Surround….

Do we need it ? – do we like it ?

I think the answer to the first question is probably no given that few are capable of fully doing it justice, but the second one is a qualified ‘yes’.

And the Qualification is that plenty of people are attracted and convinced by the consumer electronics makers into ‘wanting’ home cinema systems which technically count as surround audio – while hardly in most cases deserving the grand title ‘Home Cinema’ in comparison with what the term originally meant from back when analogue Dolby Surround was THE thing to have up until say 5 years ago – but whether they have something that is capable of really doing anything like justice to current DD or DTS surround sources, and furthermore if many of them could appreciate what a good system could do even if they heard it, is very doubtful.

Which is not to say that they’re not getting their moneys worth, as in real terms a set of kit that gives some approximation to surround costs peanuts nowadays; a further example of the triumph of audiovisual technology as a ‘comodity’ item, packaged as if it will immediately give the expected result anywhere anytime, rather than the now-considered-outdated semi-bespoke concept of ‘Hi-Fi’,  i.e. that of choosing and buying the parts seperately after appraising both the relative merits of each individually as well as in relation to the others, and hoping that within your total budget you made the best ‘compromise’ choice, weighing up spending more on one element against the others, or alternatively that you made choices based on several potentially conflicting factors as well as technical spec and build quality, for example aesthetics and preferred makes.

Clearly a HUGE part of the attraction of the one-piece home fleapit purchase is exactly this, that one doesn’t have to ‘waste’ ones time, or indeed ‘swot up’ on a whole new arcane subject, in order to ‘mix & Match’ successfully like a Pro/Expert/Enthusiast.

In effect the choices are reduced to the ones i mention above, namely total budget, brand, and aesthetics. I would imagine the sound comes last in the running, to be fair NOT because such a customer doesn’t care how it sounds, simply that the choice and selling methods make it pretty much impossible for the sound quality to be the criteria that the search for the purchase STARTS from. Furthermore, even for those of us who consider ourselves ‘golden ears’, if we were honest,  would have to admit that assessing absolute audio performance first of all, and then making distinctions of RELATIVE performance between ‘rival’ products in the same price range, IS the hardest and most time-consuming part of the whole process, and maybe not worth spending THAT much time on if the general ‘standard’ is fairly good,  depending on other criteria of course…..

Let’s face it, in some cases it’s far easier to decide to spend as much as you can in order to AVOID agonising over critical listening tests because as a rule, allocating yourself more cash when shopping in the specialist product realm virtually GUARANTEES that any make and model you choose will sound pretty good.

And in any case when a large part of the compromise of a Home Cinema system is that it’s going in the ‘family room’ and will therefore be subject to the arcane and stringent ‘rules’ of what is and isn’t allowed visually, the aesthetic element of the choice may well be restricting the field to items/systems which don’t stand much chance of sounding exceptional anyway, nor even allowing for enthusiast levels of spending.

Anyway all this is by way of pointing out that the ‘typical’ and mass-market listening destination for the products of any professional ‘surround’ work is highly likely, while doubtless higher quality than typical cheap ‘stereos’ of previous epochs, to nonetheless be somewhat lacking in the key markers of a a ‘quality’ audio reproduction system.

Now many people point out that if, in the main, surround mixes for film & TV are only ever intended to add boom & crash behind the viewer, then a cheap & cheerful system will do the job of chucking out the requisite noises from the roughly correct direction(s) just as well as a hi-end arrangement can, when called to create this non-audiophile arrangement of sound source locations. And this is true, up to a point, except of course that the truth is that a higher quality system will at the very least create ‘smoother’ sound from each speaker, although admittedly neither type of system can make a silk space out of a sows living room with awful asymetrical placement and weird absorbers etc.

However this is a problem which has always been present even for hyper-fi enthusiasts who set up their own dedicated listening room that was nonetheless placed in a real-world building/home, and so conversely there’s actually no good reason to think that a decent surround system situated in what was probably already, or likely to be, the main music listening room of most dwellings anyway, is necessarily any more handicapped simply by virtue of it being a system with more than 2 speakers.

On the contrary, i’d surmise that a system that has ‘ancillary’ speakers is possibly MORE capable of ‘filling in’ the spaces of a room; certainly it has the ‘total experience’ angle down pat compared to ‘just’ a stereo system. The additional point here being that many people are now passing straight from MP3 players and PC speakers straight to ( comodity ) surround systems for DVD/BD watching/listening without ever experiencing, or even being aware of the existence of, a ‘straight’ stereo system in their home, whether true hi-fi or not.

So, for these people, if the ONLY system with proper ( and properly spaced apart ) speakers that they experience regularly is a surround one, and if it’s more likely than not that this surround system is a comodity one, then perhaps a majority of peoples experience of speaker-reproduced audio now is ONLY via such systems, such that their expectations are simultaneously lowered when it comes to absolute reproduction quality and yet strangely RAISED with respect to how MANY speakers they expect to hear sound come from, irrespective of whether that location-ing is accurate.

Therefore……

If most people now are expecting sound ( whether of dubious or high quality ) to ‘come at them’ from several locations round a room, then giving them roughly what they expect is more the order of the day now for post rather than aspiring to present them with an ‘accurate’ representation of what’s going on, sound-wise, whatever that might previously have been defined to be.

However IF the surround mixing teams intention was in any case to provide an ‘enveloping’ experience aurally then they won’t be disappointing the average listener with their preferred output, but anyone amongst more ‘discerning’ listeners, i.e. those who were already ‘into’ home cinema before it was marketted as being as easy to buy and plug in as a games console, there is probably going to be general disappointment that most material doesn’t live up to their expectations of what they should be able to feed into their higher-grade ‘enthusiast’ systems. But then many pure stereo HiFi enthusiasts have given highly variable verdicts on what they were ‘fed’ in normal music releases for decades, and most came to regard it not so much as a ‘hazard’ of buying commercial recordings but almost a ‘challenge’ to select music recordings that were worthy of the material and performance itself, in whatever genre and through that prove the ‘worth’ of their system, or literally whether what they’d already spent had been worth it. In effect for some of these the ability to pass critical judgement on the absolute and relative quality and technique of commercial recordings became almost an end and the purpose of the system in itself.

Now so far to the best of my knowledge no-one with a home cinema system consisting entirely of components purpose designed for HC use considers themselves some kind of independent technical judgement source, or at least they only go so far as to give varying levels of thumbs up and recommendations about DVD and BD films and TV series to potential disc buyers or viewers who like themselves, they believe, may ‘head for’ the ones which give a better audio experience. Kind of laudable but surely beside the point if all of us, audiophiles and normal folk alike, buy rent or borrow a particular film because we want to see that story or those starts or those actions scenes or (visual )FX, and NOT because we’ve been recommended to LISTEN to the film.

This will all sound as if i’m now arguing AGAINST my strong feelings elsewhere (links) for professionals to strive for even higher sound quality from aquisition to final distribution format, but i’m not; i’m simply pointing out that just as most people won’t have or want or even be aware of equipment that ‘shows off’ a soundtrack to best effect, so 99% of viewers are just that, VIEWERS first and MAYBE critical listeners second.

 

Now i hate to bring this into the argument but in the UK there is a further ‘handicap’ to wide takeup of FUNCTIONING surround sound systems, and that is that;

1)   the average British house is the size of a shoe-box, meaning that

2)   the average ‘living’ room has little chance of being anywhere near large enough to comfortably accomodate, let alone do justice to, a full 5.1 surround system ( even if people are able to have a 50″ Plasma it will be nearly covering the entire ( longest ) wall that it hangs on and there’ll be not much more than 50″ between it and the opposite wall, certainly rarely “50 between the screen and the front edge of the sofa it is watched from )

3)  the Typical Brit perversely LIKES houses to be this small, and so demand is maintained for more new shoeboxes, built by vision-challenged speculators, perpetuating the almost total lack of living quarters large enough for ‘proper’ surround on anything like the scale required for the equipment to improve without costing the earth.

Unfortunately, although many continental apartments have larger main rooms than the average British ‘dwelling’, their acoustic isolation from neighbouring flats, even if good by the standards of when they were built, doesn’t really allow many people in these places to crank up the surround volume on an action film, which is a pity.

On the other hand money could be spent on further isolating ones flat ( or the viewing room anyway ) in which case, unlike in Britain, you wouldn’t be ‘wasting’ money acoustically treating a room that only contained a cheap and cheerful woofer and satellites system anyway.

Tell me i’m wrong…..

 

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