Lights in a Box? SG page 4

The Magical Mystery Tour of Surround-Sound:
Though it seems as if surround-sound was invented for Home Theater as a way to sell more speakers, amps, processors, and cables, surround-sound has been around for decades. In the early '50s, Cinerama and 70mm were the first to use surround effects; film-sound mixers have been grappling with what to do with this effect for over 40 years. Yes, surround-sound serves to envelop the audience in sound, but I find the disparity of placement (picture in front, sound behind) a distraction.

Momentary sounds, such as a jet flying overhead, make more spatial sense, but directors apparently feel the need to use surround effects continuously. That's the problem: Home Theater magic is so identified with ear-candy surround effects that, like early "Ping-Pong" stereo, they've taken over---but surround-sound is now well into middle age. It's a medium without a message. A good high-end system already provides a dimensionally satisfying soundstage from two speakers; additional speakers only serve to confuse matters. Surround-sound, and much of Home Theater, has an aura of special effects and gimmicks---so that the actual content of the film becomes irrelevant. Top Gun slays Citizen Kane.

Can the High End Grow?
While the market for upscale products remains strong, the pure, music-only High End is said to be in decline. The underlying cause of this dangerous situation is the failure of the High End to reach out to a broader market than to just those who are already in the "club." For example, folks who are regular attendees at Carnegie Hall, Lincoln Center, or the Blue Note---ie, lovers of music---remain almost completely unaware of the High End. Returning home, they'll listen to a Beethoven symphony on a $1000 rack system they purchased at Macy's.

The barriers to this huge market are mostly self-inflicted: High-end audio manufacturers produce equipment that's unattractive to those who aren't already smitten with hi-fi. A "music lover's" system should be simple and beautiful, and sound like...music!

When the High End tries to compete in an area where performance and quality are not major factors, what can they hope to offer? The High End should be increasing its visibility in the market by reaching out to the music lovers of the world. Perhaps a group of manufacturers could organize a campaign for upscale non-audio magazines (The New Yorker, Artforum, Playbill, Gramophone); underwrite a concert series on Public Television; fund scholarships at music schools. They should do anything that will increase their presence to their potential customers.

The music lover's market remains a vast untapped resource for the high-end establishment. Home Theater will prosper and grow, and---who knows?---in 10 or 20 years, it may even become part of the High End.
---Steve Guttenberg

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