Multichannel: The Skies the Limit

Movie and television enthusiasts have been enjoying the immersive quality of soundtracks mixed in full 5.1 and 7.1 surround sound for decades. The experience is absolutely essential for a quality movie experience. Can you imagine spending $15 per ticket to enjoy the latest Avengers movie and not have the soundtrack coming from all around you? And now there’s the addition of height channels as well. Dolby has rolled out an entire ecosystem for mixing and delivering 3D soundtracks. It’s called Dolby Atmos and if you haven’t heard it yet, make an effort to locate an Atmos equipped theater and be prepared for a sonic treat. I watched “Gravity” in such a theater and was completely knocked out. Auro 3D is another system from a much smaller company that is competing in the same space…3D audio. And they both have consumer versions of the theatrical gear.

But what about music? Why have we lagged so far behind? Audiophiles are solidly locked into the past with traditional stereo. We all know the justifications for staying with 2-channel stereo…or rather why surround playback is too challenging. It’s too costly, the wife won’t allow it, there’s not enough surround music, and besides stereo…when done right…provides all of the space and depth that I need. I understand the rationalizations.

The coming age of surround music is coming. As I mentioned the other day, the hardware companies are building multichannel DACs. There’s at least a few MCH DACs of varying qualities and costs. The exaSound e28 is a very flexible piece of equipment capable of handling every possible format (DSD and PCM), an OPPO BDP-105 can be used as a MCH DAC through the HDMI inputs, Mytek straps 3 of their stereo-192-DSD DACs to create a multichannel setup, and there’s a $299 device, the MiniDSP U-DAC8 in play as well.

This is all great news but it only supplies MCH to those of us with rooms full of equipment and speakers. What about the couple of generations of listeners that are younger than us? Can we count on automobile manufacturers to pick up the challenge and make surround a standard feature of cars at all budget levels? I own a 2004 Acura with an ELS DVD-Audio sound system. I purchased this car because my previous car was an Acura and gave me 10 years of reliable transportation but also because I wanted to have surround sound in my car. Acura, Lincoln, Porsche, Lexus, Cadillac and Nissan produced cars with 5.1 surround sound speakers. But there were few labels that released surround music. Interest in 5.1 surround in cars gradually disappeared. And beside, younger drivers weren’t getting the experience in their VWs, Fords, and Chevys.

That leaves us with headphones. It is certainly possible to deliver an expanded version of a music selection using fancy DSP algorithms. There are at least 10 different systems in use. These include Astound Sound, New Audio Technologies, Ear Print, DTS Headphones X, HD Headphones, Dolby Headphones, and Beyer Dynamics system. The best of the bunch is the Smyth Research “Room Realizer”, which is able to recreate the sound of a real surround system…like my studio…through a set of headphones complete with motion tracking. There are pluses and minuses to all of the competing companies but unless there’s a flood of new surround mixes being readied by the major labels, headphones surround will suffer the same fate as speaker and automobile surround. If there’s no content then there’s no incentive to provide the playback equipment.

Moving from stereo to 5.1 surround music is like hearing stereo for the first time after a lifetime of listening to mono. Give it a try and you won’t be sorry.


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.

19 thoughts on “Multichannel: The Skies the Limit

  • Wayne Smith

    Even if new stuff is not forthcoming, there are a lot of existing albums I’d love to hear remixed into 5.1
    Steven Wilson has frequently said he’d like to work with Kate Bush’s material and in my opinion, her album “Aerial” is just screaming out for a SW remix into 5.1

    • I’m going to work on getting the labels to let me remix some of the favorites in 5.1.

  • Laurence Chiu

    My experiences in 5.1 audio were serendipity I had a 5.1 system (Dolby Digital) for playing DVD’s but never thought much about audio alone.

    Then one day I saw Eagles Hotel California DVD-A in a cutout bin for $5 so I purchased it. Upon getting home I spun it up and the DVD player played the DVD-Audio track which was Dolby Digital 640K (which was better than the usual 384K of a DVD).

    Despite being lossy audio I was astounded at the quality of the music and the breadth of the soundstage. Hearing the guitar tracks in the introduction to Hotel California spread across all the speakers was a revelation.

    I was then determined to find a way to hear the DVD-A track on the disc. That meant purchasing a new player and I ended up with a Samsung DVD player that could play not only DVD-A but SACD and output everything over 6 channel analogue (my AVR did not have HDMI).

    That began my step towards multi-channel audio.

    Since then I have not purchased any stereo discs or any stereo downloads, only now purchasing DVD-A or SACD

    I have since upgraded my AVR to handle HDMI and the player to be an Oppo which can play Blu-Ray as well as DVD-A and SACD. I have a few of your titles including the samplers and the Zephyr voices which is an outstanding track.

    I suspect the next move into MCH audio will be Bluray audio, if indeed the record executive think there is a market for MCH audio at all

    Commenting on your recent topics on analogue tape as a source versus digital, many of my favourite MCH tracks are sourced from tape including ELP’s first album, Tarkus, Trilogy (just purchased), Brain Salad Surgery, Carpenters Greatest Hits, Roxy Music Avalon and despite their source not as being high quality as say a true digital recording, I enjoy them immensely.

    • Thanks…I have no problem with analog multichannel tapes. It’s all we had at the time.

    • craig allison

      Nice to see you’re enjoying. Use the analog outputs of your OPPO if your AVR has multi-channel analog inputs. The audio suffers over HDMI due to excessive jitter; it’s gotten better, and when it’s an audio/video program it’s not as much of an issue. For music only however, HDMI still doesn’t really cut it.

      • I don’t know where you got the idea that HDMI should be avoided in favor of analog inputs to the AVR. HDMI is perfectly capable of carrying high-resolution, digital signals to an external DAC (sadly there are very few of them) where the clock is remade (the same way that the clock from S/P DIF is remade in a high-end DAC like the Benchmark DAC2) and used to output to the component in the chain. The amount of jitter is reduced to virtually zero. HDMI does work within a quality system.

  • craig allison

    As is typical, there are two sides to the coin here.
    Let me simply relate an experience I had at an AES meeting held at Fantasy studios a few years ago, and I’ll preface this with the statement that progress has been made since then. The meeting was entitled ” Playback formats, past, present & future.” Paul Stubblebine and George Horn were two of the top-class mastering engineers on the panel; there were three more top pros too. They basically said this:” We work endlessly hard to master stereo recordings that will be played by many different speakers placed in many different spots in many different rooms. Now you want us to do this with 6 (or more) speakers? Please…”

    Mark, for better or worse, the music industry targets a median that is pretty low. I have sold and setup dozens of high-quality 5.1 &7.1 systems. The number of domestic situations that allow for optimum multi-speaker placement is a definite minority, and even worse, folks play stereo recordings through matrixed DSP surround because no one reminded them to press the stereo mode button when they put music on after watching TV or a movie. No wonder they aren’t enjoying music so much anymore.

    When a fine dedicated multi-channel recording is played on a full-blown, correctly set up multi-channel system, the results can indeed be mind-boggling sonically, but there is as yet no proof that increased emotional engagement happens.
    To split the difference in viewpoints, I would simply say that stereo done properly is more enjoyable than surround sound done poorly, and many, many folks have made that comment to me. I’ll look forward to the day you foresee, but I wouldn’t get your hopes up. And Dolby Atmos…you mean telling the wife that more speakers that must be placed properly are coming in? Last but not least, the amount of money people will spend on a stereo pair of speakers is not tripled when they buy 5.1 or more; in the majority of cases, they will end up with lower quality speakers due to the budget division. It’s a quandary, that’s for sure.

    • Craig, if it were up to me mastering would be abandoned in favor of maximizing the fidelity of music rather than compressing and altering what the artist intended during the mixdown. I worked as a mastering engineer on hundreds of releases including albums by Bad Company, The Allman Brothers, Diana Ross and many more. Never once did I improve the fidelity of the mixdowns that were provided as sources. What I did do is modify the timbral balance, make the records louder, compromise the fidelity by removing dynamics, and accentuate a vocal here and there. I was very good at it. I did what the producers and labels wanted me to do. I have the greatest respect for Paul (he’s been a friend for a long time), but I don’t buy for a second the statement in your first paragraph. Are they kidding? I prepare my recordings for surround release (call it mastering it you want) and did so for Bad Company and the Allman Brothers releases…no big deal.

      Surround music is a major step forward over traditional stereo…I’ve never had someone leave a surround vs. stereo demo and express a preference for the stereo version. The reality is that most people and artists don’t get the chance to hear good surround mixes and even when they do they dismiss them without giving them a chance. Robert Harley’s insistence that the only good surround mix is one that puts room ambiance in the left and right surrounds is ridiculous. I can go whatever I think serves the music. We don’t build stereo mixes to match a physical reality so why it required for surround.

      I don’t need to run a study to know the that the thousands of listeners that have experienced my surround demos preferred the surround to the stereo. Surround is coming. And it doesn’t take a lot of money to make it happen.

      • craig allison

        We are communicating just fine, but I do wish your responses would address a few more of my concerns, such as the issue of speaker quality that is affordable, i.e., two or six for the same bread. A world of folks using Bose surround systems to listen to music is a rather depressing thought; they’d be so much better off with two quality stereo loudspeakers. “But my neighbor has (crappy) surround.”

        You evidently don’t have the type of conversations with smart everyday consumers that I do, and have had over a very long period of time. The quality of sound reproduction in homes does not under any circumstances correlate to the number of speakers they use. And it’s the same w/ amplifiers. In 1983, a quality stereo receiver from such as NAD ran 600-700 dollars. Today, that same money is spread over 7 channels and a dizzying host of features, video switching, cheaply implemented DSP; just how clean an amplifier can realistically be expected, or how much current can a skimpy power supply swing into a 7speaker load, for the same amount of dough today?
        Getting to the real point, it is noticeably lower distortion audio that causes folks to smile and relax, not any particular matrix. As the late Bert Whyte wrote in one his last articles for Audio magazine,(R.I.P.), “Cheaply implemented DSP processing may be the furthest departure yet from the high fidelity concept.” It’s pretty hard to argue with that if you ever listen to the Denon’s etc. of this world or other average AVRs. A forty year old Tandberg or NAD stereo receiver sonically crushes the breed I have described. I don’t call that progress. The lack of dedicated multi-channel recordings of good music is another snag at this time; maybe that will change.

        As for HDMI audio, why don’t you get your friends at DH labs to send you a set of their upper level analog cables for your OPPO, and then compare that feed to HDMI on a stereo music-only program. You will certainly here differences, and I will stop right there. In my neck of the high-end audio world, I don’t know anyone who likes HDMI as an audio-only carrier.

        • You’re right speakers are a very important component and anyone trying to upgrade to surround is going to need at least 5 and a subwoofer. But millions of people already have home theaters that actually function quite well in reproducing 5.1 surround music or concerts. If there is a real need to match the quality of the typical high-end stereo system, then there’s a problem. But there lots of reasonable speakers out there that won’t break the bank. Sony, Definitive, Emotiva, and others have models that will work just great. I wouldn’t diss on Bose either, I had a Bose system in my office for years and they provided the audio system for the Acura RL surround system…which was stunning.

          If you’re really on a budget, get a Symth Room Realizer and steal the sound of my room for less than $3K.

          I’m quite certain that I haven’t been talking to the same “smart everyday consumers” that you have. The people coming to my demos over the years are music lovers and audiophiles. They’re looking for the best possible music experience and I give it to them….using a high-end surround sound system. They are uniformly impressed and even those on the proverbial fence are convinced if they spend any time listening to well done surround music. It’s a no brainer…even Robert Harley has written that it’s better then stereo (Not that he’s always right about all things audio).

          The quality of the source recording is the most important component in a good sound system. When played through a stereo system vs. a surround setup of roughly the same quality, the surround provides more entertainment. I’m not talking about using crappy equipment..I’m assuming that we’ve risen above the level of gear that would result in heavy distortion.

          The lack of software is a concern. My reasons for pushing the surround agenda is to build the market…I know it’s there.

          Comparing the analog outputs from an OPPO BDP-105 ESS Sabre DAC to the HDMI (via my KANEX Pro De-Embedder) output converted to S/P DIF so I can use my Benchmark DAC2 does sound different. As great as the OPPO is, the Benchmark wins. And yes, I do have terrific cables from Audience and Cardas.

    • “and even worse, folks play stereo recordings through matrixed DSP surround because no one reminded them to press the stereo mode button when they put music on after watching TV or a movie. No wonder they aren’t enjoying music so much anymore.”

      Craig, I use some sort of DSP matrixing on all my stereo sources and am enjoying my music just fine thanks, in fact even more than ever. Maybe you should try some light enhancements, you might find you enjoy them, later finding straight stereo boring.

      • craig allison

        As a professional musician/band front man for 30 years, I will always tell anyone the following: Play any given program in the format in which it was recorded. This is unquestionably the artists’ intent, so if you want to get the message, hear it the way it was recorded.
        Incidentally, maybe I chose the wrong words. My clients range from prominent musicians, to seasoned audiophiles, to folks who just want more enjoyment from music, the same level of acumen you encounter, you’d be surprised.

        • Your position on keeping a recording in the “format in which it was recorded” makes no sense at all. The Beatles “Love” DVD-Audio disc is a masterpiece in its originality and technical execution. If you don’t want to hear the Fab Four in 5.1 surround, the OK fine. But your position would insist that I couldn’t enjoy it recast as a 5.1 surround experience.

          If the assistant concertmaster of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra gushed over the experience of hearing my 5.1 surround mixes of classical music upon first hearing, I’m convinced that surround trumps stereo. You talk about “more enjoyment from music”…this is one big step in obtaining it.

  • Hope to see it catch on more than it has in the past. I started in 74-75 when I added a Marantz 2440 quad adapter to my Marantz 2270 receiver and rocked on with Dolby matrix, SQ-QS, etc. But for all the reasons you quoted things just never took off. Now we’re at a point where huge numbers of households have 5.1 AV systems with BluRay players up and running and all it takes is a BluRay disc (with or without video) to get wonderful MCH sound.
    Most all the listed excuses are gone and it will be interesting if surround sound music will make it this time around.
    Funny your post was on this today, late last night I was listening to David Gilmours – Remember That Night, left the TV off and just listened in the dark to a very nice Dolby TrueHD 5.1 mix. Great performance with Gilmore, David Crosby, Graham Nash, David Bowie, Robert Wyatt and one of Richard Wrights last live gigs before we lost him. (RIP) on stage together. EPIC

    Remember the 4 channel 8 track players? LOL

  • Don’t forget the forthcoming DTS-X, an objects based system like Atmos.

  • In 2010 I purchased an Acura TL, partially because of the ability to listen to 5.1. I was hooked immediately and started buying all of the DVD-A’s I could find. I now have a TLX and Acura/Panasonic decided to eliminate support for the DVD-A. This forced me to convert my DVD A’s to DTS CDs, which work just fine in a car. This started me down the path of ripping and collecting 5.1 files from SACDs and other sources. All of this is working great, but now I have a 100 CDs in my car. At some point I would love to have a system in my car that would allow me to stream 5.1 files, but I don’t believe it exists. I know that we multi-channel lovers are a minority, so my expectations are low. If anyone knows anything, I’d love to hear it.

    • My 2004 Acura TL is still running and delivering 5.1 surround music on DVD-Audio. It’s clear that we need a surround automobile system with an easy source delivery mechanism. I wouldn’t hold your breath.

  • I agree. I see nothing in the future that makes me believe that my music while I drive life will get any easier. When you get tired of your 2004 TL, know that you can probably go as far as a 2012 Acrua, but after that, no DVD-a. Still, converting the DVD’s to DTS-CDs was pretty easy once I found the right software, and it is so much safer than carrying around a bunch of original DVDs my car.


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