Whatever happened to 5.1-channel music?

I love two-channel stereo. A great stereo recording can produce such a full-bodied, three-dimensional soundstage that surround sound seems superfluous. Multichannel is just peachy for home theater, but good ol' stereo suits music just fine, thanks very much.

This fall sees the tenth anniversary of the launch of Super Audio CD by Sony and Philips. Thanks to the format's generous data capacity, a single SACD could contain stereo and 5.1-channel surround mixes. Not only that, dual-layer, hybrid SACD/CDs were backward-compatible with standard CD players. The future looked bright back in 1999.

DVD-Audio appeared a year later, launched by a consortium that included Matsushita, Toshiba, and Warners on little more than faith that the next-generation music format could ride on the coattails of DVD-Video's rousing success.

Can you say format war?

SACD was designed around Sony/Philips' Direct Stream Digital (DSD) codec, which stores music as 1-bit data sampled at an ultra-high 2.8224MHz. Stereo DVD-A boasts uncompressed PCM with a 24-bit word length and up to 192kHz sample rate; six-channel surround DVD-As encoded at 24/96 employed Meridian Lossless Packing compression. Both super formats sounded phenomenal.

Great, but high-resolution sound alone wouldn't slay the Compact Disc. The DVD-A crowd's mantra of "added value" was supposed to put DVD-A over the top in the mass market. To entice converts, record labels would pile on oodles of bonus tracks, videos, live concert footage, interviews, commentaries, photo galleries, lyrics—and, best of all, multichannel sound. The labels were giddy about surround's future: "Now that 5.1 music is here, listening to stereo is like watching black-and-white TV."

Obviously, 5.1-channel sound makes sense for movies and home theater, mostly because 5.1 was an outgrowth of theatrical film-sound technologies stretching all the way back to the 1950s. Movies and surround go together like popcorn and Coke.

Except for one thing: Surround at home without video doesn't sell. Remember the rise and fall of Quadraphonic in the 1970s? True believers blamed the demise on Quad's baffling range of discrete- and matrix-encoded variants: 8-track cartridges, open-reel tapes, and at least four types of LPs. Once Quadraphony was dead and buried, surround music didn't try to make a comeback until the late 1990s.

What was needed was a unified surround format that didn't require music lovers to invest in new playback gear. Surely such a format would prove the viability of music surround . . . wouldn't it?

DTS Entertainment introduced such a system in the late 1990s: The DTS Digital Surround CD. Those 20-bit discs were playable on any DVD or CD player—as long as it was connected to a digital A/V receiver or surround processor. Tens of millions of homes were so equipped, but the Digital Surround CD barely made a ripple.

Still, one way or another, 5.1 was coming, and it was left to recording engineers and producers to grapple with the specifics: ie, how would the extra 3.1 channels be used? Would the speaker placements for music surround conform to those accepted for a Dolby/DTS 5.1-channel home-theater setup: left/right speakers in front, a horizontal center speaker above or below the monitor, and a pair of small surround speakers flanking the listening position, mounted a few feet above the ears of the seated listeners?

That would have made too much sense.

The home-theater model was rejected in favor of the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) standard: five full-range speakers, all at the same height, placed equidistant from the sweet spot. As a standard for recording studios, ITU is fine; for home systems that have to accommodate families and furniture, it's completely impractical (footnote 1).

What about a subwoofer? The sub's role in home theater is twofold: it supplies both the missing low end for bass-challenged satellite speakers, and the Low Frequency Effects (LFE) or ".1" channel. But the ".1" channel's duties for multichannel music were never really nailed down. (It actually didn't have to be a subwoofer channel at all; DVD-A's sixth channel could have been run full-range, though this option was not included in the medium's specification.)

Then there was the matter of recording and mixing 5.1. Sure, it would have been great if surround delivered complete, 360° wraparound imaging, but that rarely happened. Instead, we got so-called center-of-the-band mixes with panpotted, disembodied, multiple-mono imaging, instruments popping up willy-nilly all over the five channels. I preferred the other tack: mixes in which the band was in front of me and the ambience was in the surrounds. But you didn't need SACD or DVD-A for that—you could achieve pretty much the same effect with five speakers and stereo LPs and CDs processed with Dolby Pro Logic II matrix surround.

For the most part, the surround aesthetic never matured past its rudimentary beginnings, though there were notable exceptions. For example, the Talking Heads' keyboard player, Jerry Harrison, and engineer E.T. Thorngren made masterful 5.1 remixes of the band's eight studio albums. Check out "Found a Job," from More Songs About Buildings and Food (DualDisc, Sire R2 76450). Listen to the way David Byrne's and Harrison's guitars arc from the front to the rear speakers, and how the syncopated closing vamp reveals unsuspected complexities lurking deep in the densely layered patterns of guitars, handclaps, keyboards, and synths, all within a holographic soundscape. After that, the stereo version sounds pretty ho-hum.

In the first rounds of the SACD/DVD-A format war, in 2000, both sides promised a full slate of titles by the end of the year. They repeated that pledge the following year, but the major labels squeezed out only small batches of six or seven titles at a time, followed by months of no multichannel releases at all. The long-term commitment to SACD of audiophile labels such as Chesky and Telarc far outstripped Sony's own. Strange.

Eventually, substantial chunks of the catalogs of Bob Dylan, Peter Gabriel, the Kinks, the Moody Blues, the Police, and the Rolling Stones were released on SACD, and the catalogs of the Doors and Neil Young are well represented on DVD-A. Even so, most of the SACD titles are two-channel only. SACD and DVD-A are still here in 2009, but new jazz or rock releases in 5.1 surround are increasingly rare.

That said, if you have a hankering to hear surround-sound versions of music by Calexico, Elvis Costello, Eminem, Korn, Dave Matthews, My Morning Jacket, Radiohead, or the White Stripes, you can—all have released terrific-sounding concert videos on DVD-V and Blu-ray. Some of the Blu-ray releases feature surround mixes in lossless high-resolution Dolby TrueHD and DTS Master Audio. As I said, I don't question the appeal of surround, so long as it's accompanied by video. Which I think is where I came in . . . .—Steve Guttenberg

Footnote 1: I beg to differ with Steve here; five full-range speakers is the only uncompromised format for multi-channel music playback, particularly in terms of matching the center channel to the front L/R speakers.—John Atkinson

walshbouchard's picture

I Agree with John Atkinson


I am old enough to remember quad in fact, I remember first hearing it as 4 channel stereo in the UK by AR using 2 stereo Reel to reels in sync playing back though AR4s, I think, I was 17 and walked out of that demo thinking hi fis got a great future

That was 1970, 43 years later and hi fi snobs are still banging on about stereo being three dimensional etc.

NO IT ISNT. I admit some recordings can sound pretty good but it’s still only two channel

It’s alright for someone who can afford a couple of PMC BD 5 studio monitors and a £100,000 worth of amp and sources , probably does sound 3 dimensional then ? But for most of us who are limited to the real world of a £10,000 often second hand used system,

NO IT Doesn’t!


Not to diverge but it’s the same agreement with CD 44.1 and DSD or 24/96 PCM

DTS CD is better than CD , SACD is better than  DTS CD , DVDA is better than DTS CD and all of them are better than CD!

Why is there a debate over this? it’s like arguing in favour of a flat earth or creationism

Originally stereo was first conceived to be three channel , I have a load of 3 ch RCA Victor Living Stereo DSD SACDs and these are just bloody amazing even although the tapes are over 50 years old  Reiner’s Scheherazade being one of them . the third channel makes all the difference both in resolution and imaging , of course it does the existing two speaker have less to do , so what they do have too they do better

However nobody would wear 3 speakers and it was probably not possible at the time to put 3 tracks on a vinyl disc, so we have been living with a half-finished product for 50 years anyway,

The fact is the human ear in a concert hall or rock concert picks up sounds both direct from the source and reflected from over the shop and it’s pretty obvious that stereo while an improvement on mono can’t do that , multichannel can and does


End of argument!!

They reason multichannel has failed is because everybody is an MP3 freak and it’s hard to put four channels on an IPod  , about ½ % care about quality of sound  , it’s just market forces and practicality  .

If those figures were the other way around nobody would be supporting CD or Stereo

mwinstanley's picture

The waffle up there about 5.1 music being worthless and good old stereo is all that's worth listening to is absolute rubbish. Anyone who would subscribe to this none-sense is not actually a music lover but a dreamer.

stereo is not three dimensional. it is actually 1 dimensional. surround is two dimensional and if one day someone puts speakers in the roof and the floor it will be three dimentional.

I have been a fanatical music listener, player and studio recorder for 30 of my 45 years. Surround sound is somewhat like listening to music in a good set of headphones, a) withut the headphones b) with a lot more depth and interest when mixed properly.

There have been some terrible 5.1 mixes, but lets not forget some of the hideous stereo mixes from the early days, when equally short sighted, ignorant folk said mono was the only way to listen to music. 

Quad didn't take over back in the 70's because the average housewife didn't want 4 huge speakers sitting in the lounge room/living room. This has been bipassed by the shrinkage of equipment. Yes perhaps the speakers in smaller systems aren't as good as some JBL studio monitors, or some big old Tannoy's, but that isn't to say they have no value at all. I currently can't afford a million dollar sound system, but that does not render a high quality 5.1 mix useless or of low quality. Unless you have ears that can hear a sparrow fart behind a steam train the arguement is redundant anyway. I am not a fan of the over pinched mp3 stuff, but appreciate that some people just want portable music. the old walkman wasn't exactly studio quality magic now was it. 

5.1 is a great format and i have enjoyed many many albums remixed for this format. Those being in the form of sacd, dvd-a and now even the bluray audio discs. The initial problem was the format war between sacd and dvd-a. consumers were and are sick to death of behind ripped off. They don't want to buy five machines to play their music, and who can blame them.

If you read this article, ignore the waffling rubbish about how stupid 5.1 is. Get a good OPPO or other decent brand bluray player that will decode all the various disc types and buy some stuff with your speakers set up right. There is a stack of stuff worth hearing. Yes-close to the edge, the three genesis studio album box sets (available seperately) Fleetwood mac-rumours, Eagles-hotel california, moody blues, elton john, flaming lips, e.l.p., bowie, .. a ton of stuff worth revisiting with a fresh new sound. 

nmeunier's picture

I know this article is as old as the hills, but I'm still a bit shocked Mr. Guttenberg wrote what he did about this medium. I'm really in full agreement with mwinstanley's statements.

The fact is that 4-channel surround basically died for all the same reasons it does today (2015). No real support from the vendors, and no real agreement on formats. There is almost zero education for the general public as to what surround sound is, what benefit it has over stereo, and how much more accurate the sound is.

No doubt there will always be people who have no real ear for music or sound quality. That's a given. So what? Does that mean all the rest of us should suffer in silence? Do we need to cater to the lowest common denominator?

When different storage and playback formats came out in the 50's and 60's, you saw an effort from the manufacturers to explain to people how much better the next thing was going to be for them. You don't see any of that going on today. It's always up to us to sort out what the formats are and how to get this kind of sound in our living rooms.

There also needs to be more of an effort in research and development to create advanced speaker designs so that we're not filling up rooms with speaker boxes everywhere. The concept of a "sweet spot" also needs to be investigated and solved. We are far from audio Nirvana.

As in the quad days, the "wife factor" is still alive and well. Most women could care less about how speakers should be set up to achieve a perfect sound field. All they often care about is how disruptive all these speakers are, and how much the subwoofer rattles the dishes or duct work in the house. That may come off as a misogynistic statement, but let's face it. It's true.

Considering the kind of music being spewed out of studios today, very little is being done to achieve more accurate sound. Compression is the order of the day, and exaggerated bass meant to rattle side and rear-view mirrors in cars. Since few young people even want to sit down to listen to anything, the portable music system rules and surround sound gets relegated to the back burner.

Without the appropriate market forces to convince the audio industry to get their sh*t together, it'll take another 20 years or more before surround sound reappears in yet another wave of promised audio excellence. It might just flop again, for all the same reasons I've mentioned here.

mediagiant's picture

There are a number of wonderful concerts available on DVD and even Blu-ray, each of which supports 5.1 surround. (Blu-ray supports 7.2 surround!) Plus, just about everyone already has a DVD player if not a Blu-ray player.

Why not simply release studio albums this way and just show the album cover or some visualization on the video screen? Even better, show video footage of the artist recording the track while the track is actually playing.

No extra equipment to purchase, nothing complicated to set up. Just press Play.

Of course, this would be problematic for most car stereos...so that's why you include a second regular CD alongside the DVD or Blu-ray disc.