XM and MusicGiants Unveil 5.1 Plans

There was at least one story we missed at last week's Consumer Electronics Show (CES) and that was the announcement of two new plans to provide 5.1 music surround: XM Satellite Radio announced the addition of two 24-hour surround channels to its line-up and download service; MusicGiants announced its intention to add 5.1-channel "high-definition" audio files to its premium subscription service.

XM's news conference at CES bruited its partnership with equipment manufacturers Denon, Onkyo, Pioneer, and Yamaha, who will produce home-audio systems that will play XM's new surround channels; and with Neural Audio Corporation, which will provide the signal processing and surround-sound technology called XM HD Surround, "six discrete channels of digital full-fidelity audio," according to the press release.

The new format will debut in March 2006 on XM's free-form music channel Fine Tuning (Channel 76) and pop classical XM Pops (Channel 113). The service also pledges to "broadcast a variety of special shows and live music performances at the XM studios in XM HD Surround."

Hugh Panero, XM president and CEO said, "HD Surround is the latest example of the technological edge that has made XM the number one satellite radio company." Geir R. Skaaden, Neural Audio CEO, added, "XM HD Surround is setting the bar at a new level with surround sound that enriches the listener's experience with full envelopment and image detail never before available in traditional broadcast." Details on the codec and other specs were not part of the announcement, however, other than that "these broadcasts can also be heard on any existing mono, stereo, or matrix style receiver."

XM has traditionally been reticent to reveal technical information about its bit-rate and its codec specs, presenting these as proprietary issues in a competitive environment. However, many observers (ourselves included) suspect that the true figures are just plain embarrassing. Divide the available bandwidth by the number of channels and each XM channel would seem to be providing data at a mere 64kbps, a bit rate well below the lossy 128kbps that makes the average MP3 recording sound uninvolving. Since XM and Neural did not mention additional bandwidth being added for HD Surround, we have to assume the extra channels of discrete "full-fidelity audio" have divided that pie even further.

MusicGiants has not announced all of the details of its plan—such as pricing or availability—but it seems to differ significantly in its audio promise: It claims its file format "is comparable to the original DVD-Audio formats, at either 88.2kHz or 96kHz sampling rate [and] 24 bits."

"Listening to music in 5.1 provides exactly the type of rich, robust listening experience that musicians prefer and consumers now expect from their home audio systems," said Elliot Mazer, who has produced 5.1 remixes of recordings by artists like Neil Young, Janis Joplin, The Who, Santana, Frank Sinatra, and Switchfoot "The addition of 5.1 content to the MusicGiants Network will be a first in the music industry."

"There are an estimated 35 million 5.1 music systems in US homes," said Scott Bahneman, MusicGiants' CEO. "We believe that combining the highest sound quality music available over the Internet with the exceptional listening experience of 5.1 will provide a significant market opportunity."

You'd think so, wouldn't you? Reaching 35 million 5.1-surround-system owners with high-quality recordings might persuade enough of them that music surround was worthwhile to create a profitable niche market, perhaps even a significant one.