Why did SACD, DVD-A, and Blu-ray fail as music surround formats?

SACD and DVD-A pinned their futures to the hope that there was a market for 5.1-channel music, and flopped. Now Blu-ray is making an even feebler attempt.

Quadraphonic was the first music surround format, and the first to bite the dust. That was in the 1970s. The SACD and DVD-A formats debuted at the dawn of the century, promising vastly improved sound quality over the CD, and both formats flopped. Their futures looked bright, so why did they fail?

Of course the record labels knew selling a new format on the basis of sound quality was a risky business, so they tacked on 5.1 surround sound. There were millions of households in the early 2000s with multichannel home theaters, so selling new music surround formats looked like a slam-dunk proposition. True, music fans would have to buy new high-resolution players, and the discs were priced higher than CDs, but the record companies were offering music lovers the chance to hear sound coming out of all of their home theater speakers! How could the market possibly resist that? I know how: SACD and DVD-A releases trickled out so slowly that most music buyers were unaware of their existence. Both formats are still limping along, and hardware manufacturers are still making new players.

Format compatibility was an issue with surround formats. Steve Guttenberg

Whenever I bring up the "Whatever happened to music surround?" question somebody inevitably mentions Porcupine Tree. I agree the band has championed music surround as a viable alternative to stereo, but, sadly, Porcupine Tree may be the only band out there keeping the faith.

Punch up "SACD" on Amazon.com and what do you see? Pink Floyd's "Dark Side of the Moon" is the best-selling SACD, and it has one of the best-sounding music-surround mixes I've heard. At the time this post was written, "Dark Side" was followed by Eric Clapton's "Slowhand"; then Elton John's self-titled album; Norah Jones' "Come Away With Me"; Billy Joel's "Piano Man"; Diana Krall's "Girl in the Other Room"; and so on. Krall's SACD is the most recent recording on the list, and it's from 2004, while most of the titles date from the 1970s! So I'm left wondering, why aren't more new rock or jazz titles coming out in 5.1?

The DVD-A titles are just as ancient, starting with the No. 1 seller, Queen's "A Night at the Opera," which I don't think is an actual DVD-A, it's just a plain DVD. The "Marvin Gaye Collection" has the No. 2 spot; the Beatles' "Love," which I love, is No. 3; next comes the Beach Boys' "Pet Sounds"; then at last there's a 2008 recording from Ringo Starr, "Ringo 5.1." Music-only Blu-ray titles appear every now and then, but Blu-ray doesn't seem to be going anywhere as a music format.

So the question is: If people really do love surround sound so much, why are newly recorded 5.1 music-only releases so rare? Where are the Adele, Lady Gaga, Death Cab for Cutie, or, better yet, Radiohead 5.1 channel releases? My guess: since a lot of music is heard only over headphones and computer speakers, 5.1 doesn't fit the way we hear music now. If you have an opinion about why music surround formats always flop, share it in the Comments section.

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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