Trumpets to the Back of Me?

As part of this issue's coverage of the recent Consumer Electronics Show (see Sidebar), I report on my dissatisfaction with almost all the surround-sound demonstrations I experienced in Las Vegas. As a music-lover, the last thing I want is to have trumpets and drums attacking me from behind, yet almost without exception, that is what record producers seem to feel is an essential part of the DVD-Audio and SACD experiences.

As an increasingly gray-haired baby boomer, I'm old enough to remember the fiasco of quadraphony. Yes, there were competing systems and standards—never a recipe for successful marketing. But I believe a major part of the failure of quad was the crassly unmusical surround mixes the record industry felt were an essential part of the experience. And yes, even if the Columbia recording of Bartók's Concerto for Orchestra, with the microphones in the middle of the orchestra, was very much the worst case, far too often there were, yes, trumpets and drums attacking the listener from behind!

Of course, this software problem applies equally to DVD-A and SACD. A hardware problem that also applies to both of these hi-rez media is the lack of bass management for surround music. In a home-theater system, the ".1" subwoofer channel is designated as being for low-frequency "effects." Bass information in the other five channels, in theory at least, should be fed to five full-range speakers. But when you need to buy five rather than two speakers, cutting back on the bass is the most common way of making the purchase affordable. When, in proper pragmatic fashion, a home-theater owner chooses to use speakers with limited bass extension, the system feeds all the low frequencies to the necessary subwoofer, not just the LF "effects." But with the current DVD-Audio players and the sole surround SACD player—the Philips SACD1000, reviewed by Chip Stern in April—there is no bass management. Use one of these players in a system using small speakers and you may get surround music recorded at 24/96 or with DSD, but you get no bass!

But at least SACD conforms to the existing paradigm of recorded music: put in the disc, press Play, and listen to the music. The DVD-A players I've tried at home have left me snarling in rage: This is a music medium, yet you can't access the music unless you hook up the player to a TV in order to navigate the onscreen menus! Didn't anyone in the DVD Forum think about this before going ahead with the DVD-A launch? Do they really think consumers will persevere with a medium that imposes such practical limitations on them?

Back in the 1970s, I did persevere with the surround-sound experience. Even after I'd consigned my Sansui Variomatrix quadraphonic decoder to the loft, I used a homemade version of the Hafler Dynaquad circuit to feed rear channels with the difference between the front channels. This was surprisingly successful some of the time. On good recordings with a good deal of ambience and reverberation, the sense of recorded space did indeed wrap around to the rear. But ultimately I tired of the sounds of instruments unpredictably shooting from the front to the back, and went back to the pure two-channel experience without even a slightly wistful glance over my shoulder.

So if you think my lack of enthusiasm for the "new" experience of surround sound proves that I'm an old fuddy-duddy, I'm not. It's just that almost every surround demo I heard at CES reminded me of the words of George Santayana: "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it."