Surround Music Never Caught On?

The Audiophiliac, aka Steve Guttenberg, wrote an interesting piece over at cnet.com (click here to read the entire article) that in his opinion interest in surround sound is “fading fast”. While I do have a great deal of respect for Steve (he called our Goldberg Variations Blu-ray disc “best sounding 3D Blu-ray in the world”!) and he does make some valid points, I can’t agree that surround sound is going away.

He’s absolutely right that the major labels have essentially abandoned making new 5.1 music albums. The early 2000s did see the release of hundreds of albums recast as 5.1 SACDs or DVD-Audio products but the cost was prohibitive based on limited sales numbers. Steve states, “…there was a large number of households with surround systems, but surround sound without an accompanying image was a non-starter.” [NOTE: I’m guess Steve has problems with the recent push by Universal and others for the “High Fidelity Pure Audio Blu-ray” format. I’m also glad that virtually all of my high-resolution audio releases have video.]

Surround sound without pictures is a non-starter? So stereo without pictures is OK but add a few more channels and things go bad? How about the DVD-Audio surround sound systems in automobiles? Lest you think they’ve gone away, let me share a recent experience at my local Acura dealership. I had to take my 2005 Acura TL (which is equipped with an ELS DVD-Audio premium sound system WITH 5.1 surround speakers) in for routine maintenance and as it happened they had to keep the car overnight. “Would you like a loaner car, Dr. AIX?”, asked the service representative. Sure.

I drove out of the dealership in a brand new 2014 Acura ILX luxury sports sedan. As I drove back to the studio I noticed that the audio system includes playback for DVD-Audio discs (which is admittedly not a major market force in the music industry) AND has a built in 5.1 sound system. The website that I looked up actually features the audio system and its enhanced sub woofer. I was honestly surprised but impressed that my DVD-Audio releases still have a home in the Acura product line. And it turns out that there are 14 other models that still support surround sound using DVD-Audio as the format.

“Now, in 2014, multichannel home theater sound is on the wane; today’s buyers are opting for single-speaker sound bars in ever increasing numbers. Multichannel sound at home is fading fast, and multichannel over headphones never took hold. The future of home surround for music and movies looks bleak.”

Steve, sound bars deliver multichannel sound and are the fastest growing component in audio! This is, in fact, validation that people are enjoying surround sound…even if it’s compromised by using a sound bar instead of separate speakers. The emergence of wireless speakers is an important development that will undoubtedly make true 5.1 surround sound easier to do.

And if multichannel over headphones “never took hold” why did over 4,000,000 people download the $1.00 3D Headphones app for their iPhone 5? Why did a major headphones manufacturer book out two days in my studio to carefully measure and analyze the directional characteristics of 9 individual speakers? And what about Headphones [xi], Headphones X, Out of your Head Audio, the Smyth-Realizer, Light Harmonic’s 3D technology in the Geek and the Pulse and the 3D app from Astound Sound? The interest in surround delivery at home and on the road has never been higher and I couldn’t be more encouraged about its prospects.

He continues by saying that “no one ever really figured out what to do with the extra channels.” Every single 5.1 release required the engineers to “figure out” what to put in the additional channels. Some opt to put room ambiance in the rears, while others spread the instruments around the listen. I mix both ways and let the user pick which mix they prefer (most opt for the aggressive mix).

Then Steve falls into the same trap that Robert Harley did in his “definitive” book on high-end audio. He says, “Even if artists and consumers suddenly fell head over heels in love with surround music, I’m far from convinced the engineers could make recordings that would sound better than stereo.” He explains that during an acoustic…unamplified…concert most of the sound comes from the stage. This is true if you’re sitting in the audience.

But what if you had the rare opportunity to join the musicians on stage after the concert for an intimate jam and the band didn’t face the empty seats of the auditorium? Isn’t it just as valid to sit amongst the musicians as they sing and play? As a musician, I think so. It’s just narrow-minded to think that the ONLY way to listen to music is in stereo.

So how many of you have experienced a great surround playback system and agree that surround can deliver a better “sound” than stereo? Am I wasting my time and disc space providing two 5.1 surround mixes as well as a stereo mix? In all of the hundreds of demos that I’ve done in my room, I’ve never had a listener ask me to switch back to the stereo version after hearing the 5.1 presentations.


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.

20 thoughts on “Surround Music Never Caught On?

  • I’m happy to say I have a great surround playback system and I’ve been collecting surround recordings for 2 to 3 years now. I agree that surround music playback, for my money, is more enjoyable than stereo. That’s not to say that there aren’t many great sounding stereo recordings in my collection. I can’t think of a single one, however, that I prefer over its surround counterpart. Please keep doing what you’re doing over at AIX. I love having the options you give.

  • Warren

    Hi Mark, It pains me to say it, but I agree with Steve ( broadly speaking. )
    I think surround “music” is dead. There has been much more done with “synthesising” stereo than discreet multi-channel recordings. For goodness sake, we can’t get a half decent stereo download.
    Surround’s greatest enemy lies within the household. Even if your surround speakers are “wireless”, it will not be enough to make the lady of the house do cartwheels. In fact, she wonders why you can’t place the two speakers that you already have, behind curtains. This is why soundbars are selling, they are less intrusive. It also makes headphones more attractive, but you still have to have content.
    Steve is correct in saying that the same old suspects are trotted out to be remastered in a new format…..Gaucho, Tubular Bells etc.
    As you say Mark, whenever multi-channel is demonstrated in tandem with stereo, it is impossible to go back. Once you know something exists, it is impossible to be satisfied with the alternative.
    I have to add that my wife is a diamond, she tolerated exposed wires for years.

  • Édouard Trépanier

    Surround music is picking up. That’s my experience. It took several years for me to assemble a surround sound system of audiophile grade. For too long, home theatre systems were built exclusively to impress the movie watcher with explosions and special effects. Nowadays, I only purchase surround music and all my guests prefer the immersive experience in comparison to a stereo CD.

  • stewart kiritz

    Not a waste of time at all. And keep up the good work!

  • Jeff Floro

    I never understood why Sony never made a SACD player for the car? If you
    want to kill a format, not having a mobile version is a sure way to kill
    it. I have also noticed that no one has made a universal player
    (SACD/DVD-A) for car systems also. I have heard from other
    manufacturers that using SACD and DVD-A in autos would sustain the
    formats. What is your thought on this?

    • Admin

      It might have made a light difference but I believe the reason that both formats died is that there wasn’t enough new content developed for either one. AND that they competed with each other.

  • Robert Fernbach

    My perspective:

    The listening experience is enhanced as much, or possibly more, by multiple (5 or more) channels, as by increases in frequency response, dynamic range, and mimimizing distortion. Surround sound is far more emersive and captivating, assuming one is not using music solely for “background” purposes.

    • Admin

      I agree…one you’ve heard a well done surround recording, stereo just doesn’t hold up.

  • Wayne Blair

    The nonsense of the major producers regarding the disinterest in surround reproduction makes my blood boil.
    I want to repeat a comment I made privately a few weeks ago on the surround topic.

    As I age and my hearing range drops, the spatial information is a much more important to me to hear details. Yes I am aware that what I cannot hear is critical to capture and reproduce harmonics and interference patterns (am I being redundant?) hence the need for high resolution. (see comments below on holographics).

    I want more attention given to surround sound and material that does not require me to have a HT. I live in a car and my 5.1 is in my car (2007 Acura TL). The car is DVD-Audio and I would be delighted to burn my own media for the car if the iso’s were available for the format. I wish could get the access to all the track to mix my own and burn to media for my car. I’m very glad Mark values the listening perspective and provides the choice.

    The physical design of our ears to detect position (left/right /front/read, up/down and evey thing in between) and how our brains process that information was essential for survival. Now that we currently don’t need the ability for survival we use it for appreciation of what we hear be it the suttle 360 degree sound in the woods with snow falling on dry leaves or a musical performance. That cannot be experienced in 2 channel unless it is holographic and that’s still in its infancy and probably far from the consumer market.

    We sense location because our brains audio process time-domain-reflections (and lots of other stuff I can’t begin to comprehend). My point is that what we call x.y surround sound is primitive solution to simulate the physics of sound propagation and perception.

    I say all this to propose/speculate that true high definition recording and reproduction will be critical to a “holographic” sound stage.

    • Admin

      I have a 2005 Acura TL and as I mentioned the other day the company is still providing 5.1 surround playback using DVD-Audio in their cars.

  • Jack Gammer

    Hi Guys,

    YES! YES! YES!
    Great topic and a solid case for surround sound.
    Mark has “hit the nail on its head.” Once you’ve heard surround, you can’t go back.
    BUT, if you are a casual listener, maybe that won’t be the case. Then who needs stereo! Mono would do. “Background music listening.”
    I love Mark’s “stage mixes.” As he says, “More aggressive listening”
    I think Steve Guttenberg is an astute writer in the “audio world,” but I too was disappointed by his article. He also now writes for Colliano’s Home Theatre Internet mag. What he says about the Major Studios is true. They do seem to have abandoned 5.1 music, not enough buyers of the surround format yet. But as Mark points out there are niche markets out there where surround is alive and well. But it will soon be up to your generation to carry on the surround sound movement. Hold the torch high.

    I have begun to find Blu-ray video discs available in various markets. Particularly Europe. The US producers seem to be getting fewer and further between them. I have found some wonderful pop and classical world class concerts, and even in 3D. The combination of HD video and High Resolution surround sound is one very realistic experience. There is drama in seeing what is happening with the artists.


    • Admin

      Thanks Jack. The real challenge is getting artists to hear and support it. The records that are being produced in the other studios that occupy this building are stereo only…and those producers HAVE heard what I do. High-resolution and surround sound are just not in their standard operating procedure.

  • Blaine J. Marsh

    For me, surround is where it is at. I have five identical speakers and a subwoofer. I prefer a stage mix to an audience (ambience) mix. There are plenty of reasonably good algorithms that can simulate ambience so that type of mix doesn’t do much for me. I think that the companies need to commit to something long term. There are countless home theater system worldwide. Just commit to some format and go with it.

    • Admin

      I’m all in with the “stage” mixes. Thanks.

  • Ed Poindexter

    I hate to be a party-pooper, but I just can’t hear any wonderful spatial effect with multichannel surround sound. I have spent much time with the popular type of stereo-CD-playback system having a couple delays to mimic real surround. Only when the sound output from the delayed speakers is about equal to that from the main speakers do I hear any spatiality—and then it’s a strange cathedral-inside-the-head effect, nothing like it’s supposed to sound, and nothing like a concert hall—weird and unpleasant. At normal balance of satellite speaker output to main speaker output ( –10 dB or more), I hear NO effect beyond stereo. Could it be that millions of other folks have the same problem, and that’s why the stuff has never sold very well? Let’s hear from you if you read this!

    • Ed…multichannel is not for everyone. But if you come to my room and site for 30 minutes listening to my MCH stuff, you’ll at least get a real chance. It is very rare to have someone tell me they prefer stereo after they’ve heard a great 5.1 mix.

  • Hola Mark, saludos desde Europa, excelente artículo, definitivamente y para quien la haya escuchado, la música multicanal es incomparable, el sonido estéreo se queda muy atrás en comparación con el sonido multicanal. El punto en contra que tiene este formato, es que representa una mayor inversión para las compañías disqueras y por consiguiente menos margen de ganancia. Pero en definitiva y sin lugar a dudas es mejor la música multicanal

    • My Spanish is just barely good enough to understand your comments. Thanks.

  • Ed Poindexter

    Hey, Admin: I have some technically astute friends who have fine SS systems: 5.1, 7.1. 9.1. They know what they are doing and their systems sound fine to me. But not greater than a good stereo in a large room.
    However, I do have hope for SS in a different area: tone and timbre. The entire SS-enthusiast community has ignored tone and timbre, being so charmed by the purely spatial aspect. I remind all that Michael Barron, one of the great pioneers of SS, in his truly seminal 1971 paper noted the hardened tone quality of a simple SS set-up. To me, tone and timbre outweigh spatiality in enjoyment of music. I hope that if certain SS set-ups damage T&T, then other set-ups may improve T&T: maybe by scrambling the interplay of partials responsible, for example, the tone of ensemble violins— a very touchy business, indeed. (See Mark Dolson’s fine work, eg.) Cheers! Ed P.

    • Admin

      Boy, I can’t imagine how a stereo playback system could eclipse a surround system playing a really great surround mix…but to each his own. I’ve never had anyone leave my demos wanting more stereo. The hampering of the tone…I can’t say I’ve read the reference but I certainly haven’t experience any “hardened” tone quality. Oh well.


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