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.