Dr. AIX's POSTS — 05 May 2015

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Multichannel music is an avenue that audiophiles should explore and embrace. AIX and our partners demonstrated a real high-resolution audio system in the Lakeshore B Ballroom at Axpona and I know that Emotiva also featured surround sound sourced from an OPPO BDP-105. It’s coming…no, it’s already here! There are millions of home theater systems in homes around the country with surround sound. There are at least 16 different automobiles that can deliver surround sound and I count at least a dozen systems for delivering surround sound through a standard set of headphones.

There will come a time when the majority of room at one of the big trade shows will feature surround music. You heard it hear first.

I’ve been a huge advocate of surround music mixing and delivery since I first heard a surround music track over 25 years ago. The arrival of the DVD-Video format made it feasible for consumers to enjoy surround music. And the record companies produced and released a large number of albums remixed in surround…at least at the beginning of the 21st century. They don’t do very much now.

Audio writers like Robert Harley and Andrew Quint of TAS are supporters of multichannel audio. So why is it still so rare to find a demonstration room at a trade show like AXPONA playing music in surround sound? Every time I demonstrate the difference between a stereo mix and a “stage” perspective mix, there are very few listeners that don’t prefer the immersive nature of a good surround mix.

Artist’s support surround music. This is a quote from Steve Miller:

“With the Surround Sound mix, people will finally hear [Fly Like An Eagle] the way I originally intended it to be heard…I always tell people that making a stereo record is a trick. You go in and do all this stuff, and then you listen to it – and you can never get the full spectrum. You have to fool people into thinking they’re getting this big spectrum. It sounds a lot better than mono, but now, with surround, everything opens up and breathes. You hear the instruments. And on the new Eagle, there’s a lot of movement in the mix, but it’s not gimmicky.”

Producer’s and audio engineers love it, too. Here’s a quote from Grammy winning engineer Elliot Scheiner:

“Every person that I’ve taken into the studio or the car that is hearing it for the first time is completely blown away. They go, ‘Wow, I’ve never heard anything like this before, it’s incredible!’ And, then it’s hard to go back to stereo, and I agree! Once you’ve heard 5.1, it’s difficult to go back.”

And consumers find surround music a completely new…and better way…to hear their music. I got this comment from a member of the Bay Area Audio Society a few years ago following a demo:

“Nice thing from this event was that I got to walk out of there with a free sampler of AIX releases with DVD-A on one side and DVD-V on the other. Not having a DVD-A player, the choice of sides to play was pretty easy. So, I put this disc into my player last weekend to give it a fair shake. Knowing that both the ‘stage’ and ‘audience’ perspectives were available for each song, I opted to hear the ‘stage’ mix for all of my listening. Again, I notice right off that it is a bit weird having the drums in the right rear of the room, but after a while I also noticed that this mix is very easy to listen to and identify individual instruments in the soundfield. I stuck with it and listened to most of the extensive list of samples provided on this disc. At the second to last song, I decided to switch over to the ‘audience’ mix. Whoa! After becoming used to the ‘stage’ mix, the ‘audience’ mix literally folded into a flat plane along the wall that I have my front speakers on. Sure, this was now a very traditional mix, but I never realized how flat and lifeless it is. It was like looking at a picture hanging on the wall instead of literally experiencing the music around me. Even more interesting, to me, is that in the ‘audience’ mix there was still significant energy in the rear speakers, but it was a flat presentation in front of me. Going back to ‘stage’ mix all of the instruments opened up, got plenty of space around them and lost a lot of congested feeling in the sound.”

Give it a chance and you’ll find a new level of enjoyment…and then be frustrated at the lack of content.

The music industry is missing a huge opportunity. But there are signs that some hardware companies are pursuing multichannel music with the announcement of 8 channel DACs from exaSound, and Merging Technologies. I know I piqued the interest of Benchmark’s lead designer after the weekend in Chicago. The final line in a recent email closed with, “By the way, you have converted me from being a stereo-only listener.” They say the first step begins with acceptance…we’ll see where it leads.

To be continued…

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(28) Readers Comments

  1. “You heard it hear first.” Classic Freudian slip!

    • Boy, you got that right.

  2. Surround sound, all very well but the price goes up

    • Yes, unfortunately it will but it doesn’t have to cost a lot.

  3. Baby steps brother…..baby steps.

    • I’m thinking that moving to surround sound might have more of an impact than the high-resolution stuff. It’s easier to hear.

  4. Its too expensive to realise for ordinary consumers who represent the majority of buyers of music in stereo, where it is and always as been very expensive to do justice to justice the stereo content alone. Yes the prices will come down but i cant afford it. I will try with what i can afford but the reality of what you propose will be years away for most of us without serious investment and supply and demand.

    • Not if we can deliver the surround experience in a set of headphones. You should check out some of the Headphones[xi] examples on the FTP site. I also did the process to the Beatles “Eleanor Rigby” on Youtube.

  5. So , do you set channel levels for 7.1 HT and then put the surround music on? Or do you set up for surround music and then put the movies on.

    I have set up and tuned up dozens of 5.1 and 7.1 systems. For really good music surround, center channel, surrounds and sub must not be overdone as they unfortunately frequently are for movies. Manufacturers also perpetuate this with the idea that you want the sub linear for music, but boofed up for movies.

    Without a picture to watch, folks may notice how poorly their surround systems actually are set up, an observation frequently missed when you add in the movie picture and action. Above all, the “mono-izing” of the LCRs’ that occurs when the center channel is way dominant; these are all things that will badly mar a surround music playback but are common in systems set up mostly for movies and tv. And the legions of folks w/ in ceiling surround speakers…?

    • If you’re a music guy like me, you would set five identical speakers in an ITU configuration and let the movies suffer a little bit. The levels of the speakers should all be the same…I’m not sure I’m with you on the “overdone” comment.

      Picture does have an effect on how you hear things…

  6. One of the barriers is you now need 3 more speakers for a 5 channel set up. That can get expensive, let alone a MC amp or sets of amps. Considering the cost of a lot of the audiophile components today, that is a lot of scratch. Then their is the fact of fitting the system in a typical living room. To me, that is a big part of the problem for audiophiles, plus the fact that a good deal of audiophiles are stuck in their ways. Change is bad after all, to quote my son. I am lucky to have 2 separate rooms one for 2 channel the other for HT. I listen to Mark’s great sounding blu-rays in the HT room.

    • It does take more gear but it doesn’t have to be crazy expensive to get a reasonable result. And there’s always headphone systems like Smyth Research’s Room Realizer.

  7. If the audience perspective is “flat” I would argue that’s an artifact of the “fold-down” process. I have numerous stereo recordings that create a sense of depth with some instruments foreground and others more recessed – but these are mostly vintage orchestral recordings using three mics or a limited mic array. “Panned stereo” is, as you describe, flat. But in a sense, so can surround recordings be flat, in the sense that all instruments are presented in a single though circular plane. I’ve heard many surround systems and to my ears they sound very artificial. I had the experience once of playing a modest role with a large symphony orchestra. Yes, the sound came from all around me. But it didn’t coalesce into a singe mighty instrument the way the composer and conductor intended. In fact, most conductors I now make the point that they feel the perspective from which they hear the orchestra to be artificial and not at all optimal. A symphony orchestra is intended to be heard from an audience perspective. Now all this is arguably different when you discuss modern pop and jazz recordings that are imagined from the start as studio creations.

    • The audience perspective sounded flat by way of comparison the the aggressive surround mixes that he had listened to for over an hour. They weren’t flowdowns. The depth of these recordings is accomplished by using lots of stereo pairs of mics. I never use panned stereo or surround.

      As for the conductor’s position…I know that Zdenek Macal certainly was complimentary when I played a recording of the Beethoven 6th Symphony for him from the aggressive stage mix.

  8. Hi Mark,

    You can add the MiniDSP U-DAC8 to your list of multi-channel USB DACs. And it’s only $299.

    MiniDSP U-DAC8

    Russ

    • Thanks Russ.

  9. There are many hundreds – probably a few thousands – of surround recordings available. Of course, most of them are SACDs – which you routinely disparage –, and are recorded and mixed to re-create the sound from the audience perspective – which also doesn’t hold a lot of interest for you. An interesting question is whether these format and recording decisions are demand driven, or based on the whims of the producers.

    On another note, when mentioning reviewers who are interested in surround sound, you shouldn’t omit Kal Rubinson whose “Music in the Round” has been a monthly feature in Stereophile for quite a few years.

    • A few thousand surround recordings have been produced ranging from good to terrible. A sizable percentage are SACDs…and a reasonable number of those are “native DSD” (maybe a few hundred). The audience perspective is quite common but it doesn immerse you in the sound of the room. I think the decision of mix type is made by the producers of the titles…and most are audience type.

      Absolutely true, Kal is a big supporter of surround and good friend.

      • You should contact Robert von Bahr at BIS about selling his multichannel mixes through iTrax. All of their recent projects are recorded at 24/96, and I think that all, or nearly all, have surround.

        • I was in touch with Robert years ago…I’ll reach out again.

  10. Mark, is the center channel really necessary, or is a 4.1 surround system enough?

    • It depends on the company making the recordings…I don’t put much in the center but other do.

  11. Your next surround audio system may be in your car!
    Yes, more and more people will experiment surround sound in their next automobile with, quite possibly, a better audio system that in their home. I had the opportunity to hear the Revel audio setup at the NY auto show (A big thank you goes out to Kevin Voecks from Harman for the opportunity) and I was thoroughly impressed by the sound and how well sorted out the system was. We were in a car, surrounded by glass and leather surfaces, yet the sound was simply amazing. How come? Because, as Kevin pointed out, the manufacturer can control the vehicle listening environment contrary to a home audio system installed in unknown surroundings.
    Surround sound in cars is probably a blessing in disguise, especially since today’s driver has plenty of time to enjoy his audio system while sitting in traffic. Who knows, this could even have a soothing effect on motorists.

    • I’ve had 5.1 surround sound in my car for over 10 years. This is the perfect place to enjoy immersive audio.

  12. There are probably a few thousand quadraphonic recordings floating around. Yes, it’s old, failed technology, but I still love my quads. I know of a handful that have been re-released as SACD or DVD-A, but I’d be willing to bet at least even money that more quad recordings were released than digital surround audio recordings.

    • I’m looking into this.

  13. Couldn’t agree more with your comments on the benefits to the listener of HD surround sound! I use a Emotiva UMC with a Emotiva power amp.Speakers are high end Australian Richters.The source is a Intel i7 with a high end AMD graphics card via HDMI which provides a audio pass thru DTS-HD TRUE HD and PCM.I was interested to read about your use of a Lynx PCIE card at your recent demonstration Would I find any improvement in sound quality by utilizing a Lynx card in replace of The AMD passthru. Keep up the good work!

    • The Lynx Card is simply a way to exit the PC. If you’ve already go that covered, you’re good to go.

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