Surround-Sound Music Recording

One reason I have never felt the need to invest in a high-end home-theater system is that it is all too easy for me to go 'round to Tom Norton's house. As well as contributing the amplifier measurements and the all-too-rare component review for Stereophile, Tom is technical editor of our companion book, Stereophile Guide to Home Theater (footnote 1). As you might expect, he has access to video equipment that the rest of us can only dream about.

On a Thursday night last November, for example, new Stereophile publisher John Gourlay and I spent a pleasant evening watching DVDs on a system that included a $50,000 Runco DTV-1000 projector, a $25,000 Faroudja line quadrupler, and a 78"-wide Stewart StudioTek 130 screen. As is almost always the case these days with DVDs, the image was free from compression artifacts. There was no color noise, and frame jitter was noticeably absent. (A laserdisc's worth of frame jitter always fatigues my eyes, and leaves me puzzled by those who still hold that the analog video medium is superior.)

But it was the sound at Tom's that impressed me most. The surround processor/preamp was Lexicon's DC1; speakers were Revel Ultima Gems, with a Revel Voice center channel and a Velodyne F18R subwoofer, driven by Proceed amplification. Terrific stuff, I admit, but I had never heard DVD-Video at Tom's sound this good.

In "The Final Word" (p.218), Larry Archibald examines the poor showing in the marketplace of DTS's proprietary audio-compression algorithm—a day late and a dollar short, as reader "" says in a different context in this issue's "Letters." But the audio quality from the DTS-encoded DVD sampler that Tom played for John Gourlay and me was streets ahead of what I'm used to from Dolby Digital. Even though, as LA says, the Dolby algorithm has been continually improved since its introduction on laserdisc, there was a silky smoothness to the DTS high frequencies. I guess there's just no substitute for bit rate when it comes to lossy audio compression—the 5.1 DTS channels have the luxury of running at 1.4 kilobits/s, whereas Dolby Digital's 5.1 channels are restricted to a maximum rate of 448kb/s, and most often run at 384kb/s.

But even with this high a quality of video and audio, I find watching movies an occasional thing—when I get home in the evening, it's music that I turn to. And it was a DTS-encoded music track on a DTS sampler DVD—Myung-Whun Chung conducting the final movement of a Mahler symphony, recorded live in a French cathedral—that raised the hairs on the back of my neck. With five discrete channels of surround sound, and even with my eyes shut tight, I was totally enveloped in the music, and felt a distinct sense of loss when the excerpt ended. It was hard to see how a two-channel system could compete when it came to re-creating the sense of the cathedral's ambient space in Tom's home theater.

In "Letters" this month, reader Tony Bauer asks why Stereophile has so far ignored DTS-encoded surround-sound CDs: "The music's here, the hardware's here; where are the Stereophile reviews?"

Well, with the exception of J. Gordon Holt, I don't know of a Stereophile reviewer who has set up a surround-sound system for music (footnote 2). Yes, some of us have home-theater systems of varying degrees of sophistication, but those systems are in the family or living room. The rooms in which we do our critical listening are dedicated to two-channel audio. But now I want in my listening room what I heard from that DTS-encoded DVD in Tom's room—that enveloping sound and sense of space.

It's not just reviewers who have so far resisted the blandishments of surround-sound. Audiophiles in general associate the phrase "high-end audio" with the concept of two-channel audio. Why should this be?

A small part of the answer is that audiophiles are deeply conservative beings, as witnessed by our devotion to LPs and tubes. But a larger part of the answer is that the change from two-channel to multichannel reproduction involves a paradigm shift, and paradigm shifts happen in what, mathematically, is called a "catastrophic" fashion. There is no smooth, gradual change from one format to another. Instead, while pressure from the new format builds, the existing format continues in its predominant state. At a critical point, there is a catastrophic change from the old to the new, with the market positions of the two formats changing places almost overnight.

Almost every manufacturer I talk to these days tells me that purchases of their two-channel gear are flat or falling, while their home-theater component sales are buoyant. Even so, music reproduction has not yet reached the point of catastrophic change. With the exception of the DTS CDs, and some Dolby Digital-encoded CDs from Delos and Denon, the music that we love, and to whose glory we have erected the temples of our audio systems, has so far all been recorded and released in two-channel form.

Yes, cheesy ambience synthesizers are supplied with A/V receivers, but whether set to "Church" or "Jazz Club," the quality of the sound they produce is pitiful, at least in my experience. It will only be when discrete multichannel music recordings become the norm, in a form that offers backward compatibility with two-channel playback systems, that we will reach the point of catastrophic change.

DVD-Audio and Sony/Philips' Super Audio CD will offer the potential for higher-quality two-channel sound. I welcome it. But I suspect that it is the potential of discrete surround sound for the music makers—when Rick Rosen visited famed producer Alan Parsons for his feature in this issue, Alan was working on surround-sound mixes of classic rock—that will reignite the market for high-quality sound systems.

Footnote 1: Tom Norton became that magazine's editor in 2000. With its June 2004 issue, Stereophile Guide to Home Theater was relaunched as Stereophile's Ultimate A/V, but with Tom continuing as editor.—John Atkinson

Footnote 2: Since this was written, Kalman Rubinson, Jon Iverson, and Larry Greenhill have set up full surround systems set up for music reproduction. But as of April 2004, I had still to take that plunge.—John Atkinson