Is surround sound for music and home theater on its way out?

Music surround formats never really caught on, and now the appeal of listening to five or more speakers for movies is fading fast.

Back in the late 1990s and early 2000s, surround-sound music looked like the next big thing, but in the intervening decade and a half, precious little rock, jazz, or world music has been recorded in surround. True, in the early days of SACD and DVD-Audio formats there were hundreds of remixes of older stereo recordings, and some were recycled on Blu-ray, but the number of newly recorded 5.1 titles remains paltry. Looking back, the early 2000s should have been an ideal time to launch surround music; multichannel home theater was peaking, so there was a large number of households with surround systems, but surround sound without an accompanying image was a non-starter.

Steve Guttenberg/CNET

Now, in 2014, multichannel home theater sound is on the wane; today's buyers are opting for single-speaker sound bars in ever increasing numbers. Multichannel sound at home is fading fast, and multichannel over headphones never took hold. The future of home surround for music and movies looks bleak.

Part of the problem for multichannel music is that no one ever really figured out what to do with the extra channels. Four-channel Quadraphonic surround recordings first appeared in the early 1970s, but 40 years on the engineers still haven't figured out what to do with all of those channels for music. I know of only one man, Steven Wilson, who has consistently produced excellent work, but I can't name any other major artists who have embraced 5.1 channel, music-only (no video) formats.

Even if artists and consumers suddenly fell head over heels in love with surround music, I'm far from convinced the engineers could make recordings that would sound better than stereo. I've noted from time to time that when I attend acoustic concerts without PA speakers, almost all of the sound comes from the musicians on stage. I hear the instruments' sound filling the concert hall; the music is in front of me. When I sit close up, say around 20 feet from the players, I hear a "stereo" image. With my eyes closed I could point to each instrument; I hear that the drums are further back, behind the guitars and singers. I hear depth, but almost nothing from the rear or sides of the hall. Stereo recordings may be imperfect, but adding a center and/or rear-channel speakers doesn't make music sound any more realistic.

With great headphones, like the Shure SE846 and Audeze LCD-X, some of the better stereo recordings put me inside a sound "bubble"; I feel like I'm in the room with the band. It's not surround per se, but I hear more of the place where the music was recorded in.

Surround music has always flopped -- Quadraphonic, DTS 5.1 surround CDs, SACD, DVD-A -- every one fizzled. The proof of that is easy to see; if people loved 5.1 music, we'd see a lot more surround releases. If you can cite any noteworthy new, not remixed 5.1-channel rock, jazz, or world music titles, please share your thoughts in the comments.

Surround has been around for ages, and there's not much of note to show for it. Add to the fact that fewer and fewer music listeners have surround systems and there's even less of a market for surround music than before.

About the author

Ex-movie theater projectionist Steve Guttenberg has also worked as a high-end audio salesman, and as a record producer. Steve currently reviews audio products for CNET and works as a freelance writer for Home Theater, Inner Fidelity, Tone Audio, and Stereophile.

 

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