5.1 Surround in Automobiles

Listening to multichannel music is a decidedly different experience than hearing just 2.0-channel stereo. The fact that the majority of audiophiles are wedded to their 2.0-channel stereo setups is not surprising. For decades the labels and radio stations have delivered only stereo sound. I hear from a lot of audiophiles that have a dedicated listening room AND a separate home theater. They do their critical listening in the stereo room and reserve time in the home theater for watching and enjoying movies or live concert DVD/BDs. But there’s a third option…listening in your car.

I used to spend a lot of time in my car commuting between a house in the valley and a job in Carson. During those long rides, I would tune in NPR or listen to a CD. I’ve never invested in an aftermarket audio upgrade for my car (although I did add a cassette player to my 1974 Chevy Vega wagon…if that counts), but I have had some pretty good cars over the years. The Waldrep rule of automobile acquisition is that my wife or I can purchase a new car once every ten years. It’s worked out pretty well economically but hasn’t allowed for much innovation in the audio area.

My previous car, a 1993 Acura Legend, had a pretty reasonable sound system…in dash CD player, multiple speaker stereo playback system and decent head unit. But in 2005, it was time for another automobile. One Saturday evening, after a terrific Mexican meal at El Cholo in Santa Monica (our favorite restaurant), I asked my wife if we could head over to the local Acura dealer and kick a few tires. I knew that the new Acura TL model was capable of playing DVD-Audio discs. Here for the first time was the possibility to play 5.1 surround music in a car. How cool is that?

As I usually do when shopping for anything high tech, I don’t let on that I’m an audio engineer or studio owner. It’s always more interesting to see how the salesperson presents the features of whatever entertainment system they’re selling. Sometimes it reasonably accurate and sometimes it’s complete nonsense. It’s no wonder why so many people are confused when they’re shopping for anything high tech!

So I’m at the dealership and they have a white, six-speed manual transmission (I’ve always like to shift and at the time a manual shift car would prevent my kids from driving my car!), 2005 Acura TL with the ELS sound system…perfect. It’s time to test drive the car AND check out the audio system. I drove the car around the block. This is a great car…lots of power, great handling and very comfortable.

In the parking lot of the dealership, we turned to the ELS audio system. I asked the salesperson if he could introduce me to the features and demo something. He told me about Elliot Scheiner (a very successful Grammy-winning audio engineer) and Panasonic, the people that collaborated on the system together. And then he pulled out the “DVD-Audio Experience” demonstration disc from the glove box. It was time for some surround HD music.

Now I should tell you that I already knew a lot about the system AND I knew every track on the demo disc. In fact, Warner Brothers Records had licensed an a cappella track from my project Zephyr: Voices Unbound for the disc. He fired up the system and began to play tracks from The Doobie Brothers, Grover Washington and others in full surround. It sounded really great! The mixes made full use of the left and right surround speakers. I was very impressed.

Then I asked him to skip to track 11…the Zephyr track “Now Is The Month Of Maying”. As the track began to play, I started to sing along with the tenor part. The salesperson turned to me and told me that he had never made it that far in the list of tracks on the disc. He also told me that the track was amazing and made a great demo because it was just voices…no instruments. I explained that this was a production from my little label and that it was made in an entirely different way than the other tracks on the disc.

He was actually interested. I explained the whole concept of new recordings vs. older tracks and how the increased fidelity of new recordings done the way that I work have the potential for increased dynamic range and frequency response than the older, more commercial tracks on the disc. He got it and told me that he would be using track 11 more often. Well, that’s what he told me anyways.

Needless to say, I went home with a new car that evening. I still have my TL and I still enjoy listening to the 5.1 surround system. It’s not the same as my studio but it does do a pretty great job of reproducing my tracks.

Let’s consider this Part I of a topic that I will revisit. There’s lot more about surround sound in cars to discuss.


Mark Waldrep, aka Dr. AIX, has been producing and engineering music for over 40 years. He learned electronics as a teenager from his HAM radio father while learning to play the guitar. Mark received the first doctorate in music composition from UCLA in 1986 for a "binaural" electronic music composition. Other advanced degrees include an MS in computer science, an MFA/MA in music, BM in music and a BA in art. As an engineer and producer, Mark has worked on projects for the Rolling Stones, 311, Tool, KISS, Blink 182, Blues Traveler, Britney Spears, the San Francisco Symphony, The Dover Quartet, Willie Nelson, Paul Williams, The Allman Brothers, Bad Company and many more. Dr. Waldrep has been an innovator when it comes to multimedia and music. He created the first enhanced CDs in the 90s, the first DVD-Videos released in the U.S., the first web-connected DVD, the first DVD-Audio title, the first music Blu-ray disc and the first 3D Music Album. Additionally, he launched the first High Definition Music Download site in 2007 called iTrax.com. A frequency speaker at audio events, author of numerous articles, Dr. Waldrep is currently writing a book on the production and reproduction of high-end music called, "High-End Audio: A Practical Guide to Production and Playback". The book should be completed in the fall of 2013.

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