An Ultra HD Experience: Sensorium AV & MBL’s Multichannel Demonstration

In an effort to control crowds, build anticipation, and give each listener a comfortable chance at the MBL experience, MBL and partnering dealer Sensorium AV provided twenty tickets to each of their hourly shows. MBL upped the ante this year with a multi-channel demonstration.

There was certainly a lot of hype surrounding the room: the long lines waiting to get in the demo, the even longer lines waiting for tickets, and the crushing riffs of Rush’s “YYZ” emanating out into the hallway. Attendees strolled out of the room giggling and carrying gift bags. While all the other rooms at this hi-fi show were the same walk-in, knock on the speakers, and walk-out ordeal, MBL and Sensorium AV wanted to make this an experience to remember.

MBL’s Jeremy Bryan performed what I could only imagine was a harrowing setup prior to the show. This eleven speaker system included a pair of MBL 111 Fs up front, an MBL 120 RC as the center channel, a pair of the MBL 116 Fs as side speakers, stand-mounted MBL 120s as rears, and four JL Audio Gotham active subwoofers for the room-shaking low end.

A stack of various MBL amps, preamps, media players, and DACs lined the left rear wall. A United Home Audio Phase 11 reel-to-reel glowed in the rear-center. The reel-to-reel’s intertwining imprints and royal ivory finish buried amongst the interspersed potted plants echoed of the Alhambra.

To enter, patrons slashed through these sound-proofing trees, turned a dark corner, and glanced upon stacks of glowing amps: the dashboard to this spaceship. Celestial blue columns dotted the floors in the black room and guided listeners to the cockpit.

What was this majestic alien aircraft?

The demo began with Hugh Masekela’s “Stimela” in stereo. I’ve never heard drums with such startling impact and realism. Like last year, I was blown away. Wooh Wooh!

And then the multi-channel demonstration started.

This was my first experience with multi-channel music. While a couple of very reputable sources loved it in print (Michael Lavorgna at Audiostream and Michael Fremer at Analog Planet) and even more in person at the show, I can’t say that I enjoyed it. Multichannel music was an uninvolving experience. Rather than letting me fall into the depth of the recording and music, it threw the instruments and soundstage in and around me giving me no choice but to submit. Rather than have the music invite me, it invited itself.

The sound was pristine, loud, and clear, but I had trouble cleanly identifying where objects were in the soundstage. Were they in the center? Were they left-center? Damn that center channel speaker.

Why do I hear the audience both in front of me and behind me? Things were happening everywhere.

The Beatles Yellow Submarine video was especially involving, as it combined the psychedelic landscape of colors with all of these aural hallucinations.

The Incredibles was perfect use of the system adding a razor-sharp clarity and thrilling three-dimensional excitement to the darting superheroes and bladed enemy UFOs. But when we returned to music, I was confused again.

I left during Neil Peart’s drum solo. Blasphemy. How could I leave during The Professor? I did. I’m sorry. I had to.

Kudos to the folks at MBL for truly making a magical experience for all of those who attended. I apologize for leaving the demo early. I’m sorry, Jeremy. I’m sorry, Sensorium. I’m sorry, Kal. It had to happen. Two speakers are just enough for me.


The line outside MBL's dem room started off crowded on Friday and remained so until the Show closed on Sunday. (Photo: John Atkinson)

Stephen Mejias adds: This demo, with its incredibly high volumes and unusual length (some sessions went as long as 45 minutes, I was told), was not for the faint of heart, but it did a better job than any other at creating an experience. There was nothing typical about it, and, because of that, it's a demo that I will likely always remember.

And while some attendees resented having to wait in line, I suspect even more were tantalized by what pleasures were kept behind the closed door: MBL and Sensorium created a buzz that whipped through the entire Palace Hotel. And, besides, attendees who waited were well rewarded: As Ariel mentions, most people left the demo with huge smiles—an unusual sight for a hi-fi show.

This was more thrill ride than hi-fi. I felt like I was a kid again, enjoying a trip to the Universal Studios theme park in Orlando.

I was surprised by the intense volume. But what surprised me more was that no one complained: Audiophiles, in my experience, tend to be unusually sensitive to high volumes and will happily walk out of those demos deemed too loud. Yet, for whatever reason, no one walked out of this particular demo. Was this because the system never broke a sweat, maintaining its clean, distortion-free sound throughout? Possibly.

Finally, I cannot stand Rush. I don't even like to think about Rush. My notes, scribbled frantically in the dark, read: This will be the first and last time I ever actually enjoy Rush. Remember it.

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Comments
Kal Rubinson's picture
That is because you have only

That is because you have only two ears!

Ariel Bitran's picture
Are you saying

you are a mutant?

Kal Rubinson's picture
It is said tongue in cheek.

It is said tongue in cheek.  It is a hoary canard often used by mch haters.

Ariel Bitran's picture
Ah!

after looking up hoary and canard, i understand.

Sensorium AVR's picture
The benefits of a multichannel system

 

We are pleased to have received so many positive reactions from our multichannel presentation at the New York Audio Show.  Not entirely unexpected, Ariel’s comments from his “first experience with multi-channel music,” above highlight some common preconceptions about multichannel among the current generation of audiophiles habituated to two channel audio recordings.  In that light I would like to take a few words to discuss the experience we presented.

Many innovations in audio have historically met with resistance.  Back in the 1920’s Thomas Edison fought long against the use of electricity in recording.  Among many reasons, he asserted that musicians recording into an acoustic horn gave a more pure reproduction of the experience without the added distortion of recording of room ambience.  Listeners who compared electric to acoustic recordings of the time have indeed reported a more emotionally compelling experience from those acoustic recordings.  However, electric recordings had many advantages not the least of which was the ability to record larger groups of musicians (which could not all physically play into an acoustic recording horn at the same time).

With the advent of electric recordings in the mid 1920’s, contrary to Edison’s wishes, the concept emerged of recording the ambient space of the recording venue along with the ‘pure music.'

This became a selling point.  Advances in microphones, amps, and recording techniques eventually turned the audiophiles of that generation on to the merits of the new electric systems.

Similar friction played a part in the move from mono recordings to stereo from about 1958 to 1973.  Throughout the 1960’s recordings were usually available in both mono and stereo formats.  Many aficionados prefer the mono versions from that period, because most of the recording and mastering effort was spent on perfecting the mono versions.  Moreover, those early stereo mixes often sounded gimmicky with an evident lack of technique in proper and tasteful use of the extra channel.  Of course, after many years of experience and advancements, it is easy to see that stereo now goes further than mono in capturing that room ambience which electric recording first promised. 

Nonetheless, stereo is more akin to wearing 3D glasses at a theater than being at a live event.  The record producer still chooses the audience perspective and location from an array of mic’d tracks.  Even audiophile recordings with only 2 microphones are only a partial depiction of how a real listener would have heard that experience live.  A microphone cannot recreate ear and body shapes and other acoustic phenomena that factor into a live experience.

So here we are again at a technological crossroad moving from stereo recordings to multichannel. Let us address some of Ariel’s comments and questions and illuminate one path to understanding this new age of recordings.

Ariel said he “had trouble cleanly identifying where objects were in the soundstage.”  Like many audiophiles, Ariel has been trained to focus attention on stereos and their recordings' recreation of ‘soundstage’ and ‘imaging’.  As John Atkinson wrote in 1986, “This discussion of stereo imaging has ignored such equally important aspects of miking as frequency response and balance; microphone coloration, distortion, and noise; capturing the true dynamics of the music; the quality of the concert-hall acoustic; getting the most musically desirable ratio between direct and reverberant sound; and even the time available to find the best places in which to position the mikes. When all these are taken into consideration, any good recording engineer will tell you that he often has to sacrifice the potential for true imaging…”  So what we are really left with are recordings carefully constructed to give an illusion of 3D aural space with the goal of immersing us more into the constructed acoustic event.  At worst, they are a distraction from the other often more emotionally compelling aspects of a recording, such as musical expression and microdynamics.

With the extra channels of the multichannel array at our disposal for true immersion, we can now focus on all of those other aspects mentioned above.  To this end, the music recordings we presented were mostly live concert footage, of varying genres. We were selective and carefully chose "something for everyone." When you attend a concert in a great seat at Madison Square Garden, or Carnegie Hall, close your eyes and note that ‘cleanly identifying objects on the soundstage’ is impossible.  This is also a good reason to be excited about the recent advances in video technology like the Sony 4k projector that we used to screen the videos.  Of course, video footage assembled from multiple cameras is almost as artificial as the use of multiple mics, but it is more akin to the viewer occasionally pulling out the binoculars during the performance.

Ariel goes on to "damn" the center channel.  However, it is well documented all the way back to Bell Labs experiments in the 1930’s that center channels create a much more solid soundstage.  A stereo ‘phantom’ center fails because it shifts, by definition, along with the listeners head which is autonomically in constant motion. 

Ariel’s next note is confusion about the “audience both in front of me and behind…”  Again, we need to refer back to real live concert experience.  In theory, only the front row of the hall would not have ‘audience in front’ of the listener.  Rarely is that first row seat the best seat in a concert.  Even if it were, there would still be audience sound in front as it echoes off the stage and back into the first row. Regardless, the perspective presented in a well setup system is the choice of the producer/artist, not ours. 

In large, Ariel’s remarks are reminiscent of Sergei Rachmaninov’s comments on an audio technology demonstration at Carnegie Hall in 1940:

Rachmaninoff commented that it was "marvelous" but "somehow unmusical because of the loudness." "Take that Pictures at an Exhibition", he said. "I didn't know what it was until they got well into the piece. Too much 'enhancing', too much Stokowski." (from "Sound Waves 'Rock' Carnegie Hall as 'Enhanced Music' is Played", The New York Times, April 10, 1940, p. 25. via Wikipedia)

Ironically, those comments were about stereo technology versus mono!

Of course, all recordings, multichannel and otherwise, rely on good engineering.  For the New York Audio Show, we chose videos from a wide variety of genres to show how the experience could be as real and emotionally compelling as possible.  We purposely avoided the more experimental approach to multichannel of ‘stage perspective’ recordings where the listener is placed in the middle of the band.  We focused instead on material which sounded plausibly like we were at the event...to transport the listener and take them on an AV journey. For each and every track chosen, someone on our team had a live reference with which to compare the recordings.

Ultimately, when properly recorded and played back, we are as excited along with our visitors about the potential of this new multichannel medium to get us closer to the ambience, energy and emotion of the live event.  As Ariel’s colleague, Michael Lavorgna, reported in his column, “I've never seen this level of pure excitement at a hi-fi show.”

No doubt the discussion is just starting, and I would certainly invite Kal Rubinson to join in with his depth of knowledge in the field of multichannel technology.  By the end of this year, Sensorium AVR will have a similar setup in our New York showroom to continue exploring this newest generation of recordings and playback technology.

 

- Bryan Bilgore,  President 

Sensorium AVR 

Kal Rubinson's picture
  With regard to Ariel's

 

With regard to Ariel's response to this MCH system, I was reminded of a quote that John Curl exhumed from a mid-1960s letter to Stereophile, originally published in Vol. No. 4: "Sirs: I say that stereo is a first class fake and the biggest fraud ever put out by American Mfr. I have never found anyone who knows audio engineering or music that did not agree with this. All those who disagree just don't know enough to know the truth or they are liars engaged in selling stereo equipment. The only reason that most people have gone for stereo is that they have not had time, and will not take the time to get all the facts, so they are victims of advertising, the biggest con game in the world, and I am not so sure that they don't deserve what they get.

It is hard to re-adapt to a different listening paradigm.

Kal

John Atkinson's picture
Re: Ariel's listening impressions

Kal Rubinson wrote:
It is hard to re-adapt to a different listening paradigm.

Talking to Ariel yesterday, it emerged that what particularly bothered him was the conflict between the picture painted by the sound and that by the video image. For example, in the Neil Peart drum solo, at one point the visual perspective flipped 180 degrees but the sonic perspective remained from in front of the drumkit. There is therefore a conflict between the brain's internal constructs from the two sets of stimuli, which will be fatiguing.

Regarding the loudness, I measured 107dB, C-weighted, Fast setting, with the Studio Six app on my iPhone. The system was remarkably clean-sounding at these levels but as impressed as I had been by the Hugh Masakela cut from open-reel tape at the start, I was still exhausted by the end of the 45-minute dem.

John Atkinson

Editor, Stereophile

K.Reid's picture
Spectacular Demonstration

Let me first take this opportunity to thank MBL, Jeremy Bryan and company for the mesmerizing multichannel demonstration with the new MBL Corona line of electronics and speakers.

One of the first things I noticed when I stepped from the elevator was the long line of people waiting. I thought to myself this must be the MBL suite. Time and time, year after year, show after show MBL draws crowds for its superb demonstrations.

This time was different though. There was an unusual sense of excitement almost anxiety to get into the MBL suite. Even passersby were trying to peep their heads in to obtain a glimpse of what was going on.  Next, I noticed that the MBL representatives were handing out tickets to attend the demo - a completely logical method of managing the big crowd. The door to the suite opened and I cannot remember seeing a time when so many people walked out of a demo with smiles on their face - some even walked out silent (more on that later). My curiosity was now peaked. When I returned I was in the group for the last demo of the day.

When I walked in and looked left I saw the exquisite black and white Corona electronics. Glancing up, I saw the Sony 4K projector. I thought - OK this is different. Looking right...my oh my...111F, 116F, 120 and 120RC each with its own Corona monoblocki amplifier and 4 (yes 4) JL Gotham subwoofers. Let's also not forget the Wireworld Series 7 cabling. Now I am thinking...OK, Jeremy Bryan and crew have outdone themselves this time. The demo started and it was scintillating and riveting.

I appreciate the courtesy the moderater showed listeners/viewers before the "Rush" demo began by reminding the audience that listening levels would rise a few notches. Like Stephen Mejias, I am not a Rush fan but drum demo was beyond phenomenal. The dynamics were shocking and even startling during some sequences because of the realism. Even though the demo was a reference levels, it was not fatiguing because the sound was so clean, clear and lacking distortion with absolutely no etch or brightness. Even the subwoofers blended in nicely providing solid foundation to the sonics. It was evident that a substantial amount of time went into addressing room acoustics and speaker placement. This was a complex feat to pull off in a short amount of time and MBL did it.

This was an aural experience unlike any other that will undoubtedly be etched in attendees minds (including mine) for many moons to come. Kal Rubinson expressed that it is difficult to re-adapt to a different paradigm. I think we must evolve as this multichannel technology continues its pace - lest we become relics of time past.

I now understand why some walked out the demonstration silent. I think this is because the demo was truly mesmerizing - so much musical information robustly and pristinely presented with all of its transparency, texture, timbre and dynamics across the entire audible spectum reproduced. One's mind just has to process what occurred.

It's great to see a company step out of the traditional stereo mold and advance the state of the art by providing listeners with a truly unique and spellbinding experience.

Job well done, MBL.

 

 

 

 

 

Ariel Bitran's picture
Thank you very much for your comments

there is obviously much to be learned, and Mr. Bilgore, I found your commment particularly enlightening, so thank you.

I'd also like to clarify, as I hoped I explained in my piece, I did not think the sound was in any way sub-par. As I said before, the Stereo demonstration was absolutely stunning, but i felt the multichannel music experience to be overwhelming to my senses and not the type of listening experience I would desire in my own home. Maybe without the video, I could have focused more on the sound, but I did find it difficult/discouraging to close my eyes with the brilliant projections, and there was incongruence between what was seen in the footage (different angles/time-sync) and what was being heard in the surround sound landscape. This just complicated the listening experience and welcomed undesired confusions.

I hope you all got a chance to see  the video I posted Best Sound in Show in which many of the attendees agreed that the MBL room was an excellent experience with excellent sound.

Kal Rubinson's picture
Ah but "in the home" is

Ah but "in the home" is exactly where it belongs as there is no way that a demo to a large group can be optimal for more than one or a few people.  (They put me in a special seat for the demo.  Doesn't that say something? And I am on your video nominating the mbl room.)  

Of course, this is done all the time for movies but, for music, when most of us listen more critically, the more intimate and controlled setup can be much, much better.  

Kal

Ariel Bitran's picture
I'm open to giving the multi-channel another chance

 with no projection/video

Kal Rubinson's picture
Yes, no video.

Yes, we have no video.

Pro-Audio-Tech's picture
Multi channel died long ago!

Having worked in the audio business I can tell the real story here.

The audio guys (with nice 2 ch systems) addopted home theater when it first came out years ago, it was big business back then. The industry made real money selling surround sound receivers, preamp processors and multi channel amps plus center and rear speakers. Companies like B&K who I actually did some work for was selling like crazy.

Then it all went to hell in a handbasket. The audiophiles completly dismissed the surround music with the band playing behind them and the music moving from speaker to speaker. Just as Mr. Bitran describes, it played out in real life and the sales of surround sound just stopped. DVD Audio the promised new format to replace the CD for music died and what started to sell were turntables.

Now days if people want surround sound they can get a home theater in a box for free when they buy a nice high def TV. The kids in a family are the ones who watch the home theater in a box anyway so why would an audiophile spend the money on it? Fact is they don't and expensive home theater sales became non existant. 

BTW, B&K went out of business, as often happens the consumer voted with their wallets and the industry had no choice but to adjust. All this new technology in 2013 and audiophiles are putting their hard earned money into analog, humm.

Kal Rubinson's picture
"The audiophiles completly

"The audiophiles completly dismissed the surround music with the band playing behind them and the music moving from speaker to speaker." 

I don't blame them.  I blame the record producers who treated the new multichannel opportunities as toys and who thought so little of their customers that they pandered to the basest of tastes.  (I acknowledge that some serious listeners who like an immersive mix which is, nonetheless, stable and believable.)

There is a disproportionate interest in multichannel among classical listeners, at least as the continuing (albeit small) stream of classical SACDs seems to indicate.  The producers were either unimaginative (probably not) or thought that their customers wanted accurate reproduction.  

Don't most audiophiles, regardless of genre preference, want that?

DoggyDaddy's picture
logic?

I enjoyed the show, but admit I didn't attend this demo.  Nonetheless, some of the objections to Mr. Bitran's reaction have a familiar ring:

1. This is better!  Why?  Because, um, it's new, it's now, it's hip, it's happening!  And therefore it simply *must* be better.  Like (ahem) quadrophonic.

2. We're experts, so we're right and your ears are wrong.  Well, maybe...

3. "They laughed at stereo too."  But stereo won out.  So, since they're laughing at this, this'll win out too.  Guess what - just because they laughed at lots of great ideas doesn't mean every idea that gets laughed at is great.  Or if you prefer another analogy: geniuses are often mocked.  That doesn't mean everyone who's mocked is a genius.  You get the point...

I'm not saying MCS isn't all that.  Maybe it is.  But not because of the arguments presented here...

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