Surrounded in Manhattan


That's what we used to say in Fall River, Massachusetts. It's short for "I tol' youse guys," as in "I toljus that SACD and DVD-Audio mean a push for surround sound."

Sure enough, we got a clearer indication at Home Entertainment 2001 in May that that's exactly what proponents of the two new digital audio formats have in mind: replacing two-channel stereo with multichannel surround—maybe even speakers on the ceiling.

The public thinks that the ultimate is "CD-quality sound"—perfect sound forever, if you will. But to get the new digital audio formats moving, the industry has to offer something more.

How do you offer more than perfect? You offer more channels. Stereo is coming under siege. But not everyone welcomes a multichannel future.

Here's my colleague Ken Kessler, writing on the MartinLogan Ascent speakers in the May 2001 Hi-Fi News. Regular CD through the MartinLogans was good enough, he said, "to make you wish that SACD and DVD-A would just go away."

In the same issue, Andrew Harrison, reviewing Arcam's A85 DiVA integrated amp, referred to "the threat of surround-sound music [drawing] ever nearer."

The good news I bear [from Home Entertainment 2001] is this: Two-channel stereo is very much alive and well, and relatively affordable two-channel gear is getting better and better.

One great thing about the Home Entertainment Show is that we seemed to draw a much wider public than before—not just audiophiles and videophiles. I'm certain that many of the attendees were seeing and hearing high-end hi-fi—two-channel stereo!—for the first time. They must have had their ears opened! It was probably a good idea to change the name from "The HI-FI Show" to "The Home Entertainment 2001 Show"—even though I don't think of myself as being "entertained," exactly, while listening to Beethoven's string quartets.

In short, I think two-channel stereo got a boost rather than a boot from the Show. Good thing, too, because we "stereophiles" (small s) are going to need all the strength we can muster to ward off the surround-sound threat.

At the press luncheon, I missed the keynote address of Gary Shapiro, president of the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA). I pleaded hardship, but the truth was just the opposite: I had a previously arranged lunch date with Antony Michaelson, of Musical Fidelity. Instead of dining on Hilton-catered chicken, I enjoyed a four-course lunch around the corner at Le Bernardin (my favorite New York City restaurant) with Antony and Wayne Schuurman, of Audio Advisor, his then US distributor. We talked mainly about watches.

Drat! By the time the three of us had finished dessert and a second bottle of wine, it was too late to head to the AOL Time Warner building for the DVD-Audio demo. Later, when I met Lars in the lobby, he told me the demo had been a dud [see "As We See It"—Ed.].

"Where are you off to next, Lars?"

"Let's go to Lyric Hi-Fi for the Telarc demo."

"Sounds good."

A van was waiting outside the hotel.

At Lyric, I ran into Robert Woods, Telarc's president and senior producer. You remember? Straight-ahead Bob? He sure remembered me.

"You're Sam."

"Straight-ahead!" I replied. "I'm surprised you remember."

"Oh, I didn't forget the last press conference."

That was at HI-FI '99, in Chicago, where I peppered Woods with questions at the Sony-sponsored press conference for the introduction of SACD. That was two years ago. To his credit, Woods tried to answer rather than evade my questions. How many SACD titles have been released so far? 200? 300? How many would you actually want to listen to for their musical content? How many are reissues of recordings you already own, maybe twice over? There are probably between 200 and 300 new CD titles per week.

Woods sensed trouble, but the encounter remained cordial. How could it not? Woods is such a cool, straight-ahead guy. And I like Telarc—one of the few record labels (maybe now the only label) that still regularly records US orchestras.

At this Telarc-sponsored demo there were five Magnepan Magneplanar 20.1 speakers—three in front, two in back—and a single Magneplanar 700 MCI speaker hanging from the ceiling, dangling over my listening chair like the sword of Damocles. Who knows what's next if multichannel takes hold—subwoofers built into the floor?