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.