If getting artists, engineers, producer and record labels to recognize the viability of high-resolution audio is proving to be a challenge, what are the chances that surround music is going to make it? Not great…but there is at least continued development and interest in the whole surround sound delivery because we’ve gotten used to 5.1 surround sound at the Cineplex and in our home theaters.
Whereas high-resolution audio with its increased frequency range and dynamic range is sometimes difficult to perceive, everyone can immediately tell the difference between a traditional stereo presentation and a well done surround mix. It’s another question entirely whether audiophiles or the general public like music delivered through 5 or more speakers but it is not hard to hear. So perhaps I should spend a little time talking about the emerging world of surround sound and whether immersive music experiences are going to be part of our future.
I recently revamped my home theater. Actually, I didn’t really have a home theater…my wife an I enjoyed television and movies from DirecTV through an again Panasonic 42″ monitor (I bought is when it was $3K…ouch), a Denon A/V receiver and five B&W FCM-8 speakers mounted on heavy stands. Honestly, the only surround sound that we listened to was from the Denon DVD player that I took from the studio. I would always see the “Available in 5.1 Where Available” on the television during some satellite programming but never bothered to figure it out.
But things have changed in the Waldrep household. We moved a couple rooms around and took over what was the original study and transformed it into a media room. I took the Panasonic 65″ 3D Viera TV home, a more recent model Yamaha receiver and the Oppo BDP-105 that I had in the studio. The Oppo has become the center of my Netflix-powered media room thanks to the new Time Warner high-speed cable that we had installed. I cancelled all the bonus channels at DirecTV and now everything I watch has 5.1 surround sound (the spouse factor did kick in when I told my wife that I was going to move the FCM-8 into the new space…but since I was the one that installed the carpets tiles…I promised to hide the 14 gauge speaker cables under the carpet).
It’s great! Having surround sound while watching a movie is a major improvement…and it’s all coming through as a data stream. Of course, this isn’t high-resolution or anything close but it does work seamlessly.
But this is movies…not music. Where’s the surround music experience? Or should I ask…where’s the surround music products? Record labels are not issuing surround music products like they did 10 or so years ago. The cost, the complexities of the 5.1 mixing, artist approval and distribution formats are challenges that have forced the mainstream labels to opt out of delivering surround music.
It’s only a few audiophile labels like my own AIX Records that are still actively creating and distributing music in 5.1.
So why are their so many people working on getting surround playback to happen using headphones. Last week, the studio did a measurement session for a client of Smyth-Research, the Northern Ireland company that makes the “Room Realizer”. This processor convincingly simulates the actual experience of listening to my five B&W 801 speakers in my main mixing room through a set of headphones. It’s the best of the best.
On Thursday and Friday, a major headphone supplier blocked out the studio and did a whole bunch of testing and analysis on directionality, head related transfer functions and complex filtering for surround sound. And they’re not alone in doing this type of research.
Like it or not, surround sound (movies and hopefully music) is coming to personal portable devices like smart phones and iPods. I’ve already got a large number of my albums available in the Headphones[xi]® format.