Twenty years ago, I wired up my living room with 5.1 surround sound, based on Dolby Pro Logic coding on VHS tapes. This included 4 mini monitors, a JBL center speaker and a passive subwoofer. The soundtracks of late 1990s movies were great fun, with planes flying overhead, cars jumping into the screen, background chatter, crowd noise etc. Things have moved on massively in the intervening period – these days 24 bit high resolution audio is encoded into all of the channels – and even height coding is included in Dolby Athmos. Current budget surround sound amplifiers sound absolutely stunning – I recently acquired an inexpensive Sony surround amplifier and it is absolutely marvelous: it includes every conceivable way of connecting mobile devices to the amp, it will decode DSD from a USB drive, one can wirelessly stream from a home network – and SACDS – when connected to a Sony blu-ray player (DSD is decoded) – sound brilliant in surround mode. I have stacks of SACDS and DVD-audio discs, encoded in 5.1 surround and they sound fantastic. Albums such as “Wish you were here,” “DSOTM, ” “Gaucho” and “Layla and assorted love songs” are completely different and better than the stereo versions. It is a truly immersive experience.
In the 20 years since my first surround experience, I have had various multichannel systems – Marantz, Yamaha and JVC amplifiers, blu-ray surround systems (x2), a creative labs computer system (it was really good) – but they were all limited by one factor – the wires. Frankly, the surround speakers were a pain. This was resolved, in our home, by going wireless a couple of years ago – using the Sonos soundbar/sub and Play:1 surround speakers. The system is flawless – the optical signal from the television provides surround sound from all sources, and it works really well. Unfortunately, the surround sound is low res Dolby digital, only ok, although 16 bit stereo audio sound great. While my Sonos system is a deluxe package, it seems that most others have abandoned surround and chosen inferior quality soundbars and soundbases. One can hardly blame them – compared with the thin quality speakers built into LED televisions – soundbars sound good. But they do not provide any great semblance of surround sound – no matter what the advertisers claim.
I wonder if we are now entering a new “dark age” of audio. Many of the titles that one can rent from Netflix/Blockbuster (and other video vending machine operators) include only basic Dolby Digital, as do television stations, cable tv etc. If you want high res digital soundtracks you need to buy the blu-ry or blu-ray 4K disc. For audio only products – the same appears true. The seemingly abandoned Blu-Ray Pure Audio programme featured only stereo audio at 24/96 or 24/192 – no multichannel – such as was available on DVD-A and SACD. I have “Layla” by Derek and the Dominoes on CD (stereo), SACD (multichannel), BR-PA (stereo) and the DVD-A from the box-set (DTS surround). Both surround versions are vastly superior to the muddy original stereo mix. You can clearly hear Duane Allman playing sweeping slide guitar in the surround speakers: it’s a joy!
Similarly, recordings that are sold on HD websites (such as HD tracks) – are stereo only – for recordings that have previously been available with a surround version (e.g. SACD) for more or less the same price. You can buy “Harvest” from the Pono store at 24-192 in stereo or locate the DVD-A – which also features an MLP surround mix. Steven Wilson is a great musician, but he has an alternative career as a surround sound remixer extraordinaire– one can buy those great XTC, Yes and King Crimson albums on dual CD/Blu-Ray – featuring multiple mixes both stereo and surround – for 20 euro or so. Using DVD audio extractor to rip the audio, and buying the physical disc is a no-brainer.
Unfortunately, the physical disc format has limited life expectancy – and it is extremely unlikely that we will have high resolution audio discs in abundance in 5 years time. As the record companies are beginning to twig that suckers like me will re-buy our CD collection in 24 bit resolution, the majority of analogue era recordings and all new recordings will be available to download and stream in high resolution. Few, if any of these will be in surround sound. This is a pity as a tremendous number of albums were released in the 1970s in quadrophonic sound. I fear that, like 3D, surround sound audio (for music) will be forgotten and then “rediscovered” in 20 years time, when wireless multi-channel audio has fully matured.