ULTRA AUDIO -- Archived Article

July 1, 2006

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My current Music Vault listening room was designed as a two-channel playback tool. Although I could add multichannel audio to it, its primary focus is stereo reproduction at its best.

Multichannel Audio's Next Move

In 2003, I marveled at several demonstrations of multichannel audio while attending the annual High End show in Frankfurt, Germany. MDG’s Werner Dabringhaus displayed his 2+2+2 model, in which two left and right height speakers, mounted above the mains near the ceiling, are used to augment the front stereo pair and a set of two rear surrounds. The result was a truly three-dimensional presentation. Two years before, in 2001, I had been most impressed by Tacet’s demonstration of 5.1-channel DVD-Audio. It was fantastic and quite creative -- the musicians seemed to sit in a circle around the listener -- and with the right kind of music it worked extraordinarily well. That same year, Sony and Polyhymnia International teamed up to put on a demo of multichannel SACD that made the room seem to expand in ways I know two-channel is incapable of.

But none of those demonstrations managed to accomplish very much. That is, they didn’t translate into much commercial success for multichannel audio. Impressive, yes; market-altering, no.

I was sold on multichannel playback back in 2001, when Wilson Audio Specialties’ Peter McGrath visited my home and played his four-channel master tapes on my surround system. That was the best multichannel sound I’ve heard to date. I wish all of the music I like to listen to was available in such a configuration.

These reminiscences aside, here we sit in mid-2006, and pure multichannel audio is still not a mainstream success. It never caught on with audiophiles in any appreciable way. DVD-Audio was a bumbling failure from day one, and multichannel SACD is nothing more than a niche format available mainly through mail-order firms, not retail stores. The small display in my local Best Buy never grew, and within a year had dried up and disappeared altogether.

OK, so it’s not news to discuss the failure of multichannel audio. The question is whether it will ever be relevant to audiophiles, and, if so, in what format will it succeed, and why? If multichannel SACD couldn’t catch on, what in the world could sway audiophiles, not to mention the general public?

One possibility is that the new high-definition video formats, Blu-ray and HD DVD, could carry the torch of multichannel audio. With the ability to carry uncompressed audio along with HD video, they certainly have the data capacity to deliver a total sensory experience. There’s no question that the home-cinema crowd will revel in these new formats. But I still don’t see audiophiles running out in numbers to replace their stereos with HD players and display devices and multichannel audio gear. Time will tell.

I also don’t see the iPod crowd -- basically, the whole world -- being of much help. In fact, the iPod should be a boon for higher-quality stereo reproduction. It certainly is a boon for music lovers worldwide. I listen almost as much to my iPod as I do to my high-end stereo system. I know lots of folks who have rediscovered their love of music due to the ease of downloading from iTunes and other online sources. Could multichannel digital music devices be part of the solution? Perhaps, if these ever replace disc-based formats, there are possibilities here.

The automobile has always been touted as the perfect environment for discrete surround sound. Acura put DVD-A capability in their TL model, though I’m not sure how effective a selling tool it was. I’m sure they had a multichannel sampler for the test drive, but even if their customers liked what they heard, where would they buy the discs? Online sources, I suppose.

If ease of installation is an issue, devices such as Bardaudio’s wireless receiver-amplifier could make life simpler. It allows one to wirelessly hook up and power surround speakers. You stream audio from its transmitter to its receiver, which also powers your speakers. On their website, Bardaudio states, "For Hi-Fi racks visit your local museum." I’m not sure we’re at that point yet, but products like this might make multichannel audio more doable in a domestic setting.

At the end of the day, I’m not sure what multichannel audio’s next move is. I hope it survives and thrives, because I do know that it can be an advancement over stereo reproduction. But as far as high-end audio is concerned, two-channel stereo is still the here and now. What happens next is anyone’s guess.

...Jeff Fritz

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