3D Audio: Entertainment’s Untapped Game Changer

While 3D video may have fizzled out, 3D audio could be one of the most important developments in entertainment technology in the last few years.

Wilfried van Baelen

When talking about buying a new TV, it’s almost impossible to avoid talking about video quality. Consumers have grown increasingly conscious of visual resolution, and retailers have taken note, amping up their offerings of 1080p and UHD/4K televisions.

All too often, though, consumers haven’t been paying nearly as much attention to audio quality. This lack of attention to sound quality is particularly problematic because of the sharp audio technology improvements in the last few years, especially with the rise of immersive audio.

Consumers who aren’t taking advantage of these massive improvements in audio quality are missing out on one of the most important developments in entertainment technology of the last few years.

That statement might come as a shock to some, but it shouldn’t. Immersive audio – surround sound with height – has been a game changer. From movie theaters to home cinemas to albums, more and more studios are embracing the immersive audio revolution. Increasing numbers of Blu-rays are now released in 3D audio formats – but far too many customers don’t have the technology to support it.

It’s one of the more ironic aspects of the home theater market: people will shop around for the sharpest picture quality available, but don’t get to experience immersive sound due to lack of proper equipment to support existing formats (being Auro-3D, DTS:X and Dolby Atmos). Considering the lack of conversation on the topic, many consumers just seem not to care as much about their audio quality—which is a grievance, in and of itself.

The sentiment is a pity, because 3D audio has created a fundamental shift in entertainment. It adds a whole new layer to audio delivery, enabling the listener to feel like they’re actually there, an impossible feat to accomplish with picture alone. Imagine listening to an album and feeling as if you’re listening to the musician perform live in concert. Immersive audio has the power to do that.

Movies can be enjoyed like never before, with the audio system supplementing incredible visuals to deliver an experience that can’t be replicated with surround sound. With 3D audio, viewers can experience sound like characters in the movie – for example, if a helicopter flies above during a particular scene, the viewer will hear that sound creeping up from behind, flying above them and petering out in distance as it travels away—as they would in real life.   

A part of me understands why immersive technology hasn’t been adopted as quickly as the latest advancements in picture quality. When I was first designing the Auro-3D format back in 2005, it took me a while before I really understood the power of the subconscious process when in the middle of a “vertical stereo field all around” and how it creates a higher emotional impact, not only in movies, but also in music, games, sport events and beyond.

But after years on the market, and seeing how people have so thoroughly enjoyed the addition of immersive audio, I now know that it is integral aspect to fully enjoying any piece of media that is filmed or recorded using 3D audio equipment (which already includes virtually all major movies when they hit the theater).

Of course, for consumers to fully embrace and adopt immersive audio, there needs to be an ongoing conversation about its importance – something that, unfortunately, has not been as prominent as I would expect. The fact that there isn’t much dialogue around audio quality is problematic – if someone buys a 4K TV but they only get an outdated sound system, they’ll be missing out on half the experience.

Television and film, after all, are not just visual mediums, but audio-based ones as well. Movie studios are putting an increasing amount of effort into sound design, making subtle shifts in sounds integral to movie watching, like in the top summer hits Jason Bourne and The Legend of Tarzan.

Of course, it’s not just home theater connoisseurs who are missing out on 3D audio; plenty of movie theaters have been slow to upgrade, as well. Instead, some have continued to stick with their now-outdated surround sound systems.

What they don’t realize is that they are short-changing their customers. As studios continue to put more and more effort into their sound engineering, moviegoers will vote with their feet (and cash) and go to the theaters that can provide the full breath of what films have to offer – an immersive experience that is more than a gimmick, but something that allows for a deeper emotional connection between consumers and what’s happening on the screen.

There’s no doubt that consumers care about enjoying high-media. That there hasn’t been as much movement towards immersive audio, then, is incongruous. This disconnect isn’t because immersive audio doesn’t add to the media experience – far from it. It’s because 3D audio hasn’t yet entered the cultural lexicon. Given the fact that an increasing number of production studios are aggressively adopting immersive audio technology, though, it is simply a matter of time before it breaks through.

Viewers always want to get the full enjoyment possible out of their movies, TV shows, and music, and once they see (or in this case, hear) how much immersive audio adds to their enjoyment, 3D audio will finally get the recognition that it deserves.

Author Wilfried Van Baelen is founder and CEO of Auro Technologies, is a renowned pioneer in the production of high-end Surround Sound for both music and film. He is the inventor of the Auro-3D Listening Formats, and he developed the concept of the “Auro Creative Tool Suite” which offers ground-breaking and easy-to-use levels of sound reproduction capability in 3D.