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Sounding Off: Not Convinced About Surround Sound

Matt Bell By Matt Bell
Published January 2003

The combined might of the record industry is currently behind the attempt to persuade us that surround is the next big thing — but many of us still remain to be convinced...

I'm getting increasingly set in my ways of late. Despite telling myself I could always go in forwards if I want to, thus leaving the window open on a life of youthful spontaneity, I've now come to terms with the fact that I pretty much always reverse into parking spaces. Likewise, I no longer attempt to buck the now-comfortable notion that toilet roll must always hang forward over the holder, not dangle behind. No doubt before long, I'll be firing off letters of complaint to The Times and refusing to let the kids next door have their ball back.

Matt Bell.In my defence, I'm certainly not closed to all new concepts. When CDs appeared, I couldn't wait for everything I owned on LP to be re-released on CD. Not for me a die-hard existence clinging to crackly old vinyl — the future was chrome-shiny, rainbow-hued, and programmable. Likewise, when really affordable MIDI gear appeared in the late '80s, did I say "It's not real music — I'll stick to the piano lessons, thanks!"? I did not; I bought a drum machine, a MIDI synth, and a sequencer. More recently, when Apple launched the new flexible-stalk iMac, I praised it as a design classic (oh, all right — after some initial rumblings about it being a triumph of looks over function).

So, if I'm still capable of embracing progress, surely I must have done away with my stone-age stereo home studio and hi-fi, and replaced it with surround setups? Well... no. I have no intention of 'upgrading' to any kind of multi-channel system in my studio or elsewhere at home, be it 5.1, 7.1, 9.1, 10.2, or even (as I heard someone mention recently) 20.4. What's more, I don't feel it's merely approaching decrepitude that leads me to spurn surround like this.

Firstly, there's my home studio. I struggled with an analogue tape multitracker mastering to cassette for many years, and then finally I got myself a nice digital multitracker and a CD-R. Now, at last, I can create decent-sounding stuff on CD that I can play almost anywhere. But now I'm supposedly meant to upgrade almost everything — mixers, recorders, effects, processors, monitors, mastering equipment, and even storage media — in the interests of surround compatibility. And there's not even just one set of surround standards to upgrade to — there's no agreement on number of channels and speakers, nor one media standard equivalent to CD (wave hello to DVD-Vs, DVD-ROMs, DVD-As and SACDs). It's all far too complex and expensive for a home-studio owner to be bothered with, in my opinion.

OK, so I'm not sold on surround as a viable means of production for the home-based musician. But what about for home listening? This is more of a personal viewpoint, but to me, stereo CD-quality audio simply ain't broke and don't need fixing, despite the belief of surround advocates that higher-resolution multi-channel audio will lure us onwards. Perhaps it's just my cloth ears, but I feel silver CDs give me all the quality I need for this lifetime. To be honest, if I could still experience that indefinable tingling feeling I get from fantastic music by listening on a wax cylinder, I'd settle for that. The bottom line is that it's music I get off on, not the spec of the system it's being played on.

Even if I thought surround sounded better, I think economics would still prevent me from embracing it. The move from vinyl to CD made sense to me, but the supposed improvement that comes with moving from stereo to surround is simply not sufficient for me to be able to justify ditching my current stereo system, to say nothing of the cost of repurchasing my entire record collection in 5.1-remixed form.

And finally — what if it's all a conspiracy? Everyone gains from surround — producers paid to remix it, studios paid to remix it in, equipment manufacturers paid for new gear to remix it with, and record companies paid to re-release their back catalogue again. It's no wonder everyone says it's great! Some industry figures clearly believe surround audio is truly better audio — but that makes it no easier to swallow record company press releases like the recent one which claimed that with the release of their back catalogue in 5.1-remixed form, it was now possible 'to hear the music as it was meant to be heard'. Since stereo has been the planned release format for nearly all music for at least 30 years, this is at best disingenuous, and at worst complete rubbish. It's easy to claim that Robert Johnson would have wanted a 5.1 mix of his famous mono blues recordings if he'd had the chance, but not even Satan, it seems, could conjure up 5.1 in the early '30s. Nevertheless, a 'more involving, inclusive mix of these classic recordings' is surely only a matter of time. My Switch card, however, will remain coolly unruffled, and my stereo will remain just that. And no, you can't have your ball back.

About The Author

Matt Bell is Sound On Sound's Managing Editor.