[SoundStage!]Audio Hell
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May 2002

Surround Sound Doesn't Stink!

What? A dedicated tube man like myself? How could I write such a thing? Have I finally gone mad? Think of all of those tiny little triodes that fought so hard to stay alive! All so I could abandon them now! Say it isn’t so!

If you think this sounds a little over the top, you should have been in on the recent e-mail battle among SoundStage! staffers. It was quite interesting to discover how sensitive people are about the topic of surround sound. The opinions were as diverse as the readers of the site. We had people at the polar extremes who were seemingly immovable in their attitudes. I believe that the discourse that took place mirrored, quite well, the outlook of the public at large.

There are those in the two-channel-or-die camp who consider anything beyond a left and right speaker to be audio blasphemy. They may even prefer one channel and good mono recordings to those in 5.1. The only "point 1" they are interested in is the output of an ultra-low-output moving-coil cartridge. To this crowd, 5.1, 6.1, 7.1 are nothing more than flash and pizzazz. They get their center through the proper placement of two good speakers that image well. A deep soundstage can wrap around you without adding two channels in the rear. Some like tubes, some solid state, some a little of both. Digital may be invited, but analog is king.

On the other extreme is the hardcore, bleeding-edge surround fanatic. To this zealot, 5.1 is already as dead as tubes and vinyl (it’s not me talking here). Seven point one is where the action is, and he can’t wait for the next format change. He eats and breathes DTS, THX, ES, AC3, Dolby Pro 2, and MP3. Give him a fiber optic cable and a pocketful of bits and he’s in virtual heaven. Audio in SACD or DVD-Audio, please. Video is not a distraction but a requirement to complete the experience. He wants not only to hear the Boston Symphony Orchestra surround him seamlessly, but he wants to see Seiji Ozawa standing before him in all his high-definition splendor. Analog is dead. Long live the DAC.

Then there are the rest of us. We may be enamoured of our vinyl and tubes, and always will be. We may have some bias against new technology, and maybe even some snobbery is involved. Yes, we may even have some irrational fears about surround sound (my mother refused to own a microwave oven for years). Some of us have taken the plunge and have come up frustrated by a movement still in its infancy. Early stereo had a lot of problems too. But be it a genie’s bottle or Pandora’s box, surround has made its entrance and is not going anywhere.

It's important to realize that surround sound is still in a development or growth stage. Every format has been through this. When a new technology becomes available, there is a period of amazing improvement and growth. Just look at the CD. When it was first released, it was billed as "perfect sound forever." We soon found how ridiculous this was. The first players sounded sterile, compressed, and thin. A megabucks CD player of the mid-'80s would pale in comparison to even a relatively inexpensive design of today. Many say that CD has yet to reach its full maturity. Looking at the improvement in the last few years, this may not be far off the mark.

There is nothing inherently bad about surround sound, just like there is nothing inherently bad about television. If the quality of television were judged purely on reality shows that place contestants in small chambers and spray them with ice water while quizzing them on '70s trivia -- you get the idea. It’s all in the execution. I remember that my first experience with surround sound took place in the mid-'70s. A good friend of mine had a father who was an audiophile. He considered himself cutting edge, so his rig was Quadraphonic. I don’t know why I remember his list of equipment, but I do. He had a big Kenwood Quad receiver, a B.I.C. turntable, an Akai quadraphonic eight-track tape deck, and four original Advent speakers in the corners. My friend and I used to sit on beanbags in the middle of the room and bask in the sounds of Formula One race cars screaming around in circles. Cool!!! The music was the same way. A guitar in one corner, drums behind you, keyboards front and back. Most mixes were worse than a center-stage perspective -- they were center of an instrument perspective. As unrealistic as this would be to an educated ear, I only remember how impressed everyone was. It was different and had a high WOW factor.

Things that have extreme WOW factors usually are accompanied by low long-term-satisfaction factors. I’m reminded of the story of an amateur violinist hired to transport his employer’s collection of violins. He crashes on a desert island, the violins his only form of entertainment. He immediately pulls out the Stradivarius, thinking it the obvious choice. "Too dull and mellow," he thinks and moves on to one of the pricey new Asian models. This violin sounds very immediate, lively, and dynamic. He’s quite happy for a few days until his ears begin to ring. He moves on to something a little mellower. By the time his rescuers arrive, the man is sitting under a palm tree playing the "Scottish Fantasy" on the beloved Strad, a tranquil smile upon his face. There isn’t another violin in sight. They inquire as to the whereabouts of the remaining violins. "Firewood," he replies.

Right now it’s the WOW factor that is selling surround sound. Most people’s experience with surround is in places like Best Buy or other mass-market retailers. These stores play mostly crash-and-bang DTS movie trailers to the delight of the masses lined up for the 0% financing. When they do play music, it’s in the form of a poorly mixed concert video that thunders from all 5.1 speakers at once.

What most people think of as good surround sound is not much more than four-channel stereo with a subwoofer. They want to hear the rear channels all of the time. I’ve set up many home theaters for people, only to have them complain that they can’t hear much from the rear speakers and subwoofer, and "could I please turn them up." In a way this is kind of strange. When you go to the movies, most of the sound comes from the front speakers. You would think that people would be used to this. Perhaps the customer is thinking, "I paid for 5.1. I want to hear all 5.1 all the time." WOW! Manufacturers and music companies aren’t stupid. The bottom line is what keeps them going. Giving consumers what they want is what keeps stock prices rising. Right now consumers want WOW, and that's what they’ll get.

To get the surround thing going and keep the cash flow flowing, companies needed to get the software out there. The first and most cost-effective (i.e., profitable) source for music is the vaults. We had the LP, then the CD, and now we need the SACD or DVD-A. Shoot, I probably had the 8-track. Of course, none of these recordings were ever made with a surround format in mind, save for a few poorly mixed Quad-SQ pieces. A few brilliant engineers have worked some sonic wonders, but for the most part the results reflect the shortcomings.

It won’t always be this way. There are some shining beacons out there. Companies like DMP, Chesky, Telarc, Delos, and Sony are recording some fine new material mixed in surround from the beginning. A properly recorded classical recording in surround is startling. The orchestra is still out front where is belongs. Placement of individual instruments is not compromised. What the other 3.1 speakers seem to do, if properly set up, is give you a real sense of the venue. You hear more of the natural reflections of the room that make a performance real. On some software you even get the choice of perspective. You can hear the performance from the front row, or from a mid-hall perspective, without moving from your chair.

There are those who look at surround sound as a disease that will destroy our beloved hobby. But if what I hear from several dealers is true, surround sound is having the opposite effect. They are seeing customers who would never have taken an interest in two-channel audio knocking at their doors. Once they get through the door, a good dealer will show them how to listen and hear the differences. I know of several people who started this way and now have dedicated two-channel rooms, many with tube amps.

As card-carrying members of this obsession, perhaps we need to consider our tactics carefully. We can continue to turn our noses up, adding to the confusion of the battle over formats and standards. Perhaps people will get tired of it all, leaving SACD and DVD-A to be labeled as audiophile formats, which will no doubt lead to the death sentence of both. Or we may choose to view this as an educational process and encourage our friends to get involved. As educated listeners, do we really want to leave them in the hands of a 17-year-old car-sub salesman?

Right now I live in a house divided: tubes and vinyl in the living room with all the music, surround sound in the extra bedroom with the television and videos. I like it this way. The tubes and music relax me and bring me to a more harmonious state. As I wrote in a previous column, tubes have soul. Will my habits always remain this way? Who’s to say? To say never would be nave. Perhaps the day of 7.1 single-ended triode is coming, and such a beast will take over my living room.

...Bill Brooks


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