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Onkyo to offer Dolby TrueHD 5.1 channel music downloads

Music-only surround formats have failed again and again; is Onkyo's new high-resolution download scheme doomed from the start?

At the end of May, Onkyo will start selling Dolby TrueHD 5.1-channel music downloads, first in Japan, and by the fall of this year worldwide. That's either a brave or foolhardy move.

Steve Guttenberg

Multichannel music formats -- starting with quadraphonic LPs and tapes in the early 1970s, DTS encoded surround CDs in the 1990s, and DVD Audio and SACD in the early 2000s -- have all suffered from a lack of consumer demand. Very, very few surround releases were initially recorded in surround; most rock and jazz titles are remixed from older stereo recordings. The Blu-ray format has now been around for six years, and you can count the number of new music-only 5.1 releases on your fingers (live-in-concert, surround-sound videos are much more common). I really enjoyed Steven Wilson's recent "Grace for Drowning" music-only surround Blu-ray; the man really has a knack for mixing 5.1 music, but I can't think of anyone else making great new surround recordings.

So now we have the news that e-onkyo music is preparing to launch a new high-resolution Dolby TrueHD download service in Japan on May 30. I wonder how e-onkyo music plans on getting a sizable catalog of 5.1-channel recordings. The promised selection of high-resolution 24-bit/96-kHz or 24-bit/192-kHz 5.1-channel Dolby TrueHD recordings may turn out to be overly optimistic; most of today's rock recordings are 24-bit/48-kHz files. The initial e-onkyo music offering of 100 titles is mostly classical music. If the service just reissues the same old rock and jazz titles that failed on DVD-A and SACD, e-onkyo music will be doomed before it starts. Oh, and there's one other catch to the plan: only two of the newest Onkyo TX-NR818 and TX-NR717 AV receivers will support the service. I have no idea why other receivers won't be capable of playing the files.

I don't see the failures of music surround formats as failures of the various technologies; it's mostly because the market has consistently demonstrated a near total lack of interest in surround sound, unless it's accompanied by a picture. Few people actually listen to music at home anymore, which is probably the only place they could hear music in surround, but back in the 1970s and 1980s, a fair share of listening time was at home, and even then surround sales never added up to more than a trickle. Movies have had surround sound in theaters for more than half a century, and multichannel movies are now -- in theaters and at home -- the norm. We've had the opportunity to buy music surround formats for almost as long, and not one has ever gained widespread acceptance in the market.