Is surround sound the future, or another Betamax?

More albums are being mixed for 5.1 home theater systems, but some producers say consumers won't bite.

SAUSALITO, Calif.--In a tiny private recording studio on the shore of San Francisco Bay, Talking Heads keyboardist Jerry Harrison is systematically giving his old band's work new sonic life.

Newly digitized versions of the band's recordings glow on a pair of computer monitors--a guitar track here; vocals, bass drum and keyboard there. He and a pair of engineers are recreating the original records as closely as possible, and then remixing the albums into surround sound, commonly known as 5.1, designed for a six-speaker home theater setup.

An engineer puts on their new mix of "The Great Curve." Drums beat subtly but insistently from behind the listener, while David Byrne's voice sings directly in front. A guitar solo whips suddenly between the rear corners--all acoustic effects that Harrison says can help revitalize the listening experience.

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What's new:
More albums are increasingly being mixed for 5.1 home theater systems, but some producers say consumers won't bite.

Bottom line:
Backers of this new kind of sound experience hope that it could help drive demand for higher-quality recordings, boosting sales the same way that the switch from vinyl records to CDs did in the 1980s.

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"When I play this for people, I see them getting the same kind of joy they got out of buying a record in the late '60s and '70s," Harrison said. "To me, music seems kind of a commodity today. It's lost a sense of happening at a time and a place."

Harrison's new mix may be an audiophile's project, but it's aimed at equipment that is increasingly a part of ordinary home audio and video systems. Some in the record business hope that this new kind of sound experience could help drive demand for higher-quality recordings, boosting sales the same way that the switch from vinyl records to CDs did in the 1980s.

Record labels have been trying to sell high-definition recordings--the audio equivalent of HDTV (high-definition television)--for several years, but with little success. The market has been hampered by the presence of two incompatible formats: Sony's Super Audio CD (SACD), and DVD audio (DVD-A). Analysts say the conflict has kept many consumers wary of upgrading, fearful of picking a soon-obsolete technology.

"To me, music seems kind of a commodity today. It's lost a sense of happening at a time and a place."
--Jerry Harrison, keyboardist, Talking Heads

Industry sales figures from Nielsen SoundScan show that the top-selling DVD-A album, "The Best of Seal 1991-2004," sold fewer than 500 copies last week. By contrast, it takes at least 6,000 copies a week to make the lowest rung of Billboard Magazine's top 200 list.

"One of the reasons that album sales were supposed to have declined over the past few years was that consumers think music costs too much," said Geoff Mayfield, a senior analyst at Billboard. "I'm not sure that introducing formats that cost even more is necessarily going to help."

However, a saving grace may have come in the new form of

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