It looks like there may be a new format war brewing, not in physical media like VHS vs. Beta or Blu-ray vs. HD DVD, or even LCD vs. plasma, but in immersive surround sound formats. The format that has been getting all the attention lately has been Dolby Atmos, but there is another contender in the height-enabled surround sound universe and that's AURO-3D.
Each format uses height speakers to enhance the listening experience. Now when movie or concert sound is delivered, it can come from above you, not just from around you and this enables a more immersive viewing and listening experience. Dolby Atmos works via object-encoding so that the same theatrical mix can be rendered in a theater that has 11 speakers or 64 and sound wil be precisely mapped to its proper positions around the room. AURO-3D uses a more traditional channel-based approach to deliver not just one, but two layers of height information: a standard height channel above the surround channels plus a "Voice of God" channel directly above the listener.
To date, there have been many more theatrical films encoded in Dolby Atmos than in AURO-3D, but the selection of Dolby Atmos-encoded titles for home is not expanding as quickly as some might like. The home version of the format was only announced in June and products are just hitting shelves now, so we should give it some time to come to market, but if Dolby is not careful, AURO-3D could come in and take a big piece of the home immersive surround market that way that DTS did in the early days of Blu-ray.
In any case, with these two competing formats coming to the home market, companies like Denon and Marantz are hedging their bets. D&M Holdings (parent company to Denon and Marantz) has announced that their latest top-of-the-line surround sound receivers and preamp/processors -- ones that already decode Dolby Atmos -- will also decode AURO-3D via an upcoming firmware update. The upgrade is expected in December of this year for the Denon AVR-X5200W and AVR-X4100W receivers as well as the Marantz SR7009 A/V Receiver and AV7702 Preamp/Processor. There will be a charge for this upgrade though the company has not yet revealed the details of that.
Some questions still remain as to implementation: the speaker placement of the two formats is a bit different. Dolby Atmos at home can use up to 24 surround channels and 10 height speakers, but does not have a concept of height "layers." Meanwhile AURO-3D is typically an 8.0 to 13.1-channel system with two distinct layers of height channels: one just above ear level and one directly overhead. High-end preamp/processors like those from Trinnov and Steinway Lyngdorf will have the ability to do virtual remapping of speakers to accomodate the different configurations. But will consumer grade receivers be as flexible? Or will the end-user need to select one format or the other at installation time? And what will happen with those Atmos-enabled speakers that bounce sound off the ceiling for height effects? Will those be compatible with AURO-3D?
We have the Marantz SR7009 in for review and hope to be able to answer these questions later in the year as the upgrade becomes available. For now, let the immersive surround sound games begin!