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Wednesday, March 3, 2010

7.1 - The Revolution That Never Came

Surround sound in the home is a sad story. Once I had high hopes, but now I prefer to think of it as a noble experiment with only industrial uses.

I was a big proponent of 5.1 surround sound. I even worked exclusively in that side of the business (working on over 120 music DVDs for artists like The Who, Iron Maiden, Neil Young and Todd Rundgren) for 5 years and was the West Coast Bureau Chief for the now defunct Surround Professional magazine. But 4 years ago, I gave up.

The consumer just didn't care about the higher quality or the sonic envelopment that surround sound provides. The "audio sculpture" that gives you such a great user experience seems to be lost on a culture that doesn't care much about quality any more. It's convenience they're after.

After a big push by both the music industry and consumer electronics industry, everyone in the music business saw the writing on the wall and gave up. Reluctantly, so did I. It wasn't worth the fight any more. I went from being one of the biggest proponents of surround sound on the planet to someone who now thinks stereo is "good enough." I've even disconnected my 5.1 playback system at home. Sorry, I'm not interested. Too many heartaches, and I no longer want to take one for the team.

So I have to laugh when I read about 7.1 being the next new thing in consumer electronics. In my heart and ears, I know it's a lot better than 5.1, and I know that adding yet another height channel speaker makes the sound even more realistic, but the sad fact is, the only people who want this is the audio equipment manufacturers who think they have something new to sell.

Consumers had a hard time finding space for 6 speakers, so what makes you think they'll be able to find it for 8?

And consumers never were able to place the surround speakers in the right place anyway. Most listening spaces don't allow it because there's always a couch or chair or wall or doorway in the way. Why do the CE manufacturers suddenly think that the typical consumer's listening room can now ideally place yet 2 more speakers?

Wives hated the extra speakers and the wires connecting them. "Unsightly," "Ugly," and other similarly descriptive words and phrases were common. Don't you think they'll have some choice new ones (like "Get the hell out of the house and take your speakers with you") with the arrival of a 7.1 system?

No, 7.1 was a revolution dead on arrival. Don't hope for a sudden change in the consumer's collective heart. It's just not going to happen. Let's all enjoy the 5.1, 6.1, and 7.1 (and beyond) systems at our favorite theaters, amusement parks, and war games simulators instead.


Jrabbit said...

You are so on it, Bobby. I started pitching my wife with suround back in the early days (Shure StereoSurround, circa 1990) and could never get past the "where will the wires go, what happens when we rearrange the furniture" issue. In a small house with small children, it wasn't a battle worth fighting.

The move from "quad" to 5.1 made sense, to center the soundstage and provide an anchor for on-screen content. But going to 7.1 never offered enough obvious benefit. Two more speakers and two more amp channels, and for what?

Unknown said...

Could be it's just me, but I don't believe the hardware has been the issue at all! I've personally had a surround sound setup for 20 years at least, and nearly everyone I know with a big TV has found a way to install the extra speakers. You pretty much can't buy a receiver without at least 5.1 support.

It all works just fine for movies!
However, when it comes to music, there has never been a simple way to mix Stereo content with Surround content- they seem to require different sources, different file types, different players.

I can't just add a DTS-encoded CD, or DVD Audio, or other disk to my player, or add surround tracks to my iTunes playlist that will automatically play in Surround on my main system, but play in Stereo in my iPod.

Since my enjoyment of music is driven by the content- not the technology- it's just too complicated to listen to surround music!

But it's truly incredible when I make a special effort to do it!

The music industry needs to develop a new music file format that can both output analog Stereo audio on a portable player AND output a digital high-quality bitstream when the delivery channel can support it. Yes, it would be bigger than an MP3 file, but it would open the doors for Surround and high-quality audio.

Ron MacLeod said...

I'm with ya here Bobby!

And In case anyone reading this finds his 'wives' comment a bit sexist...

First, I know Bobby is one of most non-sexist veterans of this industry, who supports and works with women in all realms of the biz. His own business partner is a women!

But more importantly, these 'wives comments' have been substantiated in multiple outside consumer electronics studies presented at several of the Surround Conferences and published in multiple periodicals over the years.

Sad but true.

* now, back to that heartache...

Unknown said...

I think that, in music and regular cinema, it's possible that 5.1 is dead. But in video games and 3D film, I think it has the potential to really thrive, because the consumer wants to be fully enveloped in those environments.

Anonymous said...

Oh man!
Doorway, couch, and so on... how to get the surround sound set up right for a listener that likes it to sit (or lay) on a couch that is an inch away from a wall that ends the room? There's no option to have extra speakers way behind that comfortable couch or at least at proper angles for all viewers. So I think there's always a tradeoff. For me the audio-options for watching audio-visual content are: 1. go to one's favourite cinema and have it all ready and on a big screen and with decent LFE (don't even have to clean up that mess after miseating popcorn) or 2. set a sound rig in a room and seat close to the "sweet spot" (sitting almost stiff for 2 hrs just for "quality" seems not fun even for a person that doesn't have ADHD, although at home there is much better choice of treats and company) or 3. give up and watch news and comercials in color and in stereo (on that comfy couch).
There's one more thing about the less immersive experience - remembering that black and white TV that heated up for over 3 minutes to show us (kids) our favourite show or recalling watching a match with friends on a 15" at their rented flat when their neighbor started knocking at pipes when we got too loud - no speaker setting is worth more than that.
So I guess you're just right.


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