Surround Sound & Cognitive Dissonance

Listening to multichannel music with the new SACD and DVD-Audio players has produced equal parts contentment and consternation. The contentment is easy to understand: Here are media that can reproduce music with better-than-CD resolution and, for the first time, re-create a believable illusion of the entire acoustic space in which the performance was recorded. The consternation is related to those same two issues: 1) maintaining the resolution and tonal balance relished with high-quality stereo, and 2) making the psychological transition from two-channel to multichannel listening. Both of these are barriers to audiophile acceptance of multichannel music.

It seems the vast majority of multichannel listeners, although perhaps not of Stereophile readers, have been conned into thinking they can do the job with a handful of tiny loudspeakers and an overachieving subwoofer shoved behind the couch. Some just add on puny surrounds and a center. Well, that might suffice in home-theater setups with bass management that can route the low-frequency content to the subwoofer as needed. However, DVD-Audio and SACD players, all of which so far eschew a multichannel digital output, do not provide for bass management via their analog-only outputs, and aside from TMH's new standalone Bass Manager, no high-end processor I know of manages bass without redigitizing the signal. Thus, listeners with small speakers and a sub must suffer inevitable signal corruption in order to get full-spectrum output. While there is some promise of a digital output format for DVD-A in the future, a standardized, full-bandwidth, multichannel digital interface is absolutely essential.

"Oh well," you say, "high-enders will use full-range speakers in all channels plus a subwoofer, and a preamp-processor that will accept and control up to eight analog channels without redigitizing them." That's what I do, but even so—bass management is essential if imaging and bass are to be credible.

It takes great care and effort to get good imaging and good bass from just two speakers. The odds are vanishingly small that five or more speakers positioned for tonal balance and imaging will also be correctly positioned for smooth and extended bass response. With adjustable cutoffs and levels, bass management permits the rerouting of bass signals to one or more subwoofers, which can be positioned for extended and integrated bass performance. The true purpose of bass management is not to simulate full-range performance with miniature speakers, but to optimize the system in situ for imaging and bass. Without it, multichannel sound will, for all its gee-whiz effects, be sonically and aesthetically inferior to quality two-channel.

The first time I heard two-channel stereo was in the upstairs demo room at the old Leonard Radio store on Cortlandt Street in Manhattan, on the site of what is now the World Trade Center. Typical of the late 1950s, the room was large, perhaps 20' by 60', and lined with almost every component in stock. At one end stood a pair of huge Bozak speakers driven by pair of McIntosh MC-75 amps, two C11 preamps, and a ReVox G36 open-reel tape deck with two playback heads. The music was Beethoven's Symphony 7, and though I forget who the performers were, I clearly remember the mind-opening expanse of the sound—not just big, but spacious in a way I had never heard reproduced music before. It was fascinating and seductive, and I had no hesitation in deciding that this was what I desperately needed for my own.

I was fortunate to hear the new medium for the first time with excellent, full-range components that represented what was then the state of the art. Very quickly, all the major loudspeaker companies were pushing small satellite speakers that you could add to your main speaker and, they promised, "get stereo," especially with the gimmicky "Ping-Pong" recordings of that era. While this could give you a taste of the stereo experience, it was a definite step back from quality mono. Does that sound familiar?

Via Dyna amps and a pair of Altec A-7 speakers, my experience of stereo at home was much more satisfying and involving than my mono listening had ever been. But the transition from mono to the golden age of stereo was swift and uncomplicated because the nature of my relationship to the music had not changed, but only improved—more aspects and details of the performance were being conveyed. I still remained somewhat apart, enjoying the music now through a large window rather than a small port. As the years went by, the two-channel window grew large and transparent enough that modern stereo seems to give us an unclouded and expansive view of the performance.

Like good two-channel, good multichannel sound permits no compromises in the quality of individual components. It demands that engineers and producers use each channel with responsibility and taste. Overcome these hurdles and multichannel should convey you to the original performance and venue as never before, and yet retain all the power and resolution you expect from two channels. The result can be remarkable: Good multichannel changes the relationship between the listener and the music. When I listen to a credible multichannel recording, I am placed, by the efforts of the recording and mixing engineers, in the space where the performance took place. I have stepped through that open window and am immersed in the event. This is exciting and seductive. It can also be coercive and confusing.

Some weeks ago, several Stereophile editors were part of a Chesky Records recording session with Bucky Pizzarelli and a small combo in a Manhattan jazz club. David Chesky encouraged the audience to relax, enjoy our drinks, and respond to the music, while keeping just short of rowdy. The music was great and the evening was fun. This week, a six-channel mix of the event transported me back to the club, even though I was now seated on a sofa in the Chesky listening room. The sound was full and immediate, but there was a disquieting discordance between where I could hear I was and where I knew I was. To sit there in the listening room discussing the recording with David Chesky while simultaneously sitting in the club with Pizzarelli and the crowd was to simultaneously experience two different realities.

At home, the conflict can be worse. Via two-channel, I listen to everything from Corelli to Cooder with varying degrees of attention, sometimes reading, often daydreaming, and generally without a care for my posture or dress. Not so with multichannel. Being transported into the event rather than sitting outside looking in, I am inhibited from doing anything but paying attention to the music. I must put down the book or newspaper and concentrate, trying to imagine what I should be seeing and feeling. Worst of all, how can I be comfortable at a symphony concert in the Vienna Musikvereinsaal in my undershorts?

Despite—or because of—its magical illusion, multichannel sound is a demanding and sometimes stressful experience. With time, I hope to become desensitized to the cognitive dissonance and learn to accept this revelatory new medium as part of everyday life.

Chesky is planning to release the Pizzarelli event (it's more than a performance) on a single disc with the full program in two-, four-, and six-channel formats. They say that back-compatibility is needed to accommodate diverse systems. I think that back-compatibility is needed to accommodate diverse minds.