I love living in Los Angeles. Don't get me wrong—I hate the traffic, the nighttime light pollution, and the long distances you must travel to get almost anywhere. But L.A. is the center of the media universe, with tons of studios, post-production facilities, and other businesses involved in the entertainment industry, especially movies and television. I often see location shoots as I walk around my neighborhood, and there are several studios of various sorts within a few blocks of my house.
Among them is The Dub Stage, which provides audio post-production services for movies and television. When owner Marti Humphrey read my post about seeing Elysium twice in one day—once in Barco Auro and again in Dolby Atmos—he was dismayed that my experience of Auro was not good, so he invited me to his studio to hear what Auro should sound like. It turns out that the theater I went to for the Auro presentation wasn't really configured to Auro specs—in particular, the ceiling speakers were in clusters and too far apart, and there weren't enough second-level surround speakers. Even worse, the movie wasn't even played in Auro at that theater, though I had been assured by the theater staff that it was!
The Dub Stage has a properly configured Auro system with self-powered Meyer speakers all around. Six Acheron 80 speakers are mounted in two rows of three (lower and upper) behind a 28x12-foot Harkness perforated screen. Eight HMS-10 speakers are mounted in two rows of four on each side wall, and four more HMS-10s serve as the rear surrounds in two rows of two; the upper surround speakers are angled downward by 30 degrees. Four more HMS-10s are mounted on the ceiling to reproduce the "Voice of God" overhead channel.
Bringing up the low end are four Meyer X800 dual-18" subwoofers at the front of the room and three X500 dual-12" subs in front of the mixing console. The X800s reproduce the LFE channel, while the left-wall surrounds are bass-managed to the left X500, the right-wall surrounds are bass-managed to the right X500, and the Voice of God and rear-wall surrounds are bass-managed to the center X500.
In this photo (lightened so you can see the speakers), I've circled the four Meyer X800 subs at the front of the room, three X500 subs in front of the console, upper and lower side and rear surrounds, and Voice of God overhead speakers—all Meyer HMS-10s—in The Dub Stage's Auro system. Missing from the photo are the six Meyer Acheron 80 speakers behind the screen.
The entire system includes 27,500 watts of power, and each speaker is equalized and time-aligned to the central mix position. Also, all speakers are fed from a central processor—they are not daisy-chained, so Humphrey and his associate, Chris Jacobson, can do object-oriented mixes. In fact, while Auro started as a channel-based 11.1 system, the company is now working on adding object-oriented mixing, and The Dub Stage is the only facility in the world with this capability.
Humphrey had me sit in the central mix position and played several clips from movies mixed or remixed in Auro 11.1, including Oz the Great and Powerful, Red Tails, Rise of the Guardians, The Croods, and Ender's Game. All sounded amazing, with a complete 3D soundfield—for example, the sound of the shuttle launch from Ender's Game was literally all around me, as were the sounds from the games in the Battle Room. The clips from Oz the Great and Powerful included the tornado and waterfall, fireworks, and the witches fighting while flying around the room, and the Auro soundtrack was very effective and totally immersive.
They also played some demo clips produced by Auro, including shots of Amsterdam recorded with two quad microphones (8.0 channels, no center speakers) and some shots in the countryside with 9.0 channels (adding the low center). During the clips, the lower and upper rows of speakers were turned on and off to demonstrate the importance of the high channels.
A recording of Bach's Toccata and Fugue in D minor played on a cathedral organ and recorded in 11.1 was very impressive, with all the 3D ambience you'd expect if you were sitting in the cathedral, as was a 9.0-channel recording of a full orchestra in a Brussels concert hall. Finally, two 11.1-channel recordings of an airplane and helicopter flying overhead were most convincing.
I asked Humphrey why he preferred Auro over Dolby Atmos, and he cited several reasons. For one thing, six speakers in front allows him to place sonic components in the front of the soundstage in their own space, and the Auro toolkit works within his existing Pro Tools workflow. Atmos is more complicated to use, and it has a steep licensing fee, which Auro does not.
The Dub Stage is the third facility in the world to have an Auro system—the first is Auro's own studio in Belgium, and the second is Skywalker Sound—and other studios are coming online. However, Humphrey acknowledges that it's a chicken-and-egg problem—studios and theaters each want an installed base in the other before they invest heavily in the technology.
As far as theaters are concerned, Cinemark has announced it will have around 150 Auro rooms next year, and Regal has signed an agreement for about 20 theaters. To find an Auro-equipped theater near you, visit this page and enter your address. Unfortunately, this theater finder includes Screen 15 at the Pacific Glendale 18, where I saw Elysium, which was an unsatisfying experience. I'm going to try Screen 2 at the Pacific Grove and Screen 2 at the Calabasas Stadium 6, the only other Auro theaters listed in the L.A. area as of this writing.
My visit to The Dub Stage was a real ear-opening experience, especially after my disappointment in the so-called "Auro" presentation of Elysium at the Pacific Glendale 18. I thank Marti Humphrey for inviting me to hear what Auro can really do.