by Craig Anderton
There’s been a lot of talk lately about surround sound, especially with respect to DVD’s multichannel capabilities. Popularizing some sort of surround sound has always been a dream for the world of consumer electronics, starting back in the days of quad (“Hey! Everyone’s going to have to buy a new turntable, cartridge, and another set of speakers and a stereo power amp! Cool!”).
As we all know, quad was a failure. Opinions vary as to why, but I think there were multiple reasons:
- Competing systems. RCA and Columbia had competing systems, both with flaws. The Columbia system had horrible front-to-back separation (as I recall, it was about 6 dB) and the RCA system depended on having an ultra-high frequency carrier wave encoded into vinyl – and you know what happens to high frequencies on vinyl records with repeated playings.
- Expense. No one wanted to buy that much new gear.
- Listening environment. It’s hard enough figuring out where to place two speakers in a room, let alone four. Furthermore, four speakers meant an extremely small sweet spot.
So quad died a quick death, but now it’s back in a different form, and better than ever. Will it catch on this time?
First of all, and most seriously, it appears that the DVD “standard” is splintering into two camps. The last thing anyone needs is a replay of the Beta-VHS conflict of the late 70s. If the manufacturers don’t work together to create a dominant standard, then the market will take off slowly, if at all, until some kind of consensus builds as to which format is superior.
Assuming that there is a universal DVD standard, the other problems that plagued quad – expense and listening environment – haven’t gone away. As the rich get richer and the poor get poorer, those with plenty of disposable income are getting into the home theater concept, which is reportedly the fastest-growing segment of the hi-fi market. Big screen TVs, multiple channels of CD-quality sound, DVD discs: they all hang together into creating a super system for the home. I would imagine that watching the Star Wars trilogy on a system like that might be not just as good as the movies, but better. Add in some TV from your DSS satellite dish, and you may never need to go to a movie theater again.
But the person who’s trying to get by on a temp job in a downsized company isn’t going to bite. Surround sound is a luxury item, no doubt about it. Of course costs will come down, however hardware carries a price tag, and there’s not much that can be done about that. And again, there’s the question of the listening environment. How many people have houses large enough to dedicate a room to a home theater?
With CD player market share reaching saturation, many companies believe that surround sound is going to be a major economic shot in the arm for the consumer electronics industry. But don’t bet on it. After the dust has settled, there will be a significant number of people who decide to take the plunge and go for a nifty home theater setup – certainly enough to create a viable market. However, after the “early adopters” have signed up, it’s going to be very, very hard to broaden the market into something with mass commercial appeal.
So next time someone tells you about the importance of mixing in surround, keep your cool. It certainly can’t hurt, and upscale audiophiles will love you for it. But it will take a while for this market to mature, as well as for people to learn how to mix properly for this new medium. For now, concentrate on getting a great stereo mix, because that’s the way most people are going to hear your music for the immediate future.