly what barriers might exist for Auro-3D to expand these areas, but they should become a priority.

There's no question that Auro-3D is a strong contender in the immersive audio battle. The technology rocks. With a speaker layout that caters to many of the installed 5.1 systems out there, Auro-3D is a natural fit. The voice of God, top-layer speaker differentiates Auro-3D from Dolby Atmos and DTS:X and adds a heightened sense of realism to overhead effects.

I would propose that the next logical evolution for Auro-3D is to bring its object-oriented AuroMax 3D to the consumer space. That will likely take away the speaker layout limitations that remain a challenge today.

Until that happens, if you want to take advantage of Auro-3D today, the most logical solution will be to install the so-called unified format so you can run Auro-3D, Dolby Atmos, and DTS:X through the same speaker layout. That makes adopting Auro-3D a no-brainier even though you lose the side height layer.

If you have an AVR that supports Auro-3D, you'll do well to give it a try—even if you are only using it's Auro-Matic 3D upconverter that takes traditional 5.1 and 7.1 mixes and upconverts them to an immersive audio format.  No matter what you decide, taking Auro-3D for a focused review reinforced one thing more than ever: Now that I've experience immersive audio, I can't go back. And, neither will you.

 

About the author:
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Theo is a serious audiophile and home theater enthusiast—a passion he's enjoyed for over 20 years. He heads up many of our speaker system and receiver reviews as well as covering the latest in streaming technologies and Ultra HD video.

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Recent Forum Posts:

Grassy posts on February 08, 2019 18:37
What i find confusing is the amount of people that has upgraded to auro 3d and have basically only a demo disc to show for it. What have we spent our money on. I hope i am missing something because i see it as wasted money. Sorry guys but so far its not looking good.
Bookmark posts on January 31, 2019 05:36
I admire the optimism, but this makes zero difference. I guarantee everything out there now is already compliant with these proposals, it is how they are constructed, after the fact, in the first place. No format is guaranteed to succeed even if it is first to market.

Take a look at SDDS, Sony's Dynamic Digital Sound system, often seen in the movie credits. Around since 1993 until about 2013, with over 1400 movies and 6.5K theatres. Upto 8 channel and I believe the only company to ever produce home hardware to provide support for it was Sony, although I am not sure what home content there is/was.
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sony_Dynamic_Digital_Sound
https://web.archive.org/web/20130701055758/http://www.sdds.com/

Dts:X Pro will probably start to make an appearance in the home market. Dolby is likely are looking to revise Atmos at some point, but very few people will ever consider 32 channel setups. Most people are still at mono/stereo stage and consider Hi Def content to be on their 5" phone. Dts is looking to add a top layer, VOG and it is likely not a mono speaker. Signed up with IMAX and Denon this is could be the last chance saloon for Auro. Alas, this is a very select audience you are addressing.
snakeeyes posts on January 30, 2019 23:06
wagrant, post: 1295467, member: 87321
New Standards Simplify Distribution of Immersive Audio, Ensure Smooth and Consistent Playout on Various Immersive Sound Systems.
WHITE PLAINS, N.Y. — Sept. 25, 2018 — SMPTE®, the organization whose standards work has supported a century of advances in entertainment technology and whose membership spans the globe, today announced the publication of new SMPTE ST 2098 standards for immersive audio. The Society has published ST 2098-1:2018, Immersive Audio Metadata; ST 2098-2:2018, Immersive Audio Bitstream Specification; and ST 2098-5:2018, D-Cinema Immersive Audio Channels and Soundfield Groups.

By supporting delivery of a standardized immersive audio bitstream within a single interoperable digital cinema package, the new SMPTE immersive audio standards simplify distribution while ensuring that cinemas can confidently play out immersive audio on their choice of compliant Immersive sound systems.

There should be 3 deliveries (Atmos, DTX and Auro 3D) on the movies coming out in the next few years, so everyone will be happy…..hopefully if it happens in our lifetime.

Are you saying they would have all 3 on every disc. I am skeptical.
wagrant posts on January 30, 2019 23:01
New Standards Simplify Distribution of Immersive Audio, Ensure Smooth and Consistent Playout on Various Immersive Sound Systems.
WHITE PLAINS, N.Y. — Sept. 25, 2018 — SMPTE®, the organization whose standards work has supported a century of advances in entertainment technology and whose membership spans the globe, today announced the publication of new SMPTE ST 2098 standards for immersive audio. The Society has published ST 2098-1:2018, Immersive Audio Metadata; ST 2098-2:2018, Immersive Audio Bitstream Specification; and ST 2098-5:2018, D-Cinema Immersive Audio Channels and Soundfield Groups.

By supporting delivery of a standardized immersive audio bitstream within a single interoperable digital cinema package, the new SMPTE immersive audio standards simplify distribution while ensuring that cinemas can confidently play out immersive audio on their choice of compliant Immersive sound systems.

There should be 3 deliveries (Atmos, DTX and Auro 3D) on the movies coming out in the next few years, so everyone will be happy…..hopefully if it happens in our lifetime.
Bookmark posts on January 30, 2019 21:15
Well different distribution deals across the world mean in the UK we miss out on a number of Atmos titles currently available in the US. We seem to score better with the Dts:X but those are far fewer than Atmos. We don't get any Auro releases. Do they turn up on UHD 4K discs? I am not aware of any.

I would have been happy if my Marantz or Yamaha supported Auro and I could have tried out the up mixer, but as for titles, from the site, which doesn't necessarily seem to be up to date, 3 titles for 2018 does not suggest a ringing endorsement.

You have it, it's setup enjoy. Don't worry about us Luddites struggling with our much inferior Atmos/Dts:X setup.
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