Surround Sound Music is dead, long live surround sound music!
Surround sound music is dead, so they say. Really? Surround sound is old news and long established in the movie world. What went wrong with surround sound for music?
Surround sound has been around for a while now and for music it has been declared dead by many people, like Steve Guttenberg for example on his blog entry on CNET.
I tend to agree with him on some of the points he gives for why surround sound for music has never caught on, but like some of the commenters, I think that surround done right is a listening experience stereo cannot give you. Ever.
But let’s go back in time real quick. In 1940 Disney’s animated movie Fantasia could be seen and heard in cinemas with Fantasound, a stereophonic sound system developed by the engineers of the Walt Disney Studios. It was the first commercial motion picture with sound that had directionality and movement, something only possible with multiple (at least 2) speakers. Since then we’ve grown used to bullets and helicopters seemingly flying by our heads and cars going from left to right when we watch a movie, wether it be at home or at the local cineplex. Surround sound is just a part of the movie experience we’ve come to expect. But what about music?
Even though Progrock Band Pink Floyd were already performing a surround sound concert back in 1967 using a custom quad system, quadraphonic sound never really caught on to the masses. It was only with the rise of the home cinemas that multi channel audio found it’s way into the living rooms, this time in digital form via Laserdisc and later DVD. The circumstances were good for the introduction of a format for surround sound music. Unfortunately there were more than one. With ‘DVD Audio‘ and ‘SACD‘ the consumers were confronted with two competing and non compatible formats that required a dedicated player and analog audio connections for each; that’s two times six in the case of 5.1. Since not everything was available for both systems, the surround sound audiophile had to either get 2 players, with double the audio connections, or miss out on some releases. The regular consumer couldn’t be bothered and as a result of this format war surround sound music has remained a niche product.
Wait a minute, didn’t surround sound music die because no one really needs it, everybody is listening to music on a portable device and no one sits down to listen to music anymore? I don’t think that’s true. Sure, a lot of music is consumed on the go, but I know many people who still like to relax while listening to music, either sitting down or walking around doing something else. So one might say, people who listen to music on stereo systems while cooking or cleaning wasted money on a second speaker, because a single mono speaker would suffice, right? I respectfully disagree. You might not always use it to it’s full potential, but it is there for you when you have the time to sit down and enjoy the complete experience, and if you already have a surround setup, why not use it for music, too?
I am convinced that once you hear good surround sound music you can appreciate it as an artform all by itself.
And I firmly believe, if there was more contemporary content in surround, now could be the time for a renaissance. With Blu-ray Audio we finally have a Hi-Resolution multi channel optical disc format that can be played back by any regular Blu-ray player. HDMI allows the audio to be transported with just one cable from the player to the receiver and the number of streaming devices capable of playing back surround sound files is growing steadily. Surround sound has become easy and the installation is already there for the movies. With labels like 2L, who support both physical distribution on Blu-ray Audio (and SACD) and digital distribution with multi channel FLAC files, we already have pioneers of the new era. Others need to follow, because for the masses surround sound music is dead. Long live surround sound music!