The end of Surround

An editorial was on a local radio program called “On the Beat” on KCRW-FM, one of the L.A. local NPR affiliates, on Feb. 11.1 Called “The Finer Points of New Music Configurations,” if this consultant to the music industry is right, the editorial stated that it’s curtains for us folks. Given the modern world, you don’t have to take my word for it: you can hear her say the things I quote in this article with a RealOne Player. She wrapped up with, “I expect these two formats [SACD and DVD-A] will go the way of the [sic] Betamax, the [sic] quad sound, the DCC, and the DAT. Built by executives, and voted down by consumers.” Well her grammar isn’t too good — since when did Betamax and quad take the article — but does she score points?

Her first point is that new digital formats are a plot by hardware and record company MBAs to extract more money from a skeptical public. She points out that the patent on CD has run out, and that Sony/Philips were making millions on royalties (on every disc!), and that, since they lack that royalty stream, they’re seeking another in SACD. Then she goes on to point out that an alternate consortium behind DVD-A is seeking the same thing. Well let’s say there’s something to this argument. Capitalistic countries give patents only a limited life in order to stimulate new inventions. And when a monopoly runs out, others, as well as the originators of the dominant patents, may seek to compete in a new world. True. Point taken. But what exactly is wrong with that? It isn’t a “plot” to take money from an unwilling public, but in this case a contest in the marketplace of sensation, basically asking the question, “Is surround worth it?”

Another point she makes is that for each format the proponents are remixing vault material, basically to recycle the same old stuff. While, of course, such re-releases are important for those items for which a multitrack master can be turned into a new multichannel release, often of familiar material, her argument totally neglects new work made in surround.

The whole history of this magazine, among many other things, illustrates the intense debate over how to use the new spatial properties offered by surround sound, something that the brief life of surround in former incarnations kind of, well, overlooked. Yes it is true that surround came out and died a few times– this is the theme of my talk “The History and Future of Surround Sound,” with the subtitle “An Opera in Five Acts” wherein the hero dies and is resurrected a number of times, but is finally here to stay.

Her next point is that “the new format requires special equipment and additional speakers to appreciate the sound.” Yes, “special equipment” is needed in the form of a new player, but with DVD players down to under $100, is a little more for a SACD or DVD-A player that also plays DVDs a lot to ask?

Let’s see…Crutchfield (not known for low prices!) offers the Pioneer DV-563A-S for $149.99, a single-disc “universal player” that does DVD/CD/SACD/DVD-Audio/MP3 (as CD-ROM, CD-R, and CD-RW in ISO9660 Level 1/2, Romeo, or Joliet formats (I haven’t even heard of all these!). So is that a problem? I guess my only problem with the unit on paper, without trying it, is that it’s silver, and the rest of my components are black! Good thing; if it was black I’d have to buy it.

Her point also gives no notice to the millions of people who already have surround sound, and might be looking for music sources to fill up their inputs and make music as compelling an experience as video with surround sound has proved to be. In fact, she neglects the millions of DVDs already sold with music being the driving force behind the sale. Concerts, operas, and other material has sold in the millions with lossy compression of audio — just why wouldn’t we want a system that allows for lossless compression or none at all?

Here are some relevant facts:
Dolby alone has sold 121,761,200 surround decoders as of February, and 33,268,620 5.1-channel discrete AC-3 decoders. DTS adds millions more to that total. In fact, Dolby is preparing for an IPO2, and DTS has gone public in the last year and reports good results3. Doesn’t sound like a bad time for audio, and a large portion of these companies’ work is in surround.

These numbers show the impetus that drives multichannel surround loudspeaker setups. Nobody knows how many people have all those “extra” loudspeakers, but it has to be a large percentage of these high numbers. So her argument falls because so may people already are prepared with receivers and loudspeakers, lacking only that $150 player, and then, let’s not forget it, compelling content.

For it is the experience of the content that sells the medium, and a lot has been done in this way by many music producers, and most of it is at least pretty good, and all of it is compelling in a whole new way. Surround sound will win in the marketplace ultimately because it is a sensation that everyone equipped with normal hearing can experience, and tell the difference. Yes, there may not be room for multiple formats, but with combo players, where’s the problem for the user?

Surround Professional Magazine