In the August Stereophile (p. 33) the pseudonymous Sam Tellig, at the end of a review of high end two-channel gear, calls surround sound for music "domestically intrusive, uncivilized, and grotesque." He also goes on to say that perhaps the lack of enthusiasm for SACD and DVD-Audio is due to a lack of interest in surround sound for music." I'm sorry, but I must react to such flat-earth allegations.
Sam has it bass-ackwards. Enthusiasm for both hi-res formats is increasing, and it is more due to the ability to hear music in surround than to the hi-res attributes of the new formats - which are often not discerned by non-audiophiles. The general public has been hearing music in surround in the theaters for decades now, and properly-carried-out demonstrations with a surround AV system have captivated many consumers who find they are actually sitting down to listen to recorded music for the first time in years - or the first time in their lives - and without an image on the screen.
Yes, it is unfortunate that there are two competing formats, navigation is a challenge on many DVD-As, and discs have been issued in both formats that have been no better than a good CD. But on the bright side, universal disc players have been improving and coming down in cost and some ingenious and modestly-priced solutions to "domestically intrusive" multi-speaker setups are becoming available. Most two-channel diehards I know of are partial to gigantic room-dominating stereo speakers, with huge amps on the floor - often pairs of monoblocks. Why isn't that "domestically intrusive?" Yes, with the very best gear and endless tweaking, the better two-channel purist systems can create an uncanny musical realism if you lock yourself in the sweet spot. But it is flat and entirely two-dimensional in front of you, whereas any music in any space (except outdoors) will be coming to you as much or more from reflections to the side and back than from in front. When the same expenditure of that super two-channel setup is spread across a smaller five-speaker-and-sub system and a good five-channel receiver or amp and AV preamp the best multichannel hi-res discs (and music videos - especially with DTS soundtracks) will reproduce a much more enjoyable, realistic and involving musical experience for most listeners. Even an entry-level surround system can compete with higher-end stereo due to the greater sonic immersion of SSfM and the synergistic effect of multiple speakers (especially if they are identical). It can easily surpass the movie surround sound experience heard in most multiplexes today, and make a small video display seem larger and more involving.
The two-channel ploy that irks me most is the one found with some high end AV preamps and processors whose manuals and controls recommend switching back to "purist two-channel" reproduction whenever listening to music vs. watching DVDs or other video sources. That's what Pro Logic II or Circle Surround II are for! Both are terrific surround enhancements of any standard stereo source - why revert to just two channels when you can enjoy SSfM with everything you listen to? But to be fair, there is a surround ploy that bugs me: 6.1 sound. It was designed for space ships flying overheard in Star Wars theatrical presentation. Its value is questionable for AV use in the home and totally beside the point for SSfM. For music, the place for more channels is overhead - not between the surround speakers in back.
- John Sunier
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