Music in the Round #1 Page 3

Almost daily, MCH newbies on the Internet wonder why stereo CDs won't use all their speakers unless they invoke DPL or other processing. "It should be automatic!" How can the record companies ignore their demands? Multichannel on SACD, DVD-Audio, or lossy encrypted hockey puck will become the lingua franca of the music industry, with stereo tracks for backward compatibility. Quickly, stereo-only releases will be as irrelevant as cassettes, as tangential as vinyl.

Getting beyond stereo
I wish I could say that a carefully set-up multichannel system will guarantee great sound every time you pop in a disc, but if you've invested endless time and much sweat in the proper setup of your stereo system, you know that MCH must be even more demanding. My MCH system isn't perfect, but, with the aid of a good setup disc, such as Chesky's Ultimate DVD Surround Sampler & 5.1 Set-Up Disc (CHDVD221), a RadioShack sound-level meter, and a little help from my friend ETF (see my review in July 1999), it sounds well-balanced in stereo and other formats.

My rig is a 5.1-channel system set up to proper ITU standards, with the left and right full-range front speakers defining a 60 degrees angle, each 30 degrees from the center-channel speaker (fig.1). The left and right surround speakers are full-range monopolar radiators, each 110 degrees from the center position. The subwoofer is adjusted for amplitude and phase to integrate with the main L/R speakers at the crossover frequency. All of this should suffice, but those pesky balancing and mastering guys continue to confound:

Fig.1 Kal Rubinson's preferred speaker set-up for MCH music listening.

Example 1: Sony's remastering of Pierre Boulez's groundbreaking New York Philharmonic recording of Bartók's Concerto for Orchestra (Sony SAM87710) was the first classical quadraphonic LP. At that time (the eary 1970s), it was a guilty pleasure for many of us, combining a fascinating performance and great instrumental clarity with a truly unrealistic presentation in which the listener was surrounded by the orchestra.

The SACD reissue is more conventional, with all the action up front and only the ambience in the rears, richly supporting the sounds of the lower-frequency instruments. The fly in the ointment is that, in synthesizing a center channel from the four-channel original, the producers have given us more center-fill and highlighting than needed. One could argue, as have David Chesky and others, that no center channel is needed for music—a good stereo setup will create sufficient and natural center-fill. With this disc, however, the only way to achieve decent instrumental balance is to turn the center channel down by about 6dB.

Example 2: Impressed as I was at Home Entertainment 2002 in New York with samplings from the recent DVD-Audio disc of Stravinsky's Firebird Suite, with Cristian Mandeal conducting the Bucharest George Enescu Philharmonic Orchestra (AIX 81003), and considering how effective AIX's small-ensemble recordings are, this release was a disappointment. The sound of the strings was quite nice, but the winds and brass seemed overbalanced and highlighted, giving the impression of greater and excessive dynamics when they interjected. Since the stereo 24-bit/96kHz track and the DTS "stage" mix included on the disc were not so plagued, it had to be something in the creation of the "audience" mix from the multiplicity of stereo pairs used by producer Mark Waldrep. The solution here was to turn up the rear channels by 3-4dB to create a more satisfying balance between the orchestral choirs. This retained the superb dynamic range, which seemed more limited by timidity in the playing than by shortcomings in the recording.

Example 3: Excessive rear-channel level, that old bugaboo, can also plague the most reliable practitioners. Telarc has been among the most consistent and prolific of multichannel labels. I found Leon Botstein and the London Philharmonic's complete recording of Glière's Symphony 3 (Telarc SACD-60609), with its somewhat overindulged sonority, the perfect companion to a cigar, cognac, and a romantic novel. But, despite my relaxed awareness, there was a distracting smear of instruments along the sides of the room. I attenuated the rear channels by 3dB and was immersed in this recording and performance, which are at once lithe and stupendous.

But none of this should be. Isn't there an implicit promise that, if we play by the rules, the recording industry will provide records that require no tweaking? Hey, how many stereo releases are that good? I don't mean to discourage you with these examples from some of the foremost proponents of MCH, but offer them as a caution that you not dismiss MCH based on a few unsatisfying demos. When MCH works, it transcends stereo in every way.

Where are we going?
The next installment of this column will begin by plotting the path from a stereo system to an MCH system. I'll assume that you have a satisfactory stereo system in place and that you won't want to compromise the performance of that system, or accept less from MCH. The focus will be on the multichannel preamplifier. (The Sony TA-P9000ES SACD/5.1 Bypass Adapter, which Larry Greenhill and I find so useful as a multichannel controller, has recently been discontinued. It's time to look for alternatives.)

The preamplifier is the component that defines how you interface with your system and what setup and component options you have. Do you replace your stereo preamp, or will the two work together? Do you have more than one MCH source? Do you need to bother with DD and DTS? The choice of MCH preamp hinges on the answers to these and other questions.