Height Anxiety: More Channels...More Complexity

We’ve got trouble, right here in River-of-AV-City, and it’s spelled with a capital H, which stands for height.

Just about every AV receiver I review these days blazes Dolby Atmos/DTS:X-Compatible! on its marketing materials, packing box, and front-panel decals. This is a good thing, right? I mean, I’m an early fan of Atmos (I’ve much less experience with :X, so far), and now comes Auro-3D, which mandates, or at least strongly recommends, direct-radiating, that is in-ceiling as opposed to ceiling-bounce, “top” channels: up to six in number. If some is good and more is better, too much must be just about right, right?

Well, maybe. Tom Holman, godfather of THX and filmsound guru of U.S.C.’s filmschool, who knows a thing or two about surround sound—he literally wrote the book—long ago identified 10.2 channels as the optimal number, but I’m not here to quibble about the ultimate number of speakers in a given mode or a given setup, or even about “object-oriented” versus channel-based surround. (At our end it doesn’t much matter: ultimately we’re always talking about physical loudspeakers, and thus physical channels, anyway.)

The absolute number of speakers, amp-channels, and wires any user chooses to deploy is not my issue here. What is, is the overwhelming complexity that a receiver (or processor) offering two, and now three or even four competing, kinda-sorta-compatible, three-dimensional surround systems presents to the hapless setter-upper.

Take, for example, the most recent AVR I’ve evaluated for these pages. This also happened to incorporate Audyssey’s DSX—which actually predated the others by several years—and with an upgrade Auro-3D as well, four a total of four height-able mode families. It’s updated manual provided no fewer than 40 pages of speaker-configuration, speaker-location, and speaker-connection options and wiring-diagrams, many of which displayed both connection-schematic drawings and tables of channel/connection options; since the receiver has only seven channels of on-board power, only seven of its 11 speaker outputs can be active at any one time. There are, however, 13 non-subwoofer pre-amp line outputs, enabling outboard power amplifiers to fill the ranks of a more-than-seven-channel layout; the adjunct channels have to be routed to “Height1” or “Height2” output RCA pairs in the setup menus. And all this is without even mentioning the multiroom options: the receiver can output and manage up to three discrete zones.

My point is, the complication of all this configurability is daunting, to say the least. I’ve been doing this longer than most—far longer—and even I, grand-poobah of audio that I am, am still not sure if that particular receiver can direct a single top-center “Voice-of-God” channel for a 10.x Auro-3D setup, as opposed to paired top-center speakers for 11.x channels. (Though on reflection, I would imagine that paired top-centers are most likely supplied from a single channel, internally, anyway, so it probably makes no difference.)

In light of all this I have tried to imagine the intrepid DIY-er carrying home his shiny new AV receiver and cracking the manual. He’s probably conversant with Dolby Digital, possibly even Dolby TrueHD and DTS HDMaster. He might even be delighted to learn about Atmos and :X. I’ve then tried to imagine him matching his loudspeaker complement, current or prospective, to his room, his wiring choices, and his surround-mode options, and have to confess that the recurrent image that floats before my eyes is that of the Returns Desk: that $1,500 will buy a tablet and pair of headphones for every member of the household.

In absolute terms, I’m all for height, whether beaming down from Audyssey DSX (which is as much about “width” as height, in truth) Dolby Atmos, DTS:X, or even Auro-3D. I think it’s cool, and I think when deployed with artistry it holds the promise of incrementally raising the filmsound experience, and thus the home-theater one overall.

But as a practical matter, it seems another nail in the coffin of the DIY home-theater buff. Sure, there will still be plenty of hardcores to argue the merits of the various systems on our, and other forums, enough to post scores of how-to pages and individual evaluations. But will there be enough dual-income, 2.5-child, Prius-and-a-pickup households to keep the flame alive? I have my doubts. We’re already well on the way to making real home theater the exclusive province of the custom installer and his or her well-heeled, or at least better-heeled customers. Everybody else, it seems to me, is likely to choose low-cost, pre-configured Home Theater in a Box systems—a few of which are actually okay but most of which are truly abysmal—as their only rational option. Or perhaps more likely still, the aforementioned tablets and headphones.

If this sounds like a reflection of what’s happening in our society at large, well… For myself, I truly enjoy my Atmos system; I think its a worthy improvement to home-theater presentation. For the industry at large, I’m not sure we wouldn’t have been better off if we’d we’d quit at Pro Logic.

Usually, when I loose a rant like this—a not infrequent occurrence, my friends tell me—I offer a solution, however wild-eyed or impractical, but in this case I’m not sure I have one. How about you?

COMMENTS
jaredjcrandall's picture

I have found that I get ambitious and buy speakers and add to my hardware, but later determine that the value gained is so little relative to the cost and work. Hard to justify anything over 7.1 because my mains are exceptional enough that the soundstage is both wide and high, so nobody seated can really tell when the height channel (7.4.1) is activated, although some of that can be contributed to my ceilings being 8 feet tall and we sit about 2.5 feet from the ground. I've been more and more convinced that I'd rather put X dollars into the main system 7.1 rather than put the same X dollars into a 7.4.1 system.

Michael in Dallas's picture

I have a mini home theater in an apartment with custom speakers that are all at least six feet tall with vertical columns of tweeters. The height is already there to a certain extent and I find 7.1 very adequate for my purposes. Without a flat ceiling or discrete ceiling speakers and a large designated home theater space the object based formats seem stupid or difficult to implement. If I had a couple of hundred thousand dollars and a house to put that space in I might think differently.

K.Reid's picture

With all the features, functions, complicated master remotes, apps with complex remote controls and, oh, let's not forget the 500 page instruction manual, the modern AV receiver has become a complex computer with multichannel amplifier that plays audio and video. MDA object based audio increases complexity beyond what the average Joe can do or even cares to do. Most consumers will be satisfied by 7.1 or less. I cannot see many consumers with cathedral, tray, sloped, 20ft ceilings or open concept layouts implementing Atmos, Auro or DTS-X without frustration and difficulty. I go to my Local IMAX theater and it sounds great. AMC Prime is excellent with Atmos sound so is Cinemark with Auro sound but I don't go out of the way just for Atmos or Auro. IMAX is fine for most consumers. What is interesting is that most IMAX theaters have no height channels. They must not think height channels are that important either.

Warrior24_7's picture

Well if you can't spend time, you're going to spend money. This is a hobby and nothing more. Your system can be as elaborate as your imagination and budget allows. There is nothing wrong with hiring somebody to do the install and fine tuning if you can't do it yourself. It's not a mortal sin. It doesn't have to be built in a day either. Most people don't calibrate their TVs. My question about HT is are you getting what you paid for? Basically, is it worth it? For most people a sound bar is "good enough" or a HT in a box system. This is an expensive hobby and after spending thousands on gear, you can watch "two" movies in Atmos! How many in DTS:X or Auro-3D? EXACTLY! Is the software supporting the hardware? Does your set-up allow you to take advantage of Atmos, DTS:X or Auro-3D? If not, why pay extra money for those features? To me, this whole hobby is based on budget, personal taste, and bang for your buck.

mns3dhm's picture

Atmos only makes sense to me in a room that is designed and set up for home theater; I can't see people spending money on this in the typical living room set up you see in most homes. Those folks would do well to put their money into a good pair of speakers and a decent sub woofer.

why's picture

I just got home a shining new Pioneer Elite SC-95. The price is too good to pass by to upgrade my 7.2 to 9.2 channels so I can get to 5.1.4 setup for Dolby Atmos. Of course, there is NO specific instructions for such a setup in the manual. I have googled and read all reviews that I can find. No help there. Trying to set up WIFI is another challenge. I have yet any luck to set up iControlAV5. Half way through the process, the Return Desk actually did come to my mind. After much frustration, the 5.1.4 is set up. The sound part of 'Sound and Vision' is spectacular. The vision is excellent with 4K set. In the final analysis, the setup should be make clearer and easier if the modern day AVR wants to survive.

Traveler's picture

My ceiling is the concrete floor of the next unit.

knaveen's picture

thanks a lot also look at the following ..
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