Looking back to see which of the multichannel discs I've reported on that have made a splash in the market, I detect an ominous trend. Most are reissues of classic performances, including all the RCA Living Stereo and the Mercury Living Presence SACDs, as well as a number of classic jazz and rock albums (including yet more editions of Kind of Blue, Dark Side of the Moon, and Brothers in Arms).
The ongoing reissues of Mercury Living Presence and RCA Living Stereo recordings, have been the signal successes of the SACD format. Despite having been recorded in only (!) three channels, these releases have given us very good justifications for going beyond two-channel stereo to get as unrestricted a hearing as possible of live performances.
Ever since I installed dedicated power lines for my multichannel system, I've been wrestling with the issues of surge protection, power conditioning, and voltage regulation. I start with a bias based on decades of happy listening without being concerned about any of these problems, and my belief that competent electronic components must be, and are, designed to perform in the real world. After all, whether the device's AC power supply is a traditional transformer-bridge-reservoir or a switching supply, its output should be a DC source that is sufficient to let the active circuitry meet its specifications. Many manufacturers, such as Bryston, recommend bypassing any line conditioners and plugging their components directly into the AC outlet.
When I was a young amateur photographer, I subscribed to all the major photo magazines and avidly read all the articles. However, I was bugged when I realized there was a cycle of repetition—that I was reading about the basics of Ansel Adams' Zone System for the third time.
Along with speakers and their placement, the greatest influence on the sound of a music system are the acoustics of the room itself. With two-channel stereo, some reflections and reverberations are necessary in order to maintain the perception that one is listening in a real space. So, while many experts recommend having a "dead" end behind and near the speakers that absorbs most sound, few suggest such treatment for the rest of the room. With too few sonic reflections, the stereo image would narrow; without the aid of "room gain" to enrich the bass, the sounds of instruments and voices would be thin. Listening in an anechoic chamber is interesting and informative, but far from pleasurable.
With the new power and furniture arrangements in my multichannel room, I've begun to reexamine all the other things that affect system performance, including power conditioning and signal cables. However, I could not get my wife to accept the presence in that room of an ASC Sub Trap, which lifted my Paradigm Servo-15 subwoofer to eye level. Not that I protested the Trap's departure all that much—at that height, Trap and sub partly blocked direct radiation from my rear left speaker. But I felt its absence immediately, as my system returned to the usual somewhat boomy, overly punchy bass. The ASC left me with the determination to deal with room problems, particularly in the bass.
My experience at last May's Home Entertainment 2004 East confirmed that even a big cheerleader for discrete, high-resolution multichannel music must be realistic about the vast heritage of two-channel recordings, which will dominate collections for years to come. Although we can enjoy these recordings with a good stereo system, a multichannel system can offer options that give them new life without superimposing false and disturbing directional effects or smearing the two channels around and behind the listener.
As noted in the March installment of "Music in the Round," there are so many new multichannel hardware goodies to talk about that we need this bonus appearance of the column just to keep up. Nor do I expect the rush of gear to stop—I've just returned from CES in Las Vegas, where there was lots of new multichannel hardware and software that I will report on in June, including a luscious all-tube analog multichannel preamp. This month I report on a universal disc player, a comparison of Sony's top-of-the-line SCD-XA9000ES multichannel SACD player with its respected predecessor, and a multichannel preamp that's almost too good a deal.
For audiophiles who love multichannel music, the center-channel speaker is a problem second only, perhaps, to that of bass management. In many ways, the rerouting of bass to a subwoofer or to the front left and right main speakers is dictated by room acoustics or the bass limitations of the other speakers. On the other hand, most of us had no real need for a discrete center-channel to fill in the middles of our traditional stereo systems. In fact, one of the glories of really good stereo is the simulation of a convincing central image, such that there's a seamless soundstage from beyond one speaker, across the room, to beyond the other speaker.
It doesn't take much to read between the lines of Sony's discontinuation of the TA-P9000ES analog preamplifier and their introduction of the SCD-XA9000ES SACD player with IEEE1394 digital output at Home Entertainment 2003. (A similar feature from the DVD-Audio camp has been promised.) Surely, we will at long last be able to have external digital processing and DACs in our preamp or control units. In addition to the freedom to mix and match components, this opens the door to having a single digital component manage bass and channel balance for all sources, and room/speaker correction without redundant redigitization.
Multichannel music is the future. The two-channel reproduction that we have enjoyed for the past four decades is but the first step from monophonic (single-source) sound to true stereophonic reproduction. I intend to preach that to Stereophile readers who believe it and to convert the obstinate objectors.