Trumpets to the Back of Me? Digital & Surround at the 2001 CES

Sidebar: Digital & Surround at the 2001 CES

Covering digital technology at CES used to be a relatively easy assignment that mainly involved incremental improvements in CD playback. But the 2001 Show was as confusing for this journalist as his market segment appears to be for the "civilian." Both are faced not only with two higher-quality media—Super Audio CD and DVD-Audio, both heavily promoted at CES for their surround capability—but the reality is that the sonically compromised two-channel MP3 format seems to be generating the most commercial heat. That's even with, as I write, the record-industry-mandated shutdown of Napster in sight. But it must be remembered that it is the venerable two-channel CD that still provides that same recorded-music industry with its economic bread and butter. My gut feeling, from talking to many audiophiles over the past few months, is that any move from traditional two-channel playback to surround is going to take a paradigm shift with respect to expectations. There is very much more involved than just transmogrifying the conventional "window into the sonic picture" playback into the immersive surround experience.

This was brought home with a vengeance by the many multichannel demonstrations I experienced at the Show that were, in my opinion, profoundly unmusical. Yes, the mixing engineer can put discrete instruments in the surround channels—but he shouldn't. For example, Sony and Philips put on a very-well-designed demonstration of SACD's surround capabilities at the St. Tropez hotel, using five B&W Nautilus 801 speakers, two B&W subwoofers, and a Philips SACD1000 player. The highlight was the premiere of Mike Oldfield's Tubular Bells on a "fully loaded" SACD—"fully loaded" in that it has a CD-layer mix, a high-density two-channel DSD mix, and a full-surround DSD mix—remastered from the 1975 quadraphonic tapes.

Perhaps having instruments in the rear can be justified on artistic grounds with this kind of music, but when we listened to a Jerry Goldsmith film score in surround, the excellent soundstage stability and the feeling of immersion in the acoustic of Abbey Road's Studio 1 was brutally disturbed by a xylophone coming from the right rear speaker, to be followed by other percussion instruments sounding from behind. Not nice, in that it excites this listener's "fight or flight" reflex, and relieved only by the subsequent demo of dmp's Sacred Feast surround SACD. Featuring the choir Gaudeamus and recorded by Tom Jung with a "Decca tree" frontal microphone array, two surround mikes, and a height mike, this was one of the few surround experiences I had at CES in which the new technology was used to serve the music, not to hype it.

Probably the only DVD-Audio demonstration to equal the professionalism of Sony's and Philips' efforts was put on by Meridian, which had invested heavily in a purpose-built demonstration room on the Convention Center floor. The carefully structured demo starting with a two-channel, 320kps MP3 file of a Mozart violin and piano duet played back from CD-R on the Meridian Reference 800 universal transport, which upsampled it to 24-bit/96kHz data before sending it in digital form (encrypted to preserve the record industry's comfort level) to a 7-channel system using three of Meridian's new $20,000 8000 loudspeakers across the front. The musical experience was simply awesome in terms of dynamic range, soundstage solidity, and musically natural immersion—until, of course, the backing voices on the Aaron Neville DVD-A came from over my shoulders! But the Meridian surround system did do justice to the 24/96 DVD-A remastering of the Doors' "Riders on the Storm," whose producer had at least had the good sense to put only the thunder and rain in the rear and sides.

The most interesting surround playback I heard at CES was of David Chesky's multichannel recordings. As reported a while back in Stereophile, instead of using six channels in the typical home-theater arrangement of three at the front, two at the rear, and one for LF effects, David prefers a stereo pair at the front reinforced by a wider-spaced frontal side pair, with a pair of surrounds. I first heard an orchestral work of David's (recorded in six channels in an Austrian cathedral with the Soundfield mike) in the Muse room with the new multichannel Symbol speakers from Avalon. Playback was from hard drive—with a combined data rate of 15Mb/s, this was quite noisy—but the immersive experience was musically convincing. The same recording sounded even better, with more stable staging, in the Joseph Audio room, where the new Joseph RM33 speakers were being used.—John Atkinson